- Only 66% of businesses make it to the two-year mark, and about half survive beyond five years.
- COVID-19 worsened the odds of business survival, with thousands forced to shutter their doors throughout the country.
- While it’s not easy to build a company that lasts, some of the oldest businesses in America are still thriving.
- This article is for entrepreneurs looking for inspiration by studying the success of businesses that have stood the test of time.
Some companies seem able to weather any storm, including a few that may surprise you. The oldest American company has existed since 1752 – before our country was even founded. Despite wars, depressions, recessions, and slumps, some companies have positioned themselves in the market to stand the test of time.
Building a business that lasts
It’s not easy to run a business today, especially after a pandemic that impacted nearly every industry worldwide.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), around 66% of all new businesses make it to the two-year mark, and only half of all companies survive past five years. The early years of any newly started business are unpredictable at best, and even one that makes all the right moves can fail.
During the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of businesses across the country had to shut their doors. Technology retailer Fry’s Electronics has gone out of business entirely, while gyms like 24 Hour Fitness had to close operations temporarily, resulting in bankruptcy. Unfortunately, these are familiar stories during this time, with tens of thousands of businesses affected in some way. [Read related article: How to Create a Disaster Plan]
Still, it’s inspirational to know that some companies have stood the test of time, thriving for more than a century, whether through quick action or fiscally responsible business processes.
Test your new business idea before launching by using a prototype, running it by critics and tweaking it to suit your test market.
21 of the oldest companies in America
Here’s a look at some of the oldest businesses still operating in the U.S. today.
1. Caswell-Massey (1752)
Dr. William Hunter started this perfume and soap company as an apothecary shop in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1752. Hunter served his distinguished clientele living in the nearby cottages, supplying their medicinals, perfumes, and personal care products, according to the Caswell-Massey website. George Washington gave a bottle of the Number Six Cologne to the Marquis de Lafayette, and Lewis and Clark took Caswell-Massey products on their cross-country trek.
Today, Caswell-Massey is owned by a private investment group and based in New Jersey. While the company doesn’t have any retail stores currently, it sells its products online and through select third-party retailers.
2. The Hartford Courant (1764)
This Connecticut-based newspaper was established in 1764 by printer Thomas Green as the Connecticut Courant and is known for being America’s oldest newspaper in continuous publication, according to the Hartford Courant website. In fact, the Courant’s slogan to this day is “Older than the nation.”
The publication also boasts some impressive historical moments. According to the Courant’s website, George Washington placed an ad in the paper, Mark Twain once tried to buy stock in the paper, and Thomas Jefferson sued the publication for libel and lost. The paper was also run by one of the country’s first female publishers, Hannah Bunce Watson, in 1777.
Today, the Hartford Courant is owned by Tribune Publishing. While it closed its Connecticut office in 2020, it continues publishing with a remote staff. The paper boasts a weekday circulation of over 90,000 and a weekend circulation of over 135,000.
3. Baker’s Chocolate (1765)
This chocolate company was founded just outside Boston in 1765 by a Harvard-educated doctor named James Baker and Irish immigrant John Hannon, according to The Bostonian Society. Hannon made his first recorded chocolate sale in 1772. However, in 1779, he embarked on a journey to the West Indies to buy cocoa and never returned, leaving Baker to take over the business.
In 1780, the company made its first Baker’s branded chocolate. Eventually, it expanded its product line from unsweetened chocolate to cocoa powders, sweet chocolate, candymaking chocolate and flavored chocolate bars. Today, the company is owned by Kraft Heinz but continues to sell a wide range of Baker’s branded products.
Wondering if your new business idea stinks? Try testing your business idea in the court of public opinion on the internet.
4. Ames (1774)
This tool company – which today makes garden hoses, reels and professional hand tools – was started in Massachusetts in 1774 by a blacksmith, Capt. John Ames.
According to the Ames website, its shovels were used in numerous landmark events, including the groundbreaking for the B&O Railroad in Baltimore, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the search for California gold in the 1840s, the installation of the Statue of Liberty, the creation of Mount Rushmore, and the construction of the interstate highway system.
Today, Ames is owned by management and holding company Griffon Corp. and based in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
5. King Arthur Baking Co. (1790)
The King Arthur Flour Co. was founded in 1790 in Boston by Henry Wood, but it wasn’t until 1896 that the company got its name. Initially, Wood’s business – then known as the Sands, Taylor & Wood Co. – imported European flour for bakers in the U.S. A century later, the company introduced its own American flour at the Boston Food Fair, according to the King Arthur website.
King Arthur Flour became the King Arthur Baking Co. in 2020, in a move designed to best represent its mission and beliefs. There’s now a King Arthur Baking School, the Baker’s Hotline, and the King Arthur Cafe, Bakery & Store.
The company is headquartered in White River Junction, Vermont, and now – more than 200 years after its inception – you can still buy King Arthur Flour, both in stores and online.
6. Cigna (1792)
Originally formed in Pennsylvania in 1792 as INA (Insurance Company of North America), Cigna was the first marine insurance company in the U.S., according to the Cigna website. In 1982, INA merged with the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. (formed in 1865 and also known as CG) to become Cigna.
Now headquartered in Bloomfield, Connecticut, the company is still the nation’s oldest stockholder-owned insurer.
7. Dixon Ticonderoga (1795)
If you’ve ever had to fill out an exam with a No. 2 pencil, Dixon Ticonderoga should be a familiar name. The graphite pencil company started back in 1795, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Dixon Ticonderoga formed during a merger between the Joseph Dixon Crucible Co. and the Bryn Mawr Corp. and started making pencils in the 1830s.
The company’s headquarters were in Jersey City, New Jersey, for more than 100 years, but it’s now based in Lake Mary, Florida. You can find out more about the company’s history on the Dixon Ticonderoga website.
Because only the strongest businesses survive and thrive, defining and building a powerful brand for your business is crucial.
8. Jim Beam (1795)
Bourbon was born in the 1770s when corn farmers of the Kentucky region of Virginia distilled their excess crop into a sweeter whiskey, according to Jim Beam’s website. In 1795, history was made when distiller Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey, called Old Jake Beam Sour Mash, from the family distillery – known as Old Tub.
The company didn’t change its name to Jim Beam until 1943. It’s named after Col. James B. Beam, the fourth generation of the Beam family to take over the distillery. In 2005, the company sold its 10 millionth barrel of whiskey. Today, it is run by the seventh generation of the Beam family, Frederick Booker Noe III.
9. JPMorgan Chase (1799)
The largest bank in the U.S. had meager beginnings as the Manhattan Co. Founded by Aaron Burr, it was the second commercial bank in New York City. It began as a venture to lay waterworks for the city, and the charter for the group included a clause that allowed Burr to operate it as a bank after the waterworks project was complete.
Through dozens of mergers, it became J.P. Morgan & Co. – and a principal investor in the railroad in the 1800s, cementing its place in history. As JPMorgan Chase, it still operates in many industries besides banking today.
10. Crane Stationery (1799)
In 1770, Stephen Crane took over the first paper mill in Massachusetts – the Liberty Paper Mill. In 1799, the company relocated to a new mill in Dalton, Massachusetts, and was taken over by Stephen’s son, Zenas. Since then, the company has provided high-end cotton paper for both personal and business use, according to the Crane website.
Paul Revere used Crane paper and was even known to pasture his horses at the original Liberty Paper Mill. England’s Queen Mother Elizabeth was a fan of Crane’s stationery and used it for her 100th birthday celebration announcement. The company has also supplied paper to the U.S. Treasury to print money since 1879.
In 2016, Crane Stationery became a stand-alone business, separating from the company’s currency division. In 2018, it merged with New York-based Mohawk Fine Papers Inc.
11. DuPont (1802)
When you hear “DuPont,” you probably think of an innovative, modern company. In fact, DuPont was founded in Delaware in 1802 by E.I. du Pont, a Frenchman with expertise in making gunpowder. In 1804, du Pont built his first powder mill on Brandywine Creek, using bark from willow trees for charcoal to create black powder, according to the DuPont website.
Since then, the company has made various products, including dyes, sweater fibers and film for Hollywood movies. It also holds a number of trademarks, such as Corian countertops, Teflon and Kevlar.
In 2015, DuPont merged with Dow. In 2018, it refreshed its brand with a new logo and a focus on innovation and diverse solutions.
12. Colgate (1806)
Colgate wasn’t always a toothpaste company. Actually, it was started by William Colgate in 1806 in New York City. The business sold soaps and candles, eventually introducing perfumes in 1866, according to the Colgate website. The company debuted its “Colgate aromatic toothpaste in jars” in 1873.
In 1928, Colgate merged with soap company Palmolive, originally founded in 1864 in Milwaukee. Now, Colgate has sales of more than $16 billion and sells its products in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.
13. Pfaltzgraff (1811)
You can still buy Pfaltzgraff dinnerware in department stores today, but its roots go back to the early 1800s, when the Pfaltzgraff family immigrated to the U.S. and set up a small potter’s wheel and kiln on their 21-acre homestead in York County, Pennsylvania. The earliest Pfaltzgraff market was defined to be “as far as you can get with a horse and a wagon and then get back home the same day.”
In 2005, Pfaltzgraff became part of Lifetime Brands, which also owns the Farberware, KitchenAid and Cuisinart labels.
For more inspiration, check out our article on excellent socially responsible businesses that assure customers their money is going toward something positive.
14. Citigroup (1812)
This bank was founded in 1812 as the City Bank of New York, run by Samuel Osgood. The bank opened with $2 million in capital. In 1865, it joined the U.S. national banking system and was renamed The National City Bank of New York; in 1894, it became the largest bank in the U.S.
The National City Bank opened its first foreign branch in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1914. After several name changes throughout the years, the company merged with Travelers Group in 1998 to become Citigroup, the company we know today.
15. Louisville Stoneware (1815)
Louisville Stoneware is one of the oldest stoneware manufacturers in the country. The company was founded in 1815 and has been making stoneware products for the home and garden ever since.
Visitors interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the historic company – or those who just love pottery – can go to the company’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, to take a tour of the factory and even paint their own pottery using the same tools as the company’s artisans.
16. Remington Ammunition (1816)
Who would have thought that America’s oldest firearm maker first became known for its commercial typewriter? That is the humble beginnings of Remington, founded by Eliphalet Remington in Ilion, New York. One of Remington’s sons forged a barrel of his own and, after having it rifled, placed second in a local shooting competition with it. He began to make barrels to meet demand, and the company is still doing that today, innovating new performance standards at its research and development facility in LaGrange, Georgia.
17. HarperCollins Publishers (1817)
Brothers James and John Harper started their book publishing business under the name J. & J. Harper. When two more brothers joined the firm in 1833, the name became Harper & Brothers. It expanded to publishing monthly magazines in 1850.
Over the next 135 years, the company purchased other publishers and became one of the “big five” publishers in New York City. News Corp. purchased Harper & Row in 1987, and William Collins & Sons in 1990, merging the publishers into today’s HarperCollins Publishers, which has since gone international.
18. Atkins & Pearce (1817)
Atkins & Pearce is in its seventh generation as a family-owned textile manufacturing company based in Kentucky. It began when John and Henry Pearce created an adaptation of the cotton gin and began manufacturing machinery in Cincinnati.
Atkins & Pearce has played a part in history, including retooling operations during economic disruptions due to the Civil War and manufacturing parachute cords and materials during World War II. Now, Atkins & Pearce celebrates more than 200 years in business as an international company.
19. Brooks Brothers (1818)
Brooks Brothers is the oldest clothing retailer in America, dating all the way back to 1818 – the same year Congress decided the flag should have 13 red and white stripes and 20 stars. The very first Brooks Brothers store, known then as D. H. Brooks & Co., opened in New York on April 7 that year. The company introduced its first ready-made suits in 1849, and its original button-down polo shirt in 1896. The company now has more than 250 retail and factory stores in the U.S. and more than 250 locations internationally, according to its website.
20. Macy’s (1843)
Named R. H. Macy & Co. when founded in Boston, Macy’s has been going strong for a very long time. Rowland Hussey Macy started with four dry goods stores in 1843 and opened the original Macy’s store in downtown Haverhill, Massachusetts. The first New York store opened in 1858 on Sixth Street and moved to its current headquarters on 34th and Broadway – now known worldwide – in 1902.
Known for its impressive window display and publicity activities to draw shoppers, Macy’s went nationwide in the 1990s. Despite recent earnings problems, Macy’s is working hard to stay in business by identifying with current consumers and upcoming generations of shoppers.
21. Pabst Brewing Co. (1844)
The first brewery in Milwaukee started as The Empire Brewery and then became Best and Co., named after founder Jacob Best. When Best died in 1889, his daughter’s husband, Frederick Pabst, took over and changed the name. For more than 200 years, Pabst Blue Ribbon has been the brewery’s most famous beer.
By the way, the “blue ribbon” doesn’t refer to awards but to the blue ribbon that was tied around the bottle’s neck to separate it from its competitors. The brewer has won awards, though, including 2015 Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival.
Eduardo Vasconcellos, Marci Martin, Adam Uzialko and Jeanette Mulvey contributed to the writing and research in this article.