America, it is often noted, is a young country: while many European countries date back a thousand years and more–to say nothing of China’s many thousands of years as a state–America is a spring chicken at less than 250 years. Nevertheless, many American institutions are comparatively ancient. For instance, Harvard University had no calculus classes when it first opened–because calculus hadn’t been invented yet.
America is also home to many of the world’s largest corporations, currently headed by Apple at almost one-half trillion dollars in value on massive iPhone, iPad, and MacBook sales. But even in a nation as young as America, Apple has only been around for a mere 40 years. Only time will tell if its wealth will allow it to stand the test of time or if it will become one more former titan in the dust-bin of history.
If not Apple, what are the oldest and most successful companies in American History? General Motors might have sounded promising a few years ago, but bankruptcy ensures its reputation is forever tarnished. Ford? Unlikely; Pabst has been around for fifty years further. Anheuser-Busch? It’s owned by a Dutch company these days.
In any case, none of those firms is nearly old enough to crack the top ten, yet alone take the crown. To even place in the top ten, a firm must date from the late 1700s, a time when George Washington was president and Napoleon was conquering Europe. These firms have seen (and survived) Civil War and World Wars; continental genocide and the landing on the moon; the Long Depression, Great Depression, and the Great Recession. Incidentally, the name at the beginning of the list might be recognizable for its role in the Great Recession, although the name at number one is more ancient than famous.
Market Cap: $220.5 billion
JPMorgan Chase is the number one bank in America, holding over $2.5 trillion in assets–an amount larger than 10% of the annual US economy. This unfathomably large bank is also unfathomably old, having been established in New York City when the city had fewer than 100,000 residents (fewer people than that live in the Upper West Side today). While it may or may not live up to its aspirations of being “world’s most trusted and respected financial services institution”, it seems like it probably does: takes a lot of trust to give someone trillions of dollars! At 215 years old this year, this Godfather of major US banks is a remarkable story of longevity and fabulous wealth.
Market Cap: $13.61 billion
Founded in Kentucky’s third year of statehood, Jim Beam truly put American whiskey–bourbon–on the map. Ironically, its hometown in Clermont is not actually in the famous Bourbon County, but the Beam family hasn’t let that stand in their way of generations of success. Despite the terrifying shutdown necessitated by the prohibition era, Jim Beam managed to maintain its talent and plow onward once the nation was able to whet its whistle following the repeal of prohibition in 1933. In honor of this turnaround, engineered by one James Beam, the company has been known as Jim Beam ever since–and with a bit of luck, will still be known as such in another 220 years.
Market Cap: $21.45 billions
Like most early modern financial corporations, Cigna has its roots in whaling and other dangerous aquatic trades. These early companies were able to pool risks and collect a share of the revenues from successful shipping expeditions and use these to cover the losses from failed missions. Cigna also was the first corporation to offer life insurance for ship captains to pay off for their survivors–a benefit that also kicked in if the captain was captured by pirates. Still to this day, Cigna has tens of thousands of employees and earns billions in revenues–mostly from its long-lived and spectacularly successful insurance businesses.
Market Cap: $29.62
The tie in age goes to the firm with the biggest market capitalization!
From its original home base on State Street in Boston, this financial services company has grown and spread and now works with institutions worldwide to provide timely research on possible investments as well as services in management and training. With its hundreds of years of success, it clearly knows a thing or two about asset management, and it has turned this knowledge into a cash cow by providing education services in asset management. State Street is currently the second oldest bank in America, having been founded just at the end of Washington’s first term in office.
Market Cap: $26.14 billion
The oldest bank in the United States was founded before the US constitution was written–and appropriately enough, it was established by none other than founding father (and first Secretary of the Treasury) Alexander Hamilton. Today, the bank’s business is chiefly in asset management, and its own assets total in the hundreds of billions while it directly manages over $1 trillion and holds in custody of $25 trillion, a massive sum befitting its ancient status. With over 50,000 total employees spanning the globe, the Bank of New York doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Market Cap: $3.31 billion
Having recently been integrated into RR Donnelley, this communications services firm has really branched out from its origin proving printing materials to colonists before the Declaration of Independence was written. Today, RR Donnelley provides not only communication services, but financial and marketing services as well. With almost 240 years of experience behind it, it’s no surprise it’s valued at billions of dollars.
Market Cap: $678.5 million
If you’re Benjamin Franklin and you need to dig a ditch, who are you going to call (“call” in the old sense of “visit”, obviously!)? Ames, the nation’s first shovel manufacturers! Ames was a household name in colonial times, at least amongst those households that didn’t make their own shovels–which come to think, was probably most of them. In any event, Ames was a crucial wartime corporation, every bit as valuable as Boeing or GM in recent decades. It helped the war effort by providing a scaleable source of shovels, enabling large-scale earthworks for protection of soldiers during the American Revolution. Having recently been acquired by the Griffon Corporation, Ames to this day is a manufacturer of household and other construction equipment.
Market Cap: $59.96 billion
To be honest, the $60-billion market capitalization is a bit of a stretch: Baker’s was purchased by Kraft (now Mondelez) in 1979, and the international food megacorp is far more massive than little Baker’s Chocolate ever was. However, Baker’s is far older than Kraft, and even if we stop at the year it was sold Baker’s would still belong on this list. Founded by chocolatier John Hannon, Walter Baker was the moneyman–until Hannon’s disappearance, at which point Baker took over and placed his own name front and center. Which explains the incongruence of the name–wait a minute, you don’t bake chocolate!
Market Cap: $17.27 billion
In their infancy, the American colonies of Great Britain were mostly agricultural outposts. While they later turned to cotton, they started with a different cash crop: tobacco, indigenous to the new world and beloved by the European elite. Lorillard is the oldest remaining tobacco corporation, and its Newport brand keeps it as the third-largest still to this day. Having recently managed to take over an e-cigarette company, Lorillard is poised for success as it passes beyond its 250th anniversary.
Privately Held; 2001 sales of $20 million
The smallest company on this list is also the oldest–and the cleanest! That’s right, Caswell-Massey is a luxury soap purveyor, having supplied soap to the White House in multiple centuries. Its soaps and toiletries represent the oldest produced by a corporation in the United States–for cleaning needs before that, you’d have to make the soap yourself. Its founder, Dr. Hunter, named it Dr. Hunter’s Dispensary and as he sought out an elite market from the beginning, he guaranteed high-quality ingredients for his top-shelf products. His attention to detail earned him plenty of sales, and they value he produced ensured that you can still smell the scent of Caswell-Massey products today, some 262 years later.
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