It took more than toughness for a small business to survive Covid-19. Business leaders needed to be nimble, bold, and yet careful. Each company needed its team to pull together and for the boss to respect the enormous pressure on their employees. And everybody needed a bit of luck.

the enduring trades of america

But survival is not a new challenge for businesses. It is well-established that around 50% of new businesses fail to survive their first five years. Only about three out of 10 companies survive their first decade.

So what about those that survived – and then kept on surviving? OnDeck has uncovered the longest-running, continually operating businesses in 89 of America’s biggest* cities. And we’ve designed a unique poster for each of these old-timers that continue to thrive today.

*most populous.

 

Key Findings

  • The oldest business in a major U.S. city is The Rowland Co. in Philadelphia, founded in 1732.
  • Only four of the 89 cities in our study have a business founded before 1800: Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Baltimore.
  • Virginia Beach, VA has the youngest ‘oldest business’ in our study: The Terry Peterson Companies (1961).
  • Six of the 15 large cities with the oldest businesses are in the northeast area of the U.S.

 

Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston are the Biggest Cities with America’s Oldest Businesses

First, here’s a run-down of the 15 biggest American cities with the oldest business. There is a strong concentration to the east, with six of the top 15 in the northeast area. The states with the biggest concentration of truly old ‘oldest businesses’ are Ohio (2), Kentucky (2), and New York (2). There are three law firms and three banks in the top 15.

The oldest business in our study is The Rowland Company, founded in Philadelphia in 1732. Founder Benjamin Rowland’s descendants assured the longevity of the Rowland Co. by expanding from gardening equipment and wagon springs into car and truck parts as the market demanded. The company developed new locations in Georgia and Florida before the Rowlands sold it off in the 1950s.

rowland company

 

Gulf & Western Industries bought the company in 1962 and divided it up, selling the Philadelphia branch to the Yost family in ‘67. As the business’s 300-year anniversary approaches, The Rowland Company today specializes in industrial power transmission products.

BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON

 

The man with his face on your $10 bill founded The Bank of New York in 1784. Alexander Hamilton would go on to become America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and the subject of a multi-Tony Award-winning musical. But after the War of Independence, Hamilton’s priority was to stimulate the young country’s economic growth.

Hamilton attributed his many successes to hard work rather than ‘genius.’ But the Bank of New York’s longevity is partly due to his astute creation of what was only the third bank in the United States (Hamilton was also a founding shareholder in the first bank, the Bank of North America). Merging with Mellon Financial Corporation in 2007 is said to have saved the company $700m in costs. It also added Mellon’s wealth-management business to the pot.

STATE STREET

State Street is Boston’s oldest business and traces its roots to the golden age of maritime in the city – hence the clipper ship in the logo. Massachusetts Governor John Hancock chartered the business as Union Bank in 1792, and it was renamed after Boston’s “Great Street to the Sea” after merging with State Street Deposit & Trust Co in 1925.

However, the company has not been without its troubles in recent years, establishing a hiring freeze while moving the workforce to cheaper countries and settling a $5m lawsuit alleging underpayment of female and African-American executives.

Potteries, Removal Firms, and A Candy Factory Among America’s Oldest Businesses

Here are the oldest businesses in 89 of America’s most populous cities, laid out like treats in a chocolate box. They have thousands of years of history behind them, even if the oldest is just 289 years young.

Gems include an 1815 pottery workshop founded on a street known for its informal goat races. The Louisville Pottery, later Louisville Stoneware, survived the strategic destruction of southern potteries by Confederacy forces intent on disrupting the Union Army’s food provisions – in those days, pottery was as useful as Tupperware.

J.E. Ladd & Son Transfer is a story of continuity: founded 139 years ago as J.E. Ladd Dray Service, today the removal company continues to prosper in Durham, NC, under its fifth generation of Ladds.

oldest businesses in US infographic

Founded in 1919, Chesapeake’s H.E. Williams Candy Co. is one of the youngest ‘oldest businesses’ in our study – but tradition reigns true. The founder’s retirement-age grandchildren continue to produce a select range of sweets with the same taffy pullers, rollers, presses, and slicers used after the Great War.

But it was World War II that nearly put the Williams family out of business: “The war kind of did a number on candy making,” says Lillie Williams, 85. “You couldn’t hardly get sugar and that made it tough to stay in business.” The company survived this and later challenges not by growing, but downsizing – prioritizing survival and craft over world domination. “We’re not in this to make a bunch of money,” they explain. “For us, this is, like, a labor of love.”

Whatever the scale of your business, being a great entrepreneur and leader is not always about being tough, and certainly not about being the biggest – but when you figure out what you want to do, how to do it, and why, the good ideas are bound to follow.

 

METHODOLOGY & SOURCES

We compiled a list of cities in the US. For each city, our research team searched for “The Oldest Business in X” and investigated the oldest result to confirm that the business was still operating. We collaborated with local authorities (i.e., historical societies, chambers of commerce, city clerks, etc.) for further clarification.

In cases where a business was bought out, we included said business if there was a reasonable degree of continuity. For merged businesses, we used the date of the oldest business. Any data which lacked a reasonable degree of certainty was excluded from the final article. If you believe that your city has an older business, we’d love to hear from you.

 

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