Campbell’s Soup: A Recipe for Friendship and Disater for the City of Camden

By: Anitra Gilmer

Campbell’s Soup: A Recipe for Friendship and Disaster for the City of Camden

   The city of Camden benefited greatly while Campbell’s Soup was more present.  Campbell’s  brought revenue into the city of Camden for years.  The processing plant and the corporate offices provided jobs and a place to form lasting and valuable friendships for the city’s residents for years.  Employees were also offered stock options. Many employees did take advantage of the option to purchase stock while others did not. 

Campbell’s was one of the first companies to hire African-Americans in their corporate offices.  The company actively searched for qualified African-Americans to work in their administration positions. Although Campbell’s searched for African-Americans to work in their corporate offices to fill administration positions, life at Campbell’s Soup was not the picture of what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr had in mind after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. There were still some instances of segregation and discrimination in the workplace.  These instances were more visible in the administrative offices because there was only a handful of African-Americans in administrative positions.  More often than not there was only one African-American in an administrative position. 

For a little while, Campbell’s Soup still had segregated restrooms for its workers to use. Which  is a strange concept, especially since Camden is a northern city and segregation on that level was something that usually happened in southern states and their cities.  This was also strange because Camden was not a segregated city.  Whites, blacks, and hispanics mixed freely and frequently on a daily basis. 

Campbell’s Soup provided revenue for the city, but working at Campbell’s was not always as beneficial to the employee with the exceptions of having a steady job that paid well and the option to purchase stock in the company.  The loss of Campbell’s processing plant in Camden was a blow to the city’s revenue.  Workers were forced to go outside of the city for work or try to find work in the city.  Those who had a college education were able to find good paying jobs outside of the city while those  that did not had to find work elsewhere or they remained unemployed.  Campbell’s corporate headquarters are still in Camden and that is wonderful for those that have office and computer skills but this offers little hope to those that are uneducated and lack those particular skills.   

Campbell’s Soup Company has been an important part of the industry in the city of Camden.  “In 1937, a survey revealed that in that year the Campbell Soup Company was the second largest employer in Camden with 5,600 employees”(Rutsch 58).  The largest employer at that time was RCA Victor with just over 13,000 employees.  “Campbell’s 5,600 employees in 1937, 4,500 were women”(Rutsch 58).   The amount of women the company employed at the time was commendable.  The company continued with the tradition of hiring women and minorities until the demise of the processing plants in Camden.

The company would hire women to work because they were a relatively cheap workforce.  That was beneficial to the company but not so beneficial for the women that were being employed.  A benefit for the women working for Campbell’s was that the processing plants and the corporate offices were in the city.  There was no long commute for the women to go from home to work.  Many of the women that were employed by Campbell’s could either walk or take public transportation to the offices and the processing plants. 

A former employee of Campbell’s, Lavinia Lucas, was one of the first African-Americans to work in the corporate offices as a stenographer. She remembers walking to work and meeting several other employees, both men and women, on the way into the offices and watching others make their way into the processing plants.  As one of the first African-Americans to work in the corporate offices Lavinia Lucas did encounter some instances of racism and sexism.  Many women had to endure the sexism that sometimes takes place inside a corporation, but being the first at anything, especially when race and sex are involved can make it almost unbearable.  Lavinia Lucas recounts a time when her co-workers, all of whom were white, decided to go out for their lunch.  She was invited to join the group.  She accepted the invitation and the group went out to a local restaurant to have their lunch.  The conversation seemed to be progressing without any problems. Ms. Lucas was able to enjoy her lunch and the conversation without any problems until one of the women, who was not thrilled to have an African-American woman working in the office with she and the other women, made statements to Ms. Lucas to the effect as to why she was hired and working in the position that she was told she would be working.  Ms. Lucas smiled and politely told the offending co-worker that she was the most qualified for the job.  The lunch wrapped up after that and the women walked back to the office.  The situation was not finished with the lunch time incident.  The co-worker continued to have run-ins with Ms. Lucas several times during the next few weeks.  Finally, Ms. Lucas , who is not afraid to speak up and defend herself if warranted, spoke to the offending co-worker and to their direct supervisor.  Once their supervisor was made aware of the situation, the offending remarks ceased.  Lavinia Lucas had a supervisor that took action once a problem was brought to his attention.  There were some instances where that did not happen. Most of these instances were taking place in the processing plant where the majority of the employees were African-Americans working under white supervisors.

Any claims of racial bias were not easily taken up the chain of command. The majority of the processing plant workers were African-Americans and the majority of supervisors were white, if there was a problem between a white plant worker and an African-American worker, the feeling that some of the African-American workers was that the administration would side with the white workers instead of siding with the African-American workers. This was a feeling that Mrs. Peurifoy had when she, a salaried worker was forced to move to a different department, while a white worker, who was not salaried and an hourly employee was moved to the department where Mrs. Peurifoy was working.      She did not feel that the administration would take her side and keep her in the department she was working in.  She felt that the hourly employee could be moved around easier than she could have    been.  In the end Mrs. Peurifoy was moved and the other employee was moved into her place.

African-Americans and whites may have mixed and worked together on the processing plant floor, but that was usually the extent of the mixing.  Whites did not interact with African-Americans unless it was absolutely necessary. There was no legal segregation like in the South in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s, but the workplace was segregated nonetheless. There were segregated bathrooms for the white and African-American employees to use. Ms. Lucas was hired too late to actually have to use a “blacks only” bathroom.  She remembers hearing that the bathrooms existed and when asking about them, people tend to whisper “yes, they existed” like they are ashamed that blacks and whites could not use the same bathrooms while working for the same company.

Working in the processing plant was not all bad.  Many people worked happily for Campbell’s for many years.  The available option to purchase stock, healthcare and retirement packages also helped the employees continue to work for Campbell’s Soup.  Working for Campbell’s in some cases became a family affair.  There were often two and sometimes three generations of families working in the processing plant as well as in the corporate part of the company. 

Some families were started while working for Campbell’s.  Mrs. Beverly Peurifoy is a former employee that worked in the processing plant. She met her husband while he was also working in the processing plant.  Mrs. Peurifoy decided to purchase stock in the company while she was still an employee and she retired from the company.  She enjoys the retirement and healthcare benefits as well as whatever the amount of stock she purchased allows her from its profitable return. Mrs. Peurifoy’s children, however, did not choose to follow in their parent’s footsteps and pursue a career at Campbell’s Soup, either in the corporate section or in the processing plants throughout the country.  The closest processing plant is located in Napoleon, Ohio, too far away for Mrs. Peurifoy’s tastes.

The impact of Campbell’s Soup Company on the local economy was felt heavily.  “Most farmers who sold tomatoes to the Campbell’s Soup Company were contracted to do so, an arrangement that offered the farmers an economic security”(Rutsch 59).  The local agricultural economy benefited greatly with the arrangement it had with Campbell’s.  The tomato farmer benefited the most it seems until “agriculture in New Jersey became less profitable as it was becoming part of the northeastern United States”(Rutsch 61).  “Land was becoming too valuable to be used for agriculture”(Rutsch 61). After the Depression and World War II, real estate was becoming more and more valuable to use for office buildings and housing. Cheaper land in the West spurred Campbell’s to shut down tomato processing in New Jersey and open a tomato processing plant in Sacramento, California in 1967.  Northern New Jersey was becoming part of the New York City skyline and the status of the state itself was now becoming part of the east coast, the closing of the tomato processing center all helped in the downfall of the city of Camden and Campbell’s role as a large employer of the city’s residents.

The closing of the flagship plant in 1989 in Camden was a major blow to the economy of the city as well as for the many employees of the company.  The reason for the plant closure was that the company needed to increase its market share while still trying to stay competitive in its highly competitive market.  Campbell’s competitors are Lipton, Progresso, and Nissin Foods and this market is mostly in dry soups.  Campbell’s strong suit is condensed soup.  Campbell’s leadership made the decision to close four factories that included the one in Camden.  That decision  cost 2,800 employees their jobs. The loss of that many jobs in a city as small as Camden was devastating.  The economy of the city suffered because now there is a void where there was not one before.  There was a company that employed a large portion of the city’s residents and then that company was saying to the people it once employed that it was not going to do that anymore was a terrible prospect.  Some of the plant workers had no higher education other than high school and others had no skills to speak of.  The prospects of obtaining another job that was in the city, paid well, and offered the kind of benefits that Campbell’s offered were next to non-existent.  Mrs. Peurifoy had no college education so she had to scramble for another job once she left Campbell’s.  Ms. Lucas was fortunate enough to have had a college degree in education and when she left the company she was able to obtain a teaching position in Philadelphia, PA and then in Camden, NJ at Pyne Poynt Middle School for the next 35 years until retiring. 

Ms. Lucas and Mrs. Peurifoy were lucky because they were able to find other employment and were able to live productive lives.  There were many who were not so lucky.  Many had to go on welfare or unemployment to supplement not having an income to support themselves or their families.  The loss of Campbell’s and the other two large employers in Camden, RCA Victor and New York Ship Building took commerce from the city.  So many people that could not make money to spend money in the shops and stores and restaurants that were in the city that they started to close one by one as a consequence. Everything is related.  The vicious circle of no jobs and no money in the city.

No jobs leads to no money and no money leads to businesses closing and leaving the city for better prospects.    This in turn leads to families leaving the city for places that offer better and more numerous jobs.  There was massive migration out of Camden and into the neighboring and emerging suburbs like Cherry Hill and Pennsauken. Those that were able to leave left and those that could not were trapped in a city that was declining and becoming more broken by the day.

Campbell’s Soup maintained its corporate headquarters in Camden with plans to help rejuvenate the city.  Those plans fell through. Possible reasons could be that there was not enough interest in the project to move forward or that the city government was either inept or too corrupt to manage the project properly.

Working for Campbell’s Soup Company was a great experience.  It provided its employees with stock options if they chose to use them and decent health and retirement benefits.  The racial issues that were there were managed before they become so large that there was no way to manage them without intervention from a third party.  The working conditions at the company were favorable.  Hours were long in the processing plants as well as in the corporate offices.  The two former employees that I spoke with conveyed that they had a wonderful time while working for the company.  With the exception of the racial incident Ms. Lucas had with one of her co-workers there were no other instances that either of these two women could relay.  Working  for Campbell’s was a good thing for many people including Ms. Lucas and Mrs. Peurifoy.  Campbell’s Soup Company was a great benefit to the city of Camden and its residents.

WORKS CITED

Documentary Research & Photographic Recording Campbell Soup Company Plant No. 2 Camden,NJ

Rutsch. Camden XHD93219.C3RS8

Closings Set, 2,800 Jobs Cut At Campbell: Analysts Laud Moves; Soup Maker Planning A $344 Million Charge” New York Times, Michael Freitag. ProQuest Historical Newspaper: The New York Times(1851-2008) pg. D3

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