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Vintage Sleuthing: Rabbit hole dive - What was the H.A. Johnson & Co. of Boston, MA?

vintage sleuthing

Sometimes an object crosses our path that impels us to dig around on the internet to see if we can find out more. The internet puts lots of information at your fingertips, but can be fickle in terms of giving you what you want to know. But sometimes you just can't let go, you need to keep digging. So you hold your breath and dive down the rabbit hole on an internet research adventure. 

IMPELLING OBJECT H.A. Johnson & Co., Boston, Mass preserves crock, turn of the century age

WANT TO KNOW What was the H. A. Johnson Co.? 

Here's what we found on our rabbit hole dive:

H.A. Johnson & Co. was a manufacturer and purveyor of baking supplies, jams and preserves founded by Henry Augustus Johnson. Originally at both at 222-224 State Street, a site close to the waterfront near Faneuil Hall and close enough to the modern day New England Aquarium that if it was still there you could hear the seals barking; and at nearby 73-75 Commerce Street. Based on the 1910 Record of Streets, Etc. in Boston, Commerce Street, when it existed, was about .2 mile long and extended from 3 Commercial Street to 197 Atlantic Avenue. Historically this location makes perfect sense. This was the food and grocery part of Boston.

The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed 65 acres of downtown Boston, including the company's building. But like so many others, they rose from the ashes, erecting this building.


A new building needs new signs, so in April of 1875, the company made two petitions to the Boston Board of Aldermen, both for sign posts.

H.A. Johnson

For what it's worth, the building is no longer there. It may have been removed to make way for the dreaded Central Artery in the 1950s, we weren't able to find anything about the demolition. However we do know that a pizza shop now calls 222 State Street home. 

At some point the company moved to Brighton, a part of Boston far from the waterfront and rail yards but much more accessible for the trucks that likely replaced ships and trains as a method of product transport.

As the front of the building proudly proclaims, they made jams, jellies, preserves and pie-filene. Pie-filene* as in the 30 lb pail of fig pie-filene that the New Hampshire State Department of Health report from 1910 found to be "a preparation of good fig flavor, with no suggestion of apple stock." It was a quirky product name they were proud enough to patent in 1905. 

H.A. Johnson & co.

They also sold commercial baking supplies. The November, 1917 issue of Baker's Review featured an advertisement for their store fixtures and their Ordway ovens.

In those early 1910s, H.A. Johnson was a growing company; they had a New York office at 80 Dey Street which was opened by Edwin C. Johnson, the Harvard educated and relentless networking son of the original owner. He replaced his father as company president upon his father's death in 1912. Just like the Boston location, the New York location no longer exists. Dey Street was shortened in the 1960s to make way for the World Trade Center.

Point of interest, there is a home on the National Register of Historic Buildings in Waltham, MA, a short drive from Brighton known as the Edwin C. Johnson House. It made the register for its architecture and not its famous owner. Was it the same Edwin C. Johnson? 

Edwin was also an author, penning Around South America, a memoir of a trip, which was published by H.A. Johnson & Company in 1936. (A copy is available for $5 on Abebooks.)

The company continued to be prominent in the baking and confection industry. According to the March 1947 issue of The Billboard, Mrs. O.W. Johnson was to be the "special hostess of wives of supplies who will attend" the National Confectioners' Association meeting in Chicago.

In 1975, the company was bought out by Sands, Wood and Taylor, the King Arthur people. According to an Inc. magazine profile of Frank Sands from March 1984: "Sands bought H. A. Johnson Co., another bakery supply manufacturing business whose primary asset was a block-long, two-story, 140,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and warehouse in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton. On the surface, it looked as if he had struck a sweetheart deal. Johnson was a money loser, and its owner, Aerojet-General Corp., a giant California aerospace company, had neither the qualified managers nor the inclination to save it. Sands obtained a $2-million bank loan to pay for a company that Aerojet had originally bought for $4.5 million. Johnson produced 14 different product lines, including toppings, fillings, glazes, and extracts; with its addition, Sands, Taylor & Wood boosted sales from $12 million to $25 million within two years."

How and why an aerospace company came to own a baking product company, that remains a question for another day. But somehow, it is entirely satisfying to know that the company that once filled this stoneware crock with preserves ended it's run by becoming part of one of America's most beloved purveyors of baking products and knowledge.

Time spent in the rabbit hole researching: 2 hours 7 minutes.

Rabbit hole rating: 8/10, Boston maps and history are irresistible and almost always satisfying.

*Does pie-filene have any connection to the venerable Filene's department store? That is another rabbit hole.  

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