Home Culture A Brief History of Jersey City’s Colgate Clock

A Brief History of Jersey City’s Colgate Clock

by Evelyn Ibarra
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There are many historical landmarks visible along with the New York and New Jersey Harbor — the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Verrazano Bridge, and the familiar octagonal Colgate Clock clock, lit up at night with its giant neon-red hand along the Jersey City waterfront. The clock is located near the former site of the Colgate-Palmolive & Company, is one of the largest clocks in the world, and is a reminder of the rich history of Jersey City when factories dominated JC’s waterfront. Keep on reading to learn more about this historic icon in Jersey City. 

colgate clock jersey city

A Brief History of Colgate

The Colgate’s Soap and Perfumery Works was founded by 23-year-old William Colgate in 1806. Colgate began making small candles, starch, and soap in a New York City-based factory and shop between John and Dutch Streets. Colgate became partners with Francis Smith in the second year of business and re-named the company “Smith and Colgate,” a name it kept until 1812 when Colgate purchased Smith’s share of the company and offered a partnership to his brother, Bowels Colgate {and re-named the company “William Colgate & Company}. 

In 1820, things made their way across the river — Colgate moved his company to the Paulus Hook neighborhood of Jersey City to produce starch. The company flourished after the move and had a large complex in Jersey City by 1847 that chemically produced soap and perfumes

Read More: A Historical Walking Tour of Jersey City Heights

When William Colgate passed away in 1857, his son Samuel took over Colgate’s Soap and Perfumery Works and renamed it “Colgate & Company.” Samuel restructured the company, gave up perfume production, and took on brands such as Cashmere Bouquet {perhaps the first milled perfumed soap}, and started selling toothpaste in jars in 1873, and also packaged and sold toothpaste in a “collapsible tube” in 1896, which revolutionized dental care. The company discontinued starch after a fire destroyed the factory in 1866.

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The Original Colgate Clock

colgate clock jersey city 

{Photo credit: @hobokenmusuem}

The Colgate Clock was designed by Colgate engineer Warren Day and constructed by Seth Thomas Clock Company for the centennial of the founding of the Colgate Company in 1906. The clock’s design was inspired by the shape of a bar of Octagon Soap, which was first manufactured by Colgate as a laundry cleaner in 1887. The original clock was made of structural steel and was 38feet in diameter and was proclaimed to be the largest clock in the world

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In 1908, the clock was mounted on the roof of an eight-story Colgate warehouse at the southeast corner of York and Hudson Streets. The clock was illuminated at night by 1,607 bulbs that emitted 28,000 watts of light and had an advertisement that read “Colgate’s Soaps-Perfumes” in 20 foot high letters. The clock was visible from approximately 20 miles away, as far as Staten Island and the Bronx. The original clock was replaced with the present-day clock in 1924, and the old structure was relocated to the top of a Colgate facility in Clarksville, Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River. 

The Present-Day Colgate Clock

colgate clock jersey city 

Jersey City became the corporate headquarters for Colgate & Company in 1910 and later merged with the Palmolive-Peet Company and formed the “Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company” in 1928. The original clock was replaced with the current clock at noon on December 1st, 1924 by Jersey City’s then-mayor, Frank Hague. The surface of the clock is 1,963.5 square feet and 50 feet in diameter {with the minute hand being 25 feet 10 inches long and the hour hand 20 feet long}. By the 1950s, the Colgate complex expanded over six blocks over York, Green, Hudson, and Grand streets. The clock stopped at 9:30AM on June 13th, 1955 after almost 31 years of enduring the elements, for repairs. 

A 1955 New York Times article by Meyer Berger reports that “… the laminated wooden hands, waterlogged on wet or humid days…, had Colgate mechanics bowlegged changing counterweights to keep the time just right. Another fault had developed, too. The steel trusses that support the hands had rusted. The new clock hands will have an aluminum core with porcelain steel facing. They and the quarter-hour points will have fluorescent lighting when the clock gets going again, instead of the old incandescents.”

See More: Noteworthy Buildings in Hoboken: Then and Now

The replacement of the clock’s hands prompted hundreds of phone calls to the company by those using the clock to keep them on schedule and took longer than expected. The clock’s hands were replaced on July 29th and 29th, 1955. The notorious Colgate Clock and signage “Soaps-Perfumes” remained unaltered until 1983, when Colgate replaced the signage with a toothpaste tube {advertising one of Colgate’s best selling products}. 

After 141 years in Jersey City in 1985, the Colgate company decided to leave Jersey City due to a need for improved facilities that the original manufacturing company could not provide, and all operations were moved to Kansas and Indiana. In 1988, the clock was lowered to the ground level {and the toothpaste tube removed} and was a freestanding icon on the future Goldman Sachs property, where it stood for 15 years. In the early 1990s, the 24-acre site became part of the redevelopment of the Jersey City Waterfront at Exchange Place and is now a permanent local landmark on a lot south of the Goldman Sachs Towers, at the foot of Essex Street. 

In 2013, the clock was refitted with LED lights, and the following year was affixed to a new foundation and platform inscribed “The Colgate Clock; Marking the Passage of Time since 1908; Colgate-Palmolive Company,” and currently, Goldman Sachs maintains the clock. The space where the clock sits is leased to Colgate-Palmolive by the State of New Jersey and continues to be a popular timepiece in Hudson County.  

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