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Colgate, William

Colgate, William

Colgate–Palmolive Company


William Colgate, founder of what is now the Colgate–Palmolive Company, revolutionized the American household products industry by discovering new methods for making and selling soap. Colgate–Palmolive Company is a household name and the leading seller of toothpaste in the country. The company also makes personal care products, including shampoo, soap, deodorants, household cleaning products, bleach, and liquid surface cleaners and boasts brands such as dishwashing soap Palmolive and Ajax cleaner, which are brand leaders. Colgate also incorporates a premium pet food division, Hill, which produces the leading Science Diet brand. The company posted $9.3 billion in sales in 2000 and employed more than 38,000 employees.

Personal Life

Colgate was born January 25, 1783, in Hollingsbourne parish, Kent, England, to Robert Colgate, a gentleman farmer, and Sarah Bowles. The family immigrated to the United States in 1795. Colgate married Mary Gilbert in 1811, and the couple had sons Samuel, Robert, and James Boorman. Colgate was a devout Baptist from 1808 on and donated a tenth of his earnings to support missionary work and education. He donated generously to such organizations as the Hamilton Literary and Theological Seminary in Hamilton, New York, which, by 1846, owed half its property to donations by Colgate and his company. The seminary had since become Madison University and was renamed Colgate University in his honor in 1890. Colgate helped organize the American Bible Society in 1816 with the aim of providing Bibles for every household in America. He also assisted in founding the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1832, to spread the Gospel throughout North America; the American and Foreign Bible Society, serving as the organization's treasurer for thirteen years; and the American Bible Union in 1850, which offered its Revised Version of the Bible that emphasized Baptist beliefs. Colgate died in New York City, New York, in 1857. He withdrew from the Baptist church in 1838 and aided in the organization of a society which built the Tabernacle.

At the age of twelve, Colgate's family immigrated to the United States in order for his father, who spoke out against King George III in support of the French Revolution, to avoid charges of treason. They settled in an estate in Hartford County, Maryland, near Baltimore. They lost the house two years later after a discovery that they did not have clear title to the estate. The family then moved to Randolph County, West Virginia, where his father worked at farming and coal mining. His prospects dim, Robert Colgate moved the family back to Baltimore where he and William partnered with soap and candle maker Robert Mather. William was sparsely educated in England as well as in America and became a tallow chandler at age fifteen, which involved making candles using animal fat, in 1798. The Colgates' partnership with Mather did not last long and ended two years later but steered young William into what would become a very successful career.

After the break–up with Mather, the Colgate family moved again, to Ossining, New York, but William stayed behind in Baltimore, opening his own soap and candle shop. At that time in America, most people made their own soap by boiling a mixture of ash and tallow or fat. The soap was crude and harsh on the skin. Unlike in France and England, commercially–made soap in America at that time was little better, as the scientific process of converting a fat to soap through alkali was little known. Colgate realized there was a need for inexpensive, quality soap that could be mass produced. In 1803, Colgate closed the doors on his business and headed to New York where he joined John Slidell & company, a soap and candle manufacturer. Colgate, who began as a candle maker with the company, worked his way up to business manager.

Career Details

Colgate left Slidell in 1806 to found his own business, William Colgate & Company, on Dutch Street in New York City. To help with costs, Colgate was a one–person act in the business, doing all the manufacturing, buying, selling, delivering, and accounting. He began by selling mainly laundry soap but then began making hand soaps as well. He promoted sales by offering free delivery of his lime and tallow soap mixtures to local housewives. He sold an interest in the company to Francis Smith, who became his partner, in 1807. The 1807 and 1809 passage of the Embargo and Non–Intercourse Acts, respectively, aided the fledgling company by barring most competing European imports from vying with their soap market. From the profits of his growing business, Colgate bought a farm in Delaware County, New York. By 1812 he had amassed $5,000 and considered himself wealthy.

Soap itself was not new but had been produced by people since biblical times, and tallow soap had been made since around the eighth century. Soapmaking, however, even in Colgate's time was hard work. Water had to be boiled in large kettles, and the mixture had to be stirred by hand. Large chunks of soap were produced by this method, which then had to be cut with a knife into smaller pieces. The soaps of the time were harsh and often had a pungent odor. Colgate found a way to produce a better grade of soap, however, through saponification, which allowed the production of a variety of soaps and glycerin from combining tallow and oils.

Chronology: William Colgate

1783: Born.

1795: Came to the U.S.

1806: Founded William Colgate & Company.

1811: Married wife Mary Gilbert.

1817: Became New York's leading soapmaker.

1817: First Colgate ad appeared in a New York newspaper.

1838: Renamed business Colgate & Company.

1845: Constructed largest soap–boiling pan in existence.

1847: Moved operations to a plant in New Jersey.

1857: Died.

Over the next four years Colgate's company was steadily producing better quality soap that was affordable, and by 1817, he had grown to become the leading soapmaker in New York as well as a viable competitor abroad. His first advertisement ran that year in a New York newspaper offering "Soap, Mould & Dipt Candles." In 1820 he began manufacturing starch with his brother–in–law John Gilbert. For a time, he had the one of the country's largest starch factories before he later abandoned starch making altogether. Colgate then hit on a way to broaden his market and improve sales: scented soaps. The scented products Colgate formulated caught on and prompted the 1845 creation of what was dubbed "Colgate's Folly," a 43,000–pound capacity soap–boiling pan which several guessed to be the largest of its kind. Critics thought the construction of the pan would sink the company, but by 1847 Colgate was expanding his business even further by moving his company to a bigger, better–equipped plant in Jersey City, New Jersey, and formulating a line of premium hand soaps in 1850. His son Samuel also joined the company, which was renamed Colgate & Co. He remained a vital part of his company until 1856 and died in New York City on March 25, 1857.

Colgate, who has been described as an exceptionally good–natured, generous, and honest man, enjoyed a prosperous business during his entire career with Colgate & Co., which continued even after his death as the business continued to be successfully guided by his sons. Six years after Colgate's death, the company began manufacturing Cashmere Bouquet, the first milled perfume toilet soap to be registered as a trademark. In 1873 the company produced its first toothpaste, which was sold in jars. They revolutionized the product in 1896, when they introduced toothpaste packaged in a collapsible tube, much like modern toothpaste.

Colgate rival B. J. Johnson Soap Company, founded in 1864 and located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was about to become part of Colgate's destiny. In 1898 the company debuted Palmolive soap, a product that was selling so well, that B. J. Johnson decided to rename the company the Palmolive Company in 1916. The company merged with Palmolive–Peet Company in 1928 to become Colgate–Palmolive Company, which it remains to this day.

By its 100th anniversary, Colgate & Co. offered more than 3,000 different soaps, dental care products, 625 varieties of perfumes, and related products. In 1906 the company launched a plant expansion at its Jersey City site, and a new eight–story factory was opened on the site. A few years later, in 1910, the entire Colgate operation moved from the original site on Dutch and John streets into Jersey City. The first renowned Colgate clock was installed in 1908 on the roof of one of Colgate's factories in Jersey City. It was 37 feet in diameter and spanned an area of 1,104 square feet. The original Colgate clock, which became a landmark on the New Jersey Waterfront, was moved in 1924 to a new Colgate factory in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and replaced with another, larger clock. The new octagon shaped clock measured 1,963.5 square feet with a 25–foot–10–inch–long minute hand and a 20–foot–long hour hand. The timepiece is still one of the largest single–faced clocks in the world.

All three of Colgate's sons followed their father's path of success, albeit in different areas. His son Samuel continued running the family business and vastly expanded it during his period of leadership. His son Robert went on to head the Atlantic White Lead Works in Brooklyn, New York, and his son James Boorman founded the banking firm of J. B. Colgate & Co. on Wall Street in New York City.

Social and Economic Impact

Colgate vastly improved soap and the soapmaking process in his day, bringing better quality, affordable soaps to the American market at a price anyone could afford. The saponification process he utilized helped revolutionize the industry in the United States, which grew and thrived as his company was doing the same. He introduced "fancy"soaps, perfumed soaps and toiletries to the market. With an incredible business acumen, he was continuously prosperous throughout his entire career in soapmaking, even through the War of 1812. Through his company, Colgate & Company, he helped create what is today a billion dollar industry which includes detergents, soaps, cleansers, and personal cleaning products like toothpaste. The foundations he laid down for Colgate–Palmolive were key in building the nearly 200–year–old company into a $9 billion dollar industry leader with products and brands known worldwide.

Colgate was not only a renowned entrepreneur but was also a notable philanthropist and one of the most prominent members of the Baptist church for many years. His sizable donations to the Hamilton Literary and Theological Seminary gave the organization more than half its property by 1846 when it had become Madison University. To honor those contributions, the university was renamed Colgate University in 1890. He also donated a tenth of his earnings to various charitable organizations and helped found such religious organizations as the American Bible Union and the American and Foreign Bible Society.

Sources of Information


American Business Leaders From Colonial Times to the Present. ABC–CLIO, 1999.

American National Biography. Vol. 5., Oxford University Press, 1999.

Colgate–Palmolive Company. Available at

"Colgate–Palmolive Company." Hoover's, 2001. Available at

"Colgate–Palmolive: Tour—When It Happened" Colgate–Palmolive Company, 2001. Available at

"History." Colgate–Palmolive Company, November 2001. Available at

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 8., James T. White & Company, 1906.

Who Was Who in America. Vol. 1., Marquis Who's Who.

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