Oldest Continuous Businesses

I had fun with Wikipedia’s List of Oldest Companies after I bounced onto it randomly, and of course it included a geographic component. I decided to examine claims for various nations using the list as a starting point.

I think it’s important to stress that these are only claims. References and websites for individual companies often hedge their assertion with qualifiers such as "reputed to be" or "probably" so I wouldn’t insist that any of these are the absolute oldest even though they would certainly qualify as ancient within their particular realms.

Japan – Oldest in the World

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The oldest continuously-operated company in the world today is likely (notice the qualifier) Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel which is located at a hot spring in Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. Actually the first several companies on the list are all located in Japan. Japanese firms dominate the entire category. There’s something about Japanese culture that nurtures and protects these mostly modest endeavors for a millennium or more. Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan has been around since the year 705 according to Guinness World Records.

Oddly, Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan captured the longevity title only recently. Kongo Gumi, a Japanese temple builder, ruled the roost until 2006. Kongo Gumi was established and remained under the control of a single family starting in 578 before succumbing to 21st Century economic pressures. Imagine poor Masakazu Kongo, the 40th and final company leader, who failed to pass down what the previous 39 generations of his family had preserved.

Speaking of temple building, I noticed a rather startling swastika symbol south of the Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel. I clicked the tag and dropped the Japanese characters into translation software that identified it as a Buddhist temple. Some basic research confirmed that "on Japanese maps, a swastika (left-facing and horizontal) is used to mark the location of a Buddhist temple." It’s perfectly proper in this context albeit it came as a jolt to me because of my westernized point of reference.

Continental Europe

Bürgerstube - St. Peter Stiftskeller (Photo-Credit: St. Peter Stiftskeller)
Flickr by marketing deluxe via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License

An example from continental Europe followed next after a parade of Japanese occurrences. It was the Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg, Austria, a restaurant that dated back at least to the year 803 (map). The restaurant claimed that it was "mentioned for the first time by the scholar Alcuin, a follower of Emperor Charlemagne, thus regarded as the oldest restaurant in Europe."

It also interested me because Stiftskeller St. Peter is contained within the confines of St. Peter’s Archabbey (Stiftskeller translates to Abbey Basement). I learned a new word today too: an archabbey is a principal abbey of the Order of Saint Benedict. One can dine within a Benedictine monastery like people have done since the 9th Century.

United Kingdom

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Several people from the UK subscribe to the Twelve Mile Circle so I wanted to feature something from the British Islands. The oldest company is believed to be a pub called The Bingley Arms in Bardsey, West Yorkshire. As the pub described it, "The Bingley Arms, or The Priests Inn as it was called hundreds of years ago, has a known history that dates back as far as 953AD when Samson Ellis brewed in the central part of the building. However, evidence suggests that it might even date back to 905AD and was standing before All Hallows Church, just a few yards away, was built in 950AD."

Then it talks about the usual ghost stories and stuff which is typical of just about every website describing ancient places.

United States

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No company in the so-called "New World" will compare favorably to Asian or European business longevity. The Native Americans had completely different cultural norms so notions of family businesses passed down through multiple generations had to wait until European settlement. The oldest example was a farm along the James River in Charles City County Virginia — Shirley Plantation — established in 1613. Bear in mind that the first permanent English colony at Jamestown (my visit) didn’t happen until 1607 so Shirley Plantation followed the original landing by a mere six years. That makes the date quite remarkable within its context.

The top tier of ancient establishments in the US were all farms. The oldest non-farm was The Seaside Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine that’s been operated continuously since 1667. They say that, "9th Generation Family Innkeepers make us America’s oldest running family run business." Well, except for the farms, I guess.

Canada and Australia

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Canada’s oldest business may be the most well-known of the lot, the Hudson’s Bay company founded in 1670. I decided to show Hudson Bay rather than the company’s headquarters in some generic office tower in Toronto (street view).

Ditto for Australia. I can’t add much visual impact by showing the Brisbane headquarters of the Australian Agricultural Company, founded in 1824. Today they "operate 19 cattle stations, two feedlots and three farms across more than 7.2 million hectares of land across Queensland and the Northern Territory."

3 Replies to “Oldest Continuous Businesses”

  1. Hudson’s Bay’s history always amazes me. Nowadays you’d hardly think the big money is up north, deep into the Canadian taiga (despite needing big money to afford to get/be up there), but they managed to become one of North America’s biggest successes.

    This oddity (a Hudson’s Bay post) is something I’d like to visit. It’s hard to imagine a fort like this straddling the frosty shoreline of the Bay… It looks like something out of St. Augustine…


  2. The first bank (and I believe first company) established in Australia (in the then British colony of New South Wales) was the Bank of New South Wales, established in 1817. It is still trading today and is one of Australia’s “Big 4” banks, although it changed its name to Westpac Banking Corporation in 1982 so maybe it doesn’t count.

    The name “Westpac” was a portmanteau of “Western Pacific” which the bank chose to reflect its increased sphere of influence beyond the original colony.

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