A philanthropist and a leader of Newark’s Jewish community, Louis V. Aronson left his mark on history as the inventor of one of the most recognizable products of the 20th century: the Ronson lighters.
They were almost permanent fixtures in the pockets, purses, homes, and offices of millions of cigarette, cigar, and pipe smokers in the years when smoking was perceived as sophisticated, not lethal.
“The Ronsons became Hollywood stars,” said Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
From May 5 to June 30, the JHS will exhibit models of the famed lighters, along with other award-winning inventions by Aronson, in a display at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
JHS is a partner agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The devices and family photographs are on loan from relatives in West Orange who have asked not to be identified.
Born Dec. 25, 1869, Aronson studied metallurgy at a technical high school in New York before founding Art Metal Works on Mulberry Street. There he designed and manufactured jewelry cases, lighting fixtures, material for bronzing baby shoes, and car hood ornaments.
In 1903, Aronson helped develop a safer kitchen match. He invented a fuse that the United States Army used to detonate bombs during World War I, for which he received a Distinguished Service Certificate from President Woodrow Wilson.
But none of his inventions captivated public attention as much as the Ronson lighters, the first of which he patented in 1910.
Although product placement was a common practice in American movies dating back to the era of silent films, few consumer goods made as many cameo appearances as did Ronsons.
Paul Henreid used a Ronson to light two cigarettes — one for Bette Davis, and one for himself — in Now, Voyager. Johnny Carson kept one on his desk on the set of The Tonight Show, as did Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade in his office in The Maltese Falcon. A Ronson “Adonis” model lighter — engraved with crossed tennis rackets — figured prominently as evidence in a murder case in the Albert Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train.
The company was acquired by Zippo in 2010.
“Aronson had a prodigious work ethic,” said Forgosh. According to one of his descendants, Aronson would leave for his office at 5 a.m., put in a full day’s work, and sometimes even sleep at his factory.
He was born in Manhattan, but when he was a child his family moved to Clinton Avenue and South 10th Street in Newark, a few doors away from their synagogue, Temple B’nai Abraham.
“I had the luck to be born on Christmas Day,” he later remarked. “My parents used to tell me that a Christmas child should carry the Christmas spirit with him all the year, no matter what his religious faith might be.”
Aronson was a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1912 in a city perpetually dominated by Democrats.
He was a member of the Progress Club, an organization of Newark’s Jewish business elite. A note in the club’s minutes one year thanked Aronson for presenting each member with a cigar lighter.
“Just his mere association with the Progress Club indicated that he identified with the Jewish community when the Jews of his era in Newark just weren’t welcome among the gentiles,” Forgosh said.
He lived at a time “of Jewish Newark in its heyday, when the city was known for its factories and business, and Aronson fit in quite successfully,” said Forgosh.
He was active in the Newark Board of Trade, a business organization that began in 1869 and has evolved over the past 146 years into what is now the Newark Regional Business Partnership.
Aronson died in 1940.
“The Jewish community prospered from the likes of Aronson,” Forgosh said. “Success was his, and he shared it. He was a genius. His design sense was superb. He was a philanthropist and a colorful person who gave back as much as he took.”