© Harold E. Spaulding,
Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press,
Nicetown’s origins may
be traced back to the seventeenth century, when William
Penn transferred 187 acres of fertile, wooded land to
John Neisse, a French Protestant “for services
rendered.” The intersection of Germantown Road and
Nicetown Lane (later renamed Hunting Park Avenue) saw the
earliest development in Nicetown; it included an inn,
probably operated by a member of the Neisse family, a
blacksmith, and several houses. 1
In its early years, Nicetown was rather isolated because Germantown Avenue between Philadelphia and Germantown was often impassable. In 1769, Nicetown residents petitioned for a road, but their request was not granted until almost a century later. 2
The Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad opened Nicetown up to travel in 1832. Several years later in the early 1840s, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad came through Nicetown, bisecting it in an east-west direction. Industrial development grew to one side of the tracks, while residential development grew on the other. The Reading (as it later became known) connected northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields with the wharves at Port Richmond; by the early 1870s, Wayne Junction, adjacent to Nicetown, became a major freight yard and coal depot. 3
An outstanding example of an industry no longer operating in Nicetown was Midvale Steel, founded in 1867 as the Butcher Steel Works and named for William Butcher, a recent immigrant steelmaker from Sheffield, Great Britain. Butcher enlisted the aide of importer Philip Justice and banker Edward Clark and shortly thereafter, began steel production in direct competition with the Pencoyd Iron Works in Manayunk and Henry Disston’s crucible steel plant in the Northern Liberties. Butcher died three years later and the company was subsequently taken over by William Sellers, a local machine tool builder. 4 The company's name was changed to Midvale Steel in 1872 and three years later, it landed its first contract with the U.S. Navy. 5 Later contracts for steel were soon had with Baldwin Locomotive, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and John Roebling’s Sons (builders of the Brooklyn Bridge); by 1912 the site covered over fifty acres and employed over 3,500 workers.
Midvale’s huge success is attributed, in part, to the fact that it was organized and managed by a consortium of financial interests as well as people trained in the making of steel. (Most other Philadelphia industries were owned and operated simply by people trained in their specific fields.) In 1915, Midvale merged with the Cambria Steel Company of Johnstown, Pennsylvania and two other steel companies near Philadelphia to become the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company. This merger, according to Scranton and Licht, was motivated by the efforts of “a syndicate of steelmakers trained by Carnegie and Wall Street bankers;” the timing of the merger enabled the company to capitalize on enormous war-related contracts for the Army and the Navy during World War I. By 1919, Midvale’s payroll swelled to 7,300.
After the war, in the 1920s, the company’s productivity declined dramatically and Bethlehem Steel gained control of Cambria and several other portions of the company. Midvale itself reorganized as the Midvale Company and set out to diversify its production and tighten its workforce. By 1928, the number of employees on the payroll had dropped to 1,800. 6 During that time, it also became one of the nation’s largest producers of armor plate steel for ships and tanks. It also produced large forgings, propellers and shafts for ships, chemical vessels, and marine engines. 7
Midvale Steel was the home of one of America’s foremost innovators in labor efficiency—Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor grew up in Germantown, the child of a wealthy family. He attended good schools, but instead of pursuing college, he apprenticed in a Philadelphia machine shop. In 1878, he came to work at Midvale as a day laborer, rose to clerk, then to machinist, then to gang boss, and finally to Chief Engineer prior to his leaving the company in 1890. 8 During his tenure, Taylor became intensely interested in the efficient management of work-related time. Using methods introduced by Charles Brinley, 9 Taylor systematically developed techniques to raise the efficiency of production throughout the entire plant to an exceptionally high level. Taylor believed:
1. that each workman should be given, as far as possible, the highest grade of work for which his ability and physique were fitted,
2. that each workman should be called upon to turn out the maximum amount of work that a first-rate man of his class should do, and thrive, and,
3. that each workman, when working at the best pace of a first-class man, should be paid from 30 to 100% beyond the average of his class, according to the nature of the work he was doing.
Taylor introduced an elaborate system of time studies to determine precisely how much time should be allowed for each operation , first into the machine shop and later into other departments. He then developed a “differential” piece rate system (in accordance with Brinley’s methods) under which an employee’s pay rate was based upon his output and efficiency. 10
Taylor’s ideas stemmed from the concept that workers operate at a much lower level of productivity than their actual capability. If their capabilities were scientifically determined, and if workers received proper pay incentives for producing at their capacity, then productivity, wages, and profits would all be substantially improved. Taylor’s ideas were opposite to those of the “welfare work” movement which was based on the idea that improving a worker’s welfare (his place, lot, etc.) would inspire the worker to seek self-betterment, loyalty to the company and cooperation. Taylor left Midvale in 1890 and soon began establishing similar work studies at the Manufacturing Investment Company (a paper manufacturer), and eventually at Bethlehem Steel.
Midvale’s slowdown after World War I led to experimentation and innovation in new products by the company. One of the products, a nickel and chrome alloy steel (originally developed for military uses) found an effective use in the auto industry. However, in spite of these developments, the Depression hurt Midvale seriously and by 1933, only 800 workers were on the site.
The demands of the recovery in the late 1930s, and the threats of war brought activity back to Midvale, in staggering proportions. By 1940, the site had grown to 80 acres. 11 Wartime production caused employment to swell as the company produced steel for the Army and the Navy. After the War, Midvale’s production began to drop off, and during the 1960s, its life slowly started to come to an end. In 1970, the newly reorganized Midvale-Heppenstal Corporation began the systematic shutdown of the Nicetown plant; its eulogy was written by Scranton and Licht:
The last to close of our four nineteenth-century Philadelphia plants, Midvale is soon to be demolished. For the moment, its massive forge hammers are still in place, but they will never again shake the earth with their power. Their silence leaves a bitter emptiness after a century of steel and sweat. 12
By the turn of the twentieth century, industrial development that surrounded the Wayne Junction rail facilities had changed the identities of Nicetown and Germantown to the west. Immediately adjacent to Midvale Steel alongside the Reading Railroad right-of-way, stood the George W. Blabon Company Oil Cloth and Linoleum Works. The manufacture of patented floor cloth (or summer carpet) began in Philadelphia in 1807. In 1872, linoleum was developed as a floor covering by the American Linoleum Company and shortly thereafter, the George W. Blabon Company in Nicetown expanded its floor cloth line to include linoleum. In 1887, Blabon perfected and patented the first successful oil cloth and linoleum printing machine. 13
In 1895, the following account documented the size and volume of Blabon's plant:
One of Philadelphia's giant industries is that of George W. Blabon Company, largest manufacturer in the U.S. of linoleum, oil cloths, and pure linseed oil. The industry was established 42 years ago and in 1892 the vast interests were reorganized and incorporated as the Geo. W. Blabon Co., paid up capital of $1,000,000; Geo. W. as president; his son Geo. C. as V.P.; & John C.S. Davis as treas.-sec. Factory is located halfway between Philadelphia and Germantown on 13 acres, next to rail facilities. There have been erected 31 large buildings, embodying every facility and all the modern improvements for the manufacture of linoleum, oil cloth, and linseed oil... An average force of four hundred hands are employed and skilful designers are employed originating new and handsome patterns while the brilliant coloring of these goods is proverbial... 14
An 1890 Hexamer General Survey Map of Blabon's plant shows three 6,500 gallon linseed oil tanks (each 35 ft. diameter) and such linseed oil related structures as an oil house, oxidizing house, and a boiler house. It also shows coating and drying houses for lino goods (linoleum), enameling rooms, and printing/graining/varnishing rooms for linoleum. Numerous storage and support buildings also show on the map.
Several factors contributed to the demise of Blabon’s and other linoleum producers’ empires; these include the rise of the petrochemical industry in the early twentieth century and the disappearance of flax as marketable crop. Flax was used in the production of linen and its seeds were used in the production of linseed oil. By the early 1920s, the linoleum and linen products that were a part of most American homes had been replaced with other products and Blabon's business shut down.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Nicetown's residential area developed in response to the tremendous industrial growth. Its rowhouses, which were two-story, single-family units, well-built with indoor plumbing, provided a comfortable, affordable place for the workers and their families to live. 15 There was also a religious community along Roman and St. Paul Streets, which was destroyed when Roosevelt Boulevard was built in the 1950s.
1 "Discovering the Philadelphia Tradition," a booklet produced by the Philadelphia Area Cultural Consortium with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, December, 1980, hereafter cited as "Discovering..."
4 Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 , (Philadelphia, 1986), p. 196.
5 Scranton and Licht state that by 1905, Midvale Steel was to become the largest defense contractor in the nation (p. 199).
6 Scranton and Licht, p. 201.
8 "The Midvale Company," A Newcomen Society address by Richard Tilghman Nalle (President of the Midvale Company), pp. 15-16, found in the Business & Industry Section of the Philadelphia Free Library, Logan Square.
9 Charles A. Brinley trained as a chemist at Yale and joined Midvale in July 1872.
10 "The Midvale Company," pgs. 12-13.
12 Scranton and Licht, pg. 213.
13 John J. MacFarlane, Manufacturing in Philadelphia, 1683-1912, (Philadelphia, 1912).
14 "Philadelphia, Old and New", illustrated, compiled, and published by the Consolidated Illustrating Company, Philadelphia, 1895.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to John R. Bowie, who provided research information on Midvale Steel, as well as assistance in the writeup of the overview and individual sites. Thanks to David R. Donovan, SKF Specialty Bearings, Nice Division, Kulpsville, PA for his help in providing the corporate history. Thanks to Paul O. Sichert, Jr., Vice President, Public Affairs, The Budd Company, Troy, MI, for his assistance in supplying the corporate history.