Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Philadelphia's Industrial History: Context and Overview

Philip B. Scranton, Ph.D., Workshop of the World, 1990.

"Workshop of the World" was the proud claim of Philadelphia boosters for the best part of the century after the Civil War. Though at present the city is best known for its vehicles of consumption (the Eagles, the Orchestra, fine restaurants, the Mummers) once not so long ago Philadelphia represented prowess in production, the American apex of skill, versatility and diversity in manufacturing. Thanks to the dedication of area SIA [Society for Industrial Archeology] members, we are now afforded a special opportunity to revisit this nearly forgotten city, its world of workshops. With this guide in hand, you may map for yourself tours of a Philadelphia different from the one imagined by the hundreds of thousands who stroll through Independence Hall and Old City.  Where they call up visions of bewigged gentlemen debating the birth of a nation, scribbling away with quill pens, you must conjure a later cacophony of steam engines, whirling lathes, pounding forges, clattering looms, smoke, sweat and strain. You can circle among the landmarks of Philadelphia's industrial age, drawing from these silent stones a sense of the energy and intensity that lay behind the boast, "Workshop of the World!" And as you encounter mounting numbers of mute brick and concrete masses, you will inevitably come to the question: What happened? What went wrong? As with most historical processes, there is no simple (or single) answer, but surely it is as important to cherish and reflect upon Philadelphia's industrial greatness as it is to draw inspiration from its eighteenth century political heritage.

This introduction aims to offer a bit of historical context for reading and using what follows, a narrative sketch of the urban evolution in which the city's neighborhoods were shaped and peopled. It also seeks to set Philadelphia's course alongside that of other cities, so as to highlight briefly what made it special. Let us begin with our title phrase and at the point when it was close to being an accurate description of Philadelphia.

From roughly 1880 through the 1920s, Philadelphia's industrial districts supported an array of mills and plants whose diversity has scarcely been matched anywhere in the history of manufacturing. When the U. S. Census charted some three hundred categories of industrial activity, surveys of Philadelphia showed firms active in nearly ninety percent of them. No city had a wider range of textile products, for example, as Kensington, Germantown, Frankford and Manayunk churned forth laces, socks, carpets, blankets, rope and cordage, men's suitings and women's dress goods, silk stockings, upholstery, tapestries, braids, bindings, ribbons, coverlets, knit fabric and sweaters, surgical fabrics, military cloths and trimmings, draperies, and yarns of every description. At the turn of the century, roughly seven hundred separate companies operated in textiles alone, employing some sixty thousand people. Yet this immense workforce amounted to only one quarter of the city's industrial workers. Unlike New England centers that often focused on a single sector (for Massachusetts, textiles in Lowell, Lawrence, Fall River and New Bedford, paper in Holyoke, shoes in Lynn), Philadelphia could and did do nearly everything across the spectrum of transforming materials into products.

Moreover, though it hosted some huge facilities, Philadelphia was known far better as an incubator for small enterprises, as a city packed with workshops and mid-size firms begun in many cases by workers or supervisors who "graduated" from employment to entrepreneurship. In Lawrence, Pittsburgh, or Detroit in its Ford era, a tiny number of great firms were the major employers (American Woolen, U. S. Steel) and dominated the landscape as well as local economic and political life. Yet in Philadelphia, even the eight to ten thousand workers engaged at the Baldwin Locomotive Works were a minuscule fragment of the city's quarter million industrial employees. Hence the city was dependent neither on one manufacturing trade nor on any cluster of giant corporations for its economic health. Nor however could the rapid rise of a leading firm or sector produce a city-wide growth boom, as autos did for Detroit. Diversity was unspectacular, but it avoided the high-wire act of being dedicated to a single industry. It was such reliance that turned the textile and shoe cities of New England into "ghost towns" during the 1920s, and more recently has ground down Detroit and Pittsburgh. By contrast, Philadelphia's decay like its advance was spread across half a century, a pattern that robbed it of sudden drama and made it difficult to perceive or reverse.

In its heyday, Philadelphia's thousands of modest scale firms were linked together through contracts and trade in elaborate ways that make it possible to view the city as a vast workshop as well. Carpet makers purchased yarn from one firm, had it dyed at a second, bought pattern designs from a third, punched cards to control the weaving process (Jacquard) from a fourth. The card makers got coated paper stock from specialist paper manufacturers in Manayunk; the dyers bought special machinery from Procter and Schwartz which in turn purchased metal castings from various city foundries. Even at the level of the biggest establishments, such connections were frequent. Midvale Steel, makers of everything from armor plate to ship's cannon and drive shafts, bought its yard locomotives from Baldwin and commissioned special machines for metal cutting from William Sellers, the city's most venerable machinery building plant. Some of Midvale's plate doubtless found its way to the Navy Yard or to Cramp's, shipbuilders for a century along the Delaware. Baldwin Locomotive long operated as a network of workshops complete with internal contracts upon which shop masters might turn efficiency into a profit. The presence of hundreds of firms with every sort of capacity so close to hand encouraged Philadelphia mill men to value and use nearby talent, thereby deepening the web of interconnections.

Of course, none of this could have been developed without the "world" out to which Philadelphia shipped its final products and from which materials, fuel, and for a long period, fresh workers and entrepreneurs arrived by ship and rail. During the decades surrounding 1900, the city drew heavily on Pennsylvania's rich coal reserves, depended on the reliability of the vast Pennsylvania Railroad system, the Reading and the B&O, and profited from its deepwater port, through which a sturdy fraction of the world's wool supply flowed steadily. Of course, Philadelphia firms supplied the nation with tools and saws, fabrics and machinery, but they were also alert to the possibilities of export trade.

Philadelphia may by 1890 have virtually covered the world of manufacturing, but its products were in large measure confined to domestic markets. Much of the reason for this lay in the American system of protective tariffs. In order to "free" the new United States from economic dependence on technically more advanced Britain, the federal government early determined to erect a set of import taxes (tariffs) which would bring foreign goods' prices up to or above those of products "Made in the U.S.A." These barriers certainly had something to do with the rise of industry (precisely what is still being debated), but by the late nineteenth century they generated a secondary consequence. The entire cost structure of American production and consumption was, on average, pitched at a level higher in global terms than that of our principal rivals, Britain and Germany. As a result, though our standard of living may have been higher (again a disputed point), most of our goods were priced higher for export than those of European competitors. The erratic but considerable expansion of demand at home sustained overall growth, but as the industrial system matured, concern mounted about how to establish additional outlets for the products of our manufacturing capacity.

This question was debated intensely in Philadelphia, especially during the long depression of the 1890s, when home markets flagged and export trade to pick up the slack could not be found. At the century's turn, local activists created the Commercial Museum, whose building still squats alongside Convention Hall and its modern extensions in West Philadelphia. In essence the Museum was to be a collective marketing agency for Philadelphia wares, not a site for displaying relics. Visitors, especially foreign visitors, were shown what Philadelphia made and encourage to contact its firms to meet their needs, however unusual or precise. It's hard to know for certain, but if this brokerage may have worked better in the imagination than in fact, it nonetheless remained active for a generation, publishing a monthly journal (Commercial America) trumpeting Philadelphia's ability to get any job done, on time, and right. Such an institution was born here, and not in Pittsburgh, exactly because of the city's diversity and skill in making to order. Tons of pig iron were staple goods that could be had more cheaply on the world market than from American plants, but finely crafted machinery, scientific instruments or a host of other local specialties competed in terms of quality, not price, with rival items from Europe. No firm better exemplified this capacity than Baldwin, which moved beyond supplying the Santa Fe to providing locomotives to rail systems in Brazil, Russia, and Japan, among many nations. The Brill Company, specialists in street railway cars, plowed similar furrows with success over the long term, as did scores of textile firms during the briefer fever that World War I brought. After 1914, Philadelphia's prominence as a fabric center brought millions of dollars in contracts for military goods to the city's mills, while its metalworking plants supplied other needs nastier than those for leggings and caps, and its shipyards fattened on repair work diverted from belligerent nations. The early part of the "Great War" was good for exports, if not for humanity.

If Philadelphia was in some measure able to go to the world, so too did firms from afar come to Philadelphia. Its immense reserve of skilled labor drew immigrant entrepreneurs as well as firms seeking to get inside the tariff wall by starting American plants. Belgian textile mill owners, Swedish metal tradesmen, and German chemists all sought a place in the Quaker City. The chemists, of course, were Rohm and Haas, a team that had devised a specialty product for leather tanning, an item that eliminated the use of animal dung's particularly unpleasant contribution to a generally unsavory process. As Philadelphia held the nation's largest concentration of fine leather works, locating a plant here for synthesis of "Oropon" was a natural choice, and added yet another layer to the city's interindustry connections. So too did national corporations that needed access to skilled labor for construction of complex products find their way to Philadelphia (GE and Westinghouse, the latter just outside the city boundary at Lester).  In its greatest era, Philadelphia could hardly be faulted for proclaiming itself the world's workshop. Two questions quickly appear: what brought this about, and how did it erode?

As John Bowie has pointed out, the city's association with manufacturing commenced shortly after its settlement, expanded in the age of artisans, and blossomed dramatically in the nineteenth century. Philadelphia was the largest colonial city, if not its richest.  Why?  In the age of eighteenth century agricultural development, Philadelphia, Like Charleston and New York, profited vastly from its location as the linking point between highly productive farm districts and the wider world. Though theirs was a risky trade, Philadelphia merchants built fortunes through handling incoming fruits of the land, supplying farmers and rural stores with their needs, and marketing Pennsylvania wheat, etc., across the colonies and across the seas. Not only did such activity lead towards Oliver Evans' continuous process flour mill, it also fed tastes for refined consumption, in housing, furnishings, reading matter, and so forth. These in turn provided tasks for cabinetmakers, printers, and by extension, papermill operators and sawyers, who intersected with the region's charcoal iron producers (offering intermediate goods for making tools, nails, et al.) to created a bustling, but politically vulnerable manufacturing base. Both producer and consumer demand could by the Revolutionary era be met largely from local sources, surely adding to the regional fervor for independence from English colonial constraints. Such productive interactions made the city nearest the Revolution's breadbasket a prime candidate for economic growth in the new century.

These were the beginnings, the raw materials for industrial extension. With fundamental competence in wood- and metalworking, imbedded in a prosperous region, Philadelphia drew new talent for long generations after Franklin came down the coast from Boston. A few of the merchant elite (the Harrisons in chemicals, most notably) contributed to the dynamic of mechanical inventiveness and product differentiation, but by mid-century, Philadelphia looked and was different from New York, Boston or Charleston, each more known for commerce (New York perhaps wrongly) than for production. Boston merchants may have owned cotton mills but rarely frequented them.  Charleston planters and traders moved in an orbit cosmically separate from the workshop worlds of Kensington, and New York bankers and railway financiers stood far above the harsh scrambling of their own city's degraded craft districts. The "best" Philadelphians also floated serenely to their Assemblies, but quietly and surely hosts of Scots and Yorkshiremen, Celts and Teutons were creating both goods and institutions that forged a city of industry, a process which the elite diarist Sidney George Fisher viewed with proper disdain.

Machinery men like Alfred Jenks, William Morris and William Sellers led the new vanguard, and help generate steam engines, textile equipment, and machine tools, along with the Franklin Institute, in its time one of the world's great forums for promoting and assessing mechanical inventiveness. These men knew or sensed that in interaction and exchange, in public intercourse rather than secrecy, lay the mechanism for advancing their individual and collective interests. In its journal, exhibitions, prize awards, and public debates, the Franklin Institute captured, refined and distributed the essence of Philadelphia's prowess and drew to the city in return some of the finest scientific and technical innovators of the nineteenth century. (Fittingly, the Atwater Kent Museum, devoted to the history of Philadelphia, occupies the Franklin Institute's early quarters on Seventh Street south of Market.) Networks among proprietors and workers stemmed not only from such institutions, but were also created in the social spaces of industrial neighborhoods and inside workshop walls. Before the Civil War, most masters lived close by their shops and mills, whether in densely settled Kensington or Northern Liberties or in the hollows of Germantown. Shared problem solving was as routine matter, as was contracting out jobs to "competitors" when a rush of business arrived, "calling into service others' machinery" as it was termed.  In such relations lay one key to Philadelphia's special genius, its flexibility and specializations, its endless versatility, for the firm was not a closed box but a unit in a constantly shifting web of interconnected activities. New products, ideas, solutions percolated through the city (some patented, most not) generating productive "external economies" that made the districts as a whole far more than the sum of their parts.

To stress this is not to argue that Philadelphia was a Garden of Eden for working people and entrepreneurs. There were plenty of terrible jobs; exploitation of women (particularly in outwork sewing) was acute, whereas both skilled and unskilled operatives had to cope with seasonal unemployment year after year. Firms, especially new ones, went belly up with depressing frequency, sending masters back to the workshops of others and cashiered employees in search of new positions. Some bosses were notoriously brutal, others were cheats, "knocking off" copies of designs by their more creative rivals or swindling their workers and clients. All the standard human passions and frailties surged through the city's factory districts, yet there was such a vitality to the world of possibilities open in Philadelphia that tens, then hundreds of thousands came, struggled and stayed.

When secession and war split the nation, the city was deeply divided.  Its old elite had extensive southern connections, and a substantial fraction of its factory output flowed to southern merchants. Once the course towards combat was set, rebel sympathies and general misgivings were forced into private spaces, as Philadelphia mobilized both its people and its industries in the Union cause. As J. Matthew Gallman notes in his recent study of Civil War Philadelphia, due to its "extremely diverse array of shops and manufactories...the City of Brotherly Love [was] particularly well prepared to adjust to rapidly shifting wartime demands."
1 As in succeeding wars, the city's metalworking plants became arsenals and its textile mills fed the Quartermaster Corps' vast needs.  Profits for many firms were equally vast, and were poured into constructing expanded facilities, perhaps in part because rapid inflation whittled away the value of liquid assets. Where Lowell, utterly dependent on cotton and unable to shift its rigid technology to wool or blended fibers, essentially closed shop for the duration, Philadelphia used its flexibility to good advantage, reaping the economic benefits of war so adroitly that area textile investment grew half again as fast in the 1860s as during the previous decade, even with inflation factored out. It was a bloody prosperity, to be sure, but by 1870 the nation recognized that Philadelphia possessed a supple, creative industrial system which could master any task set before it.

As it approached an era of prominence, industrial Philadelphia appeared to be, as one carpet weaver put it, "the paradise of the skilled workman." Wages were high, and if work was cyclical, job opportunities were growing. Hundreds took the step up to proprietorship, "commencing on their own account" in small partnerships, renting "rooms with power" in mills purposely built for hosting a dozen or more newly-started enterprises. However, conflict like cooperation was built into the Philadelphia system.  Workers had here created some of the nation's earliest trade unions in the teeth of legal obstructions and masters' opposition to any interference with their direct relations with individual employees. These institutions had often crumbled in depressions, but were rebuilt again and again. It was in post-war Philadelphia that the Knights of Labor commenced (1869) and put forth its vision of a cooperative commonwealth, a vision that proved unattainable without extensive conflict. Both the rapid rise and collapse of the Knights in schism and strikes (c. 1880-86) indicated the profound tensions that lay then as now just beneath the surface of capitalist industrialism. Ultimately, employers had a critical if limited form of power over their workers, capacities to fire or promote, distribute good and miserable tasks. This power was constrained by workplace and trade customs, by habits and practices of reciprocity in and beyond the mills, but when it was used unjustly or irresponsibly, conflicts burst out, fueled on each side by a sense of the other's betrayal. Values were generally as much as issue as was money; settlements were never, indeed could not ever be, final.

Hence in the decades of high industrialism, Philadelphia witnessed strikes and lockouts great and small, including general strikes in 1903 and 1910. This rhythm of conflict amid necessary cooperation brought labor and capital into new forms of antagonistic institutional development. Thus the Labor Lyceum and the Lighthouse in Kensington stood across a divide from the Manufacturers' Club in Center City, and sectoral unions faced trade associations (the Metal Manufacturers' Assn., Master Dyers, Worsted Spinners, and so forth).
2 The gap narrowed and widened at different rates in different decades in different sectors, was bridged more in some firms and trades than others, was more visible in the age of permanent institutions than earlier, but it would not go away. What is important and essential is that creativity, flexibility and cooperation persisted despite this structure of conflict, that contests between proprietors and workers were as much (or more) a feature of manufacturing's peak era as they were in its decades of decay. Simple notions that workers organized unions and industries thus fell to pieces square neither with the pattern of Philadelphia's success nor with the dynamics of its industrial decline.

Philadelphia was not alone in 1900 as an American center of diversified and flexible manufacture. In New England, Worcester (MA) and Providence (RI) developed along similar lines, as did Newark and Trenton in the Mid-Atlantic. All of them entered eras of slow, seemingly inexorable decline after World War I. 3 The reasons for this slippage were multiple. The increasing importance of science and research, carried on by multi-plant corporate giants, devalued the experiential shop-based knowledge of smaller firms in these urban centers. The latters' associations were legally powerless to compel members to support comparable inquiry collectively, or even to install standard accounting and pricing practices (as was done in Europe). Government policies failed to comprehend the complementarities between specialist and mass production and indirectly favored the latter through pressure for standardization and narrowing of product ranges to eliminate economic "waste." In consumer goods, shifts in retailers' and distributors' business practices following the sharp "inventory depression" of 1920-21 pushed inventory risks for seasonal and style goods back on their manufacturers. As dealers cut the stocks they held to increase turnover, producers were led toward predatory price cutting to secure sufficient orders to keep workers active and mill running, thus ruining profitability. As consumers benefitted in the short run, producers' protests to governments fell on deaf ears. In capital goods, the war and post-war period were equally critical. Massive emergency demand for ships, locomotives and machinery, all with long working "lives," led to a slump in the 1920s, worsened by the great depression. Finally, shutting off the immigrant flows that had ceaselessly revitalized industrial districts soon yielded the greying of the core of skilled workers so vital to the system. As Americans had failed to multiply the few educational institutions which trained "practical" machinists, etc., and paid steadily less attention to vocational education, both the status and supply of flexible, problem-solving "mechanics" eroded amid dreams of automatic factories and white collar jobs for everyone. Put it all together and you get first a trickle, then a torrent of liquidations by Philadelphia-style firms, commencing in the 1920s and accelerating through the terrible thirties. World War II demand for special work quickly done (millions of yards of mosquito netting, for example) kept many survivors afloat. Yet the contraction soon resumed as mass production of standard goods by Fortune 500 corporations seemed to have swept the day and swept away versatile specialists.

In Philadelphia, Cramp's shipyard closed in the 1920s, was reopened for emergency service in World War II, then faded from memory. Baldwin's moved part (and later all) of its production to Eddystone near Chester to secure bigger quarters, only to founder in bankruptcy in the 1930s and be absorbed into a merger. After World War II, Eddystone too gradually fell silent. The textile districts emptied out bit by bit, a few firms moving to the suburbs or the South, hundreds more sticking it out to the end on the sites of their glory years. What remains is still an impressive cluster of specialty manufacturing firms, but in the half-century after 1925 the city lost two-thirds of its industrial jobs and virtually all of its greatest firms. Of the 25 largest in 1925, only the Budd Company remains a major player in its sector.

The chapters that follow offer an extraordinarily striking portrait of what endures, in a physical and architectural sense, of industrial Philadelphia. Its range of neighborhoods makes an effective selection among the places and spaces created through industrialization (or with Chestnut Hill, spawned from its profits). Moreover, multiple sites from every era and every significant trade are covered, along with major features of the transportation, power and public utility net, crucial elements in the matrix not often given as careful attention as is done here. Finally, enterprises of every scale have been documented and, though flexible batch operations predominate, several among the city's few bulk producers (e.g., sugar refining) make an appearance. Thus, in your hands is a fully representative guide to a great manufacturing city. If much of what we have left is buildings and memories, both are worth preserving for uses that as yet lie only in our imagination. This guide is a tool for preserving sites and for sparking thought, one that will itself be used over and over in the years ahead. I, for one, am grateful to the Oliver Evans SIA team for creating it, and expect that a few hours from now, you will be too.


1   J. Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime:  A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War, (New York, 1990), pg. 254.
2   Philip Scranton, Figured Tapestry: Production, Markets and Power in Philadelphia Textiles, 1885-1940, (New York, 1989).
3   For an insightful study of Trenton's long, downhill slide, see John Cumbler, A Social History of Economic Decline, (New Brunswick, NJ., 1989).