Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Pasted Graphic


Helene Schenck & Michael Parrington, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Until 1854, the City of Philadelphia encompassed an area of 2,277 square miles bounded by the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers to the east and west, and by Vine and South Streets to the north and south. This area, laid out by Penn's surveyor Thomas Holme in the 1680s, forms the focus of this section of the guidebook.
The city first developed along the Delaware riverfront, although Penn envisaged a city stretching from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, the city clustered east of 6th Street and stretched north and south in a linear fashion into the Northern Liberties and Southwark. This area saw the majority of the eighteenth century industrial development of the city.
By the early nineteenth century, development had reached Center Square and continued westward to the Schuylkill and into West Philadelphia. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia had spread far beyond the confines demarcated by Penn, and the Consolidation of 1854 recognized this fact by enlarging the city boundaries to match those of Philadelphia County.
Early houses in the seventeenth century city were of log construction, but by 1683, a brickworks was in operation north of the city. One of the earliest brick houses was constructed at the south corner of Front and Mulberry (now Arch) Streets in 1684. By the end of the seventeenth century, there were three brewhouses in the town, a ropewalk, four shipyards, and numerous wharves and warehouses. Businesses and industries utilized the services of sawyers, brickmakers, dyers, shoemakers, brewers, maltsters, coopers, and potters, to name but a few of the 35 trades documented in the seventeenth century city in research conducted by Hannah Benner Roach.
Dock Creek was the site of much of the early industry which required a water source. Numerous tanners set up on the banks, and by the mid-eighteenth century, many complaints were voiced about the noisome conditions of the water course. As the city developed during the eighteenth century, polluting activities like tanning, potting, and brickmaking moved out to the outskirts of the residential area. Potters like Antony Duche, who operated a kiln on Chestnut Street not far from the State House in the 1760s, found themselves persona non grata.  Increasingly, the less socially acceptable industries were pushed out to the Northern Liberties, and west to the Schuylkill River.
Many industries continued to operate in Old City but they tended to be relatively small scale in comparison to entities like the Baldwin Locomotive Works and the Disston Saw Works. Larger industries did congregate along the Schuylkill riverfront, and by the nineteenth century there were many wharves and landings in use by these concerns.  Many of these industries had started their existence in Old City and as land prices increased, they gradually moved westward. Typical of these was the Wetherill Paint and Chemical Company, which commenced as a textile concern in Old City in 1775.  The company branched out into hardware and paints and dyes, and by 1809, appears to have been manufacturing white lead at 19 S. Seventh Street. Shortly after this, a new factory was erected at Twelfth and Cherry Streets. The company operated at this location successfully until 1848 when a new facility was opened on the west bank of the Schuylkill between Chestnut and Walnut Streets.
By the mid-nineteenth century, a pattern had emerged of smaller industries interspersed with domestic housing throughout much of Old City and Center City. Along the Delaware riverfront south of Market Street, there were numerous piers and warehouses where products were stored prior to shipment or after importation. On the Schuylkill riverfront, wharves and storage facilities served the internal commerce of Pennsylvania via the Schuylkill, Delaware, Lehigh, and Main-Line Canals.
The demise of the canal system and the rise of the railroads transformed the built environment of Philadelphia as the lines of the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia & Reading, and Baltimore & Ohio Railroads edged into the city on soaring viaducts and at grade level.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a survey conducted by the city
4 provided a revealing picture of industry in Philadelphia. In 1882, there was a total of 4,062 manufacturing establishments in the area defined by South and Vine Streets, and the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, employing 91,728 people, with a product valued at over 236 million dollars.  Industries employing more than 1,000 people included bookbinding, boot and shoe manufacturing, clothing, confectionery, furniture, gas works, hosiery, iron working, paper boxes, printing, silk manufacturers, and umbrella making. Clothing was by far the most important industry, with finished goods valued at over 36 million dollars.  This was followed by boot and shoe manufacturing at over 9 million, and sugar refining at a little under 6 million. Although sugar refining ranked third in terms of product value, it employed comparatively few people—315 in two establishments. Clothing employed 25,671, and boot and shoe manufacturing 7,567: accounting together for over 36% of the total working population of the area.
In the twentieth century, clothing continued to be an important industry and many of the loft buildings still to be seen in Old City and Center City at the present time originated as sweat shops producing clothing. Much of the industry along the Delaware waterfront, including the two sugar refineries, was removed when the Delaware Expressway was constructed in the 1970s. Many of the nineteenth century industrial buildings of Philadelphia, however, still exist in the area bounded by the two rivers and Vine and South Streets. These structures largely have survived by being adapted and reused as offices and apartment buildings, serving the needs of Philadelphia's service-oriented population of the 1980s. For the most part, the interiors of these buildings have been gutted and only the facades survive to remind the visitor of Philadelphia's industrial past.

1  Russell F. Weigley, editor, Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, p. 20.
2  Miriam Hussey, From Merchants to "Colour Men": Five Generations of Samuel Wetherill's White Lead Business (1956).
3  Baist, 1895.
4  Lorin Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1883), pp. 8-44

Center City bibliography