Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia


Harold E. Spaulding, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Germantown neighborhood as it exists today began as German Township in 1683, when Francis Daniel Pastorius secured a 5,700 acre tract six miles northwest of Philadelphia from William Penn. Pastorius was a wealthy aristocrat and lawyer and represented a group of German investors that called themselves the "German Society"; their interests were mostly commercial. Along with Pastorius came thirteen Quaker families from Krefeld, Germany who were interested in participating in Penn's "holy experiment". Together the two groups established the Germantown community along both sides of the Indian trail that would later become known as Germantown Avenue.
Most of the settlers who came to Germantown were linen weavers and experienced in cloth production. Within a year of their initial settlement, they were producing linen and selling it at a store in Philadelphia that was owned and operated by Pastorius. By 1689, the Germantown community contained 44 families.
The cascading waters of the Wissahickon Creek near Germantown provided a source of water power for milling activities by Pastorius and the early settlers. In 1690, William Rittenhouse erected a paper mill on what is now Paper Mill Run. It was the first paper mill to be erected and operated in America.
2 By 1746, a dozen water-powered sites were situated on the creek. 3 Elsewhere in the township, farmers grew grains such as flax, which was used in the manufacture of cloth. By 1760, just less than 80 years after its founding, the descendants of the German settlers were enjoying success and prosperity. The Reverend Andrew Barnaby, in 1760 wrote:
The Germantown thread stockings are in high estimation and the year before last I have been credibly informed there were manufactured in that town alone above 60,000 dozen pairs, their common retail price a dollar per pair."
Germantown became Anglicized in the middle of the eighteenth century when wealthy Philadelphians fled the congestion associated with the city to build country estates there. After the American Revolution, Germantown also became the home to people fleeing the yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia.
Industry of non-German origin came to Germantown when William Logan Fisher built and operated a textile mill on Wingohocking Creek in 1809; several years later, Fisher established a calico print mill nearby. By 1830, the Anglicization of the township was virtually completed with the introduction of the first English language newspaper and the impending connection to the city by the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad.
During the 1830s-40s, Germantown's textile industry boomed, with immigrants skilled in mill operations and textile production arriving in large numbers from England, Scotland, and Germany. In 1830, John Button arrived from Leicester, England with two hosiery knitting machines; he built a large, complex production facility on Walnut Lane, east of Germantown Avenue called the Germantown Hosiery Mills and became the first producer using machinery rather than hand-operated frames. William and Andrew McCallum came from Scotland in 1831 and bought an old water driven mill on Paper Mill Run. There they expanded and built the Glen Echo Mills complex. In 1843, Charles Spencer arrived from Leicester, England and established the Leicester Mills. Like the Glen Echo and Germantown Hosiery Mills, Spencer spun his own yarn; he also combined power looms with hand operated machines.
While entrepreneurs such as Spencer and Button operated large, integrated "factories" throughout Germantown, there were also many individual knitting frame and hand loom operators, producing goods out of their homes and carriage houses under contract. These people would purchase yarn on their own or else would have it supplied by the mills under whom they were contracted.
The 1850 Census of Manufactures reported ninety-seven industrial establishments in Germantown; fifty were on the west side of Germantown Avenue, forthy-seven on the east. After that, new industries began to locate east of Germantown Avenue, leaving the area west for residential development. By 1860, 136 industrial sites were listed in the Census of Manufactures (this included nine quarries, opened presumably in response to the demands of the building boom). At that time, development in the area south and east of Bringhurst Streets also took on a curious nature. Lots were subdivided in a narrow, deep configuration—usually 50 feet wide by 200 feet deep; on them, a dwelling would be constructed next to the street and a small two or three story factory at the rear of the lot. The textiles they produced were usually finished, ready-for-sale items such as fancy knits and woolen hosiery. Power to operate their machines was supplied by small, steam powered machines, usually 15 h.p. or less. There were also a lot of hand looms in operation in these small factories; however, they rarely produced their own yarn. Instead, they purchased yarn in smaller, more manageable amounts from the larger plants and avoided the high costs of carding machines and spinning frames.
In 1881, the Reading Railroad opened a station at Wayne Junction, along the southern end of Germantown. Here they developed a major freight handling center for the Philadelphia area and it was here that Germantown's biggest concentration of industry occurred.
7 Here, McCallum and McCallum, owners of the Glen Echo Mills, purchased 4-1/2 acres and built the New Glen Echo Mills. Shortly thereafter, numerous diverse manufacturing plants began to be built adjacent to the railroad; these included brass foundries, coal yards, wood shops, machine shops, a carpet mill, an electric company, the Leeds & Northrup Scientific Instrument Company, and the Atwater Kent Company.  
The Wayne Junction area continued to develop and by the turn of the twentieth century had influenced a broad shift in the industrial makeup of Germantown. Diversification of industry replaced the sole dependence on textiles as companies such as the Arguto Oilless Bearing Company, the Blaisdell Paper Pencil Company, Carbutt's Keystone Dry Plates Company, the
Max Levy Autograph Company, and the Atwater Kent Company's radio production plant emerged near Wayne Junction.
Urban congestion, overcrowding, and poor housing conditions contributed to a decline in Germantown's infrastructure by the late 1930s. After 1945, industries began to relocate out of the area, seeking safer, more open, and less expensive environments. This caused a decline in the area and in spite of the relocation of a remanufacturing plant in an old mill by the Cunningham Piano Company, little could be done to stop the departure of industry.
In recent years, the Asher Candy Company has confirmed its commitment to the area by expanding its production facility on Germantown Avenue. Slowly, other companies, mostly small in size, are following Asher's lead, taking advantage of well-constructed, attractive buildings and low prices. However, Germantown, for the most part, stands as a visible reminder of the city's industrial past, full of a now-gone greatness that was sold, one company at a time, over the past 50 years.

1  Mark Frazier Lloyd, "Germantown 1683-1983," Antiques, August 1983.  Also, "An Explanation of the Original Location and General Plan or Draught of the Lands and Lots of Germantown and Creesam Townships, Copied from Matthias Zimmerman's Original of June 26th A.D. 1746, Recopied by Christian Lehman, July 28, 1766, Recopied by Joseph Lehman, January 1, 1824," transcript by Robeson Lea Perot, 1907, on file at the Germantown Historical Society.
2  "Germantown and its Industries—The Old and the New," The Germantown Guide, Feb. 3, 1917, p. 3.
3  "Philadelphia Atlas, 1746," pp. 58-59, on file at the Germantown Historical Society.
4  Charles F. Jenkins, of the Site and Relic Society (now the Germantown Historical Society), "Guide Book to Historic Germantown" (1904), p. 14, found at the Krauth Memorial Library, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Germantown.
5  Lloyd, p. 255.
6  Lloyd, p. 255.
7  Lloyd, p. 256.  Also see Workshop of the World—Nicetown. Nicetown borders the other side of Wayne Junction.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to John R. Bowie, who assisted in the writing of this chapter. Thanks also to Sandra MacKenzie Lloyd, who provided research assistance and insights into the general history of Germantown. Special thanks to Edgar B. Coale, who shared valuable notes and information on Max Levy Autograph, Incorporated. Special thanks also Jack Asher, who provided information on the history of the C.A. Asher Candy Company. Thanks to the staff, Pastore Library, Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. Very special thanks to Lisabeth M. Holloway, Archivist, Germantown Historical Society Library. Special thanks to Richard Boardman, Map Curator and J.B. Post, Print and Picture Curator, Philadelphia Free Library. Thanks to Lesley DeVine, owner, Kendrick Co., Inc., for information on the history of this very old firm.

Germantown bibliography