Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Carmen A. Weber, Irving Kosmin, and Muriel Kirkpatrick, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

As the area north and west of Fishtown developed in the 1840s, the old neighborhood name "Kensington" spread as well. Today, Kensington forms an upside down, L-shaped neighborhood around Fishtown, bounded by Erie Avenue on the north, 6th Street and Germantown Avenue on the west, Girard Avenue on the south, and Frankford Avenue, Norris Street, and Aramingo Avenue on the east.
Traditionally, Kensington was known as the original hub of working class Philadelphia, with both native and immigrant workers living close to their work sites or working at home. Early nineteenth century industry in the area was diverse; it included glass factories and potteries, wagon and machine works, and a chemical factory. Many of the earlier sites were located in West Kensington (west of Front Street), spreading north from the Spring Garden District and Northern Liberties. However, the textile trades came to dominate Kensington by the mid-nineteenth century. The genesis of the ingrain carpet industry was centered around Oxford and Howard Streets in West Kensington,
1 where some mills still stand. Other early carpet mills in this area are now gone, but they included James Gay's Park Carpet Mill, the Dornan Brothers' Monitor Carpet Mill, William J. Hogg's Oxford Carpet Mill, the Stinson Brothers' Columbia Carpet Mill, and the carpet mills of Horner Brothers, and Ivins, Dietz, and Magee (later of Hardwick and Magee). The earliest carpet factories operated mainly through "outwork" the owners providing yarns to workers who hand loomed the goods in their homes.  As these small textile concerns grew, their owners built small factories in East Kensington. 2 Associated textile trades, such as dye works, yarn factories, woolen and worsted mills, 3 cotton mills, and even textile machinery factories were often located in the same building or complex. After the 1860s, Kensington was filled with two story brick rowhouses and steam powered mills. In 1883, Lorin Blodget described the northward expansion of the area as having had rapid and successful development from vacant fields a few years ago, to a densely built up city, all of which is recent, and most of it within ten or twelve years.  It is wellbuilt, with broad and well paved streets, the mills being especially well located, and many of those recently erected being fine specimens of architecture 4
Development of the neighborhood first spread along the early roads, such as Germantown and Frankford Avenues, and the canals created out of Cohocksink and Aramingo Creeks; however, new growth was spurred by the railroads. The Reading Railroad ran east to west from the coal wharves in Richmond, with various coal yards located along the line. The painted signs and small buildings associated with these yards, such as the Smith and Boyd and the Magee, are still visible along Lehigh Avenue, east of Front Street. The Philadelphia and Trenton line traveled in the center of Trenton Avenue to a station on the edge of Fishtown, where neighborhood protest prevented continuation of the line into Philadelphia. The North Pennsylvania Railroad ran up American Street, where numerous factories, and lumber and coal yards took advantage of a rail connection.
Small firms comprised most of the textile industry in Kensington in the nineteenth century. For example, in 1850, most of the district's 126 textile firms each had only one owner and few employees on site.
6 At the same time, one third of the firms and workers in textiles in Philadelphia were in Kensington. 7 Irish, English, Scotch, and German immigrants, as well as native workers and owners lived in the neighborhood, although not always harmoniously, as the nativist riots of the 1840s indicated. 8 These 4,000 plus workers maintained a tradition of handlooms into the 1880s.  Handloom operators were predominately male, with female workers often working in the power mills tending looms as well as performing other service tasks. 9
In addition to textiles, Kensington had a high percentage of tanneries and leather-working industries.  Blodget, in 1883, listed 21 Morocco and calf-kid factories in the 16th and 17th Wards, with a product valued at $4 million.
10 These leather-working industries were in the district until the latter 1950s. Both the Drueding Brothers, at Master and 5th Streets, and Dungan and Hood, at Susquehanna Avenue and American Street, were listed in the 1957 Chamber of Commerce business firms directory; their buildings still stand. Burk Brothers, mainly connected with the Northern Liberties area, had a glazed kid factory at Hancock and Turner Streets in 1891. In addition to leather-working establishments, there were slaughter houses and meat distribution centers in the area. Both Swift and Armour had meat-packing plants along American Street and there were poultry markets as well.
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The diversity of the textile trades in Kensington grew in volume throughout the nineteenth century; however, the carpet industry predominated. In 1882, 141 Kensington carpet firms in the 19th and 31st Wards employed over 6,000 individuals and were valued at over $12 million. 11 The largest of these firms, John Bromley and Sons, covered more than a city block at 201-263 East Lehigh Avenue before it was destroyed by a fire in 1971. As with many Kensington firms, the Bromley mills had several Kensington locations before construction of the large power mill on Lehigh Avenue.

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"From the tower of the Bromley Mill at Fourth & Lehigh Avenue there are more textile mills within the range of vision than can be found in any other city in the world. For miles in every direction is seen the smoke of thousands of mills and factories. To the northeast one continuous line of factories extends through Frankford to Tacony, six miles away. To the northwest through the smoke rising from the Midvale works at Nicetown the mills of Germantown are seen. To the west another line of mills stretched to the Falls of Schuylkill and Manyunk. To the southwest are Baldwin's and the foundries and mills of that section. To the south are the hat and leather factories and the the southeast are Cramp's shipyard and the numberless industries clustered along the river Beyond all these are the mills and factories of South and West bPhiladelphia, some of them eight miles away."—Manufacturing in Philadelphia, 1683-1912
Hosiery and knitting mills became more and more common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1920s, one third of Kensington's work force had shifted from the carpet industry to employment in hosiery mills.
12 These 11,000 workers produced all types of knit goods  hosiery, socks, fabrics, scarves, and sweaters. In 1928, 350 of the city's 850 textile firms still operated in Kensington, employing almost 35,000 workers. Of these firms, 265 remained in 1940 after the Depression. During World War II, some mills produced goods for the government war effort, such as mosquito netting and tarpaulins. The number of textile concerns shrunk to 75 in the late 1960s, and continues to shrink today. Most of Kensington's mills stand abandoned and threatened by deterioration and redevelopment. The creation of an Enterprise Zone for redevelopment incentives on American Street has meant the replacement of multistoried brick building complexes with small, one story buildings. One of the largest and most significant of Kensington's factory complexes, the John B. Stetson Hat Manufactory, no longer exists. Famous for their Western hats, the Stetson Company made 3 million hats annually by the 1920s. This complex, constructed between 1874 and 1930, included more than twenty buildings and over 30 acres of floor space. At its peak in the 1920s, more than 3,500 men and women worked at Stetson. 13 Stetson provided a number of beneficial institutions for his employees, including a hospital. All that remains of his domain is a painted sign for the John B. Stetson Savings and Loan Association on the corner of Germantown Avenue and Montgomery Street. The plant closed in the 1960s. 14

1  Lorin Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1883), p. 66.
2  Philip Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia 1800-1885, (Philadelphia, 1983), p. 218.
3  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, worsted originally referred to wool made from "well-twisted" yarn, spun from long, staple wool, combed to lay all the fibers parallel; it eventually applied to fine and soft woolen yarn used mainly for knitting and embroidery.
4  Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, p. 75-76.
5  T. Drayton, Plan of the City of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1830); and J. C. Sidney, Map of the City of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1849); and R. L. Barnes, Plan of the Built Portions of the City of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1855).
6  Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism, p. 189.
7  Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism, p. 182.
8  Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism, p. 187.
9  Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism, p. 193-194.
10  Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, p. 70, 73.
11  Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, p. 77.
12  Philip Scranton, The Philadelphia System of Textile Manufacture: 1884-1984 (Philadelphia, 1984), p. 16.
13  Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace (Philadelphia 1937), p. 517.
14  Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights, Industrial Philadelphia 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, 1986), p. 169.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Harold E. Spaulding, who provided in-depth research on the history and present-day sites of Lower North Philadelphia, which contributed to the chapter overview as well as the survey of buildings.

Kensington bibliography