Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Workshop of the World

Photograph of toy camel
Toy dromedary camel, c. 1915, manufactured by the A. Schoenhut Company. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent purchase, 1980, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

How will they know? How will future generations of Philadelphians have any inkling that their city once thrived as a premier manufacturing center, the fine products issuing from its shops, mills, and plants prized by customers around the nation and the world?

There are few traces left of this history—abandoned factory buildings here and there—and the acres and acres of empty lots that form the landscape of decaying neighborhoods that once brimmed with industrial sites and jobs give no clues. The curious onlooker might ask: What was here? What happened?  Delving into the past is to find that the decline of Philadelphia manufacture is directly related to its rise, flip sides in effect of the same coin: of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular kind of industrial system that graced the city, one that rested by and large on the production of quality goods.

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A rich agricultural hinterland, an enterprising merchant community, and ready markets for the products processed and crafted in the city transformed Philadelphia into a major commercial entrepôt within a half century of its founding by William Penn in 1681. By the time that delegates convened in Philadelphia in 1776 to write the Declaration of Independence, the city had become second only to London in both the volume and value of the goods that entered and left its port.  Philadelphia’s commercial fortunes plummeted, however, in the early nineteenth century as the city lost trade to its chief rival, New York. Rather than enter a long-term period of economic stagnation, Philadelphia fortunately embarked on a new direction that would mark its history for the next 150 years: prospering as a major manufacturing center.

Chronicling Philadelphia’s rise to industrial supremacy is difficult since no single invention, businessperson, event, or circumstance can be designated as a prime mover.  Thousands of initiatives occurred as a steady mushrooming of varied enterprise.  The individual efforts do add up to a whole, and at least four features characterized Philadelphia’s industrial structure in its heyday.

Diversity, Specialization, Skill

During World War II, a Philadelphia worker gauges a ship propeller on a lathe at Baldwin Locomotive Works, which also produced tanks and locomotives for the war effort. (1942 photograph, Office of War Information, Library of Congress)

First is product diversity.  Never a one or two-industry city, Philadelphia became known for its fine textiles and garments, boots and shoes, hats, iron and steel, metal items, machine tools and hardware, locomotives, saws, rugs, furniture, shipbuilding, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, glass, cutlery, jewelry, paints and varnishes, printing and publishing, medical instruments, and so much more.

Second is diversity of work settings. Goods were made in homes, craft shops, sweat shops, small manufactories with hand and foot-driven machinery, water and steamed-powered mills, and multidimensional plants.  In their manufacture, some products even passed through several of these settings from initial processing of raw materials to final finishing.

Third is specialization in processes and products. Philadelphia manufacturers did not prosper by competing with mass producers of goods in other parts of the country, but rather by operating in niche markets fashioning high-quality wares or by concentrating in single aspects of production (in textiles, for example, separate establishments emerged respectively to spin special fibers, weave fine clothe and dye elaborate fabrics). Even in the case of Philadelphia’s famous (but relatively few) large firms, such as Baldwin Locomotive, Stetson Hat, and Midvale Steel, specialty production remained the hallmark.  Baldwin rarely made two engines alike, meeting particular orders of rail carriers for locomotives with highly specific dimensions and powers; Stetson produced the finest of felt and straw hats and sold them in beautifully-made boxes with silk insides and adorned with the renowned Stetson logo; and Midvale produced a specialty grey steel and took orders for specialty castings and forgings (unlike its other Pennsylvania rivals, U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel).

Fourth is the prevalence of small-to-medium-sized, family-owned-and-managed manufacturing concerns that were reliant on highly skilled workforces.  Large, corporate enterprises with armies of mass assembly workers did not form a part of Philadelphia’s economic skyline.

Niche Markets

A number of factors contributed to Philadelphia’s particular industrial history.  An abundance of skilled labor allowed for specialty production. The absence of a powerful river-way with waterfalls initially limited the building of large-scale, fully mechanized factories.  Philadelphia custom producers further chose not to compete with manufacturers of cheap, standardized products in other cities; their small size afforded a flexibility that allowed them to shift into new product lines and profit in niche markets. Finally, Philadelphia’s elite tended to invest in banks, canal and railroad construction, and mining rather than in local industry; this created a capital scarcity for manufacture in the city, another limit on large-scale ventures, and a vacuum that enterprising native-born and immigrant skilled men could fill in establishing their relatively small custom manufactories.

Although the first use of the label “Workshop of the World” cannot be precisely determined, by the first decade of the twentieth century, the phrase was regularly attached to Philadelphia in journals and books and in the pronouncements of business and civic leaders.  However, the success and prosperity that marked Philadelphia industry crested in the 1920s when declines occurred in textile and garment manufacture and in shipbuilding—although new production of radios and electrical appliances sustained employment.  The Great Depression saw retrenchments everywhere as unemployment at its peak reached more than 40 percent of the city’s work force. Military orders during World War II then boosted production, but a massive enduring decline in industrial jobs occurred thereafter. At a postwar height in 1953, 359,000 Philadelphians were employed in manufacture, 45 percent of the city’s entire labor force; in our own times, the number of industrial jobs has dramatically fallen to below 30,000, 5 percent of the total. These figures reflect the greater deindustrialization of the United States, though the downward spiral for Philadelphia far exceeded the nation as a whole; since the early 1950s, overall manufacturing jobs have declined from a high of 19.4 million to 14 million, from 32 percent of all employment to 10 percent.

As Philadelphia’s industrial ascent had a particular cast, so did the descent.  Philadelphia did not lose manufacturing jobs because national corporations purchased and liquidated the facilities of local firms to undo competition; nor because financiers breezily bought, broke up and sold firms to make paper profits; nor because of foreign competition and the flight of businesses to low-wage areas in the U.S. and abroad—as happened in other American cities and regions over the course of the twentieth century.  Rather, Philadelphia’s manufactories closed their doors because of changes in consumerism. Synthetic fibers, for example, wiped out Philadelphia’s famed silk hosiery trade; parquet flooring and wall-to-wall shag carpeting decimated the city’s tapestry rug industry; men stopped wearing fine felt hats to the detriment of Stetson; and cheap hardware merchandized by Sears Roebuck and other mass distributors cut deeply into the sales of the magnificently crafted and durable saws of the Disston Saw Company.

Mass production and marketing systems promoting shifts in consumer preferences to inexpensive disposal products proved the death knell of Philadelphia industry as the city’s custom manufacturers—slow, unable or unwilling to react—failed to compete with standardized producers of goods elsewhere in the county and across the globe.  The loss was great not just for the city and its citizens; greater awareness and respect for workmanship and quality was lost as well.

Walter Licht is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.  His books include Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Topics: Work, Commerce, and the Economy

Gallery: Work, Commerce, and the Economy

Shipbuilding
Shipbuilding

Library of Congress (Explore in Shipbuilding and Shipyards).

First Bank of the United States
First Bank of the United States

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Banking).

Terence V. Powderly
Terence V. Powderly

Library of Congress (Explore in Knights of Labor).

Migrant Workers at Seabrook Farms
Migrant Workers at Seabrook Farms

Library of Congress (Explore in African American Migration and Food Processing).

Campbell Soup Factory Towers
Campbell Soup Factory Towers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries (Explore in Campbell Soup Company).

Federal Writers Project Protest
Federal Writers Project Protest

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Great Depression).

Homes for War Workers
Homes for War Workers

Library of Congress (Explore in World War II).

Oliver Evans’ Automated Mill
Oliver Evans’ Automated Mill

Library of Congress (Explore in Flour Milling).

Benjamin Harrison Fletcher
Benjamin Harrison Fletcher

Carlos Cortez, published with permission of Charles H. Kerr Press (Explore in Industrial Workers of the World).

Wetherill & Brother Advertisement
Wetherill & Brother Advertisement

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Paints and Varnishes).

Early Recording Session
Early Recording Session

Camden County Historical Society (Explore in Recording Industry).

Leon Sullivan
Leon Sullivan

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Sullivan Principles).

Timeline: Work, Commerce, and the Economy

Colonial Era
Colonial Era

1676: First shipyard opens on Delaware riverfront of future site of Philadelphia (founded 1682).

1680s-90s: Philadelphia becomes chief port on the Delaware River for Pennsylvania, West Jersey, and Delaware; older ports in New Castle, Chester, and Burlington become commercial satellites.

1690: First paper mill in America founded near Germantown by William Rittenhouse.

1694: Market stalls appear at Second and High Streets (later renamed Market Street).

1700s: Philadelphia becomes leading colonial shipbuilding center by 1750; other major industries include tanning, brewing, and distilling.

Labor in colonial era includes indentured workers and enslaved Africans.

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

American Revolution to 1800
American Revolution to 1800

Philadelphia shipbuilders supply gunboats, floating batteries, and frigates for the Continental and U.S. Navy.

1776-81: Trade with Cuba intensifies during the war with Britain.

1786-87: Philadelphia begins trade with China.

1787: Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Useful Arts and Manufactures founded.

1788: On ratification of U.S. Constitution, Grand Federal Procession of crafts and manufactures displays vast range of Philadelphia’s productive activity.

1790s: Philadelphians and Spanish diplomats form alliances for trade with Cuba.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Nineteenth Century Before 1854
Nineteenth Century Before 1854

Major industries include shipbuilding, foundries, and production of machines (including printing presses and locomotives), textiles and apparel, boots and shoes, paper, books, leather, and cotton.

Sugar and cigar industries attract migration from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

1801: Philadelphia Navy Yard opens.

1820s-1830s: Manayunk (shown here) develops as town of textile mills.

1824: Franklin Institute founded to promote “the mechanic arts.”

1825: Completion of Schuylkill Canal allows transportation of anthracite coal from northeast Pennsylvania to wharves on Schuylkill for export.

Image credit: Library Company of Philadelphia

Nineteenth Century Before 1854
Nineteenth Century Before 1854

1827: American labor movement originates with Mechanics Union of Trade Associations.

1833: Board of Trade founded to promote business and industrial development.

1835: General Trades’ Union strike seeks ten-hour work day.

1842: Branch line of railroad connecting Philadelphia and Pottsville diverts coal shipping from the Schuylkill to the Delaware River at Port Richmond.

1846: Pennsylvania Railroad incorporated; completed to Pittsburgh, 1854.

1847: George Lippard establishes Brotherhood of the Union, militant labor organization.

Image credit: Library Company of Philadelphia

Nineteenth Century After 1854
Nineteenth Century After 1854

Major industries include textiles, locomotive manufacturing, shipbuilding, iron and steel production, sugar refining, and oil refining.

1860: With discovery of petroleum in western Pennsylvania, Philadelphia becomes oil storage and refining center.

1861-64: During Civil War, manufacturers supply Union with uniforms, munitions, and warships.

1869: Knights of Labor founded in Philadelphia.

1876: Centennial Exhibition.

1870s-80s: Baptist Temple’s night school for working men becomes Temple University (chartered 1888).

1870s-90s: Market Street department stores, led by John Wanamaker, become national models.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Twentieth Century to 1945
Twentieth Century to 1945

Philadelphia becomes known as “Workshop of the World,” although rate of industrial growth declines. Major industries include textiles, food and food products, printing and publishing, metal products, and leather goods.

1903: March of the Mill Children.

1914-18: Labor needs during First World War attract African American migrants from the South; shipbuilding and other manufacturing increase.

1920s: Knitting and lace plants open in suburbs, some relocating from Philadelphia. Textile industry booms, then contracts during Depression.

1929: Baldwin Locomotive moves production from Philadelphia to Eddystone, Delaware County.

1941-45: Region’s industries become an “arsenal of democracy” during World War II.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Twentieth Century After 1945
Twentieth Century After 1945

Manufacturing plummets as Northeast loses factories and jobs to the Sunbelt and international competitors. By end of century, region’s major employers include health care, pharmaceuticals, business services, education, and government.

1948: Business leaders form Greater Philadelphia Movement to spur economic revitalization.

1950s: Textile industry hit by product changes, from silk to nylon for hosiery and from wool to nylon and other synthetics for carpets. Clothing industry also begins decline.

1958: Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation founded.

1960s-80s: Region’s local department stores decline; many are acquired by national chains such as Macy’s. 

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

Twentieth Century After 1945
Twentieth Century After 1945

1960s-90s: Major shipyards close (New York Ship in 1967, Penn Ship in 1989, Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1996).

1963: University City Science Center founded.

1976: Federal Historic Tax Credit program spurs redevelopment of industrial buildings into residential apartments in neighborhoods such as Old City Philadelphia (pictured here).

1983-98: Philadelphia loses its place as a commercial banking headquarters through mergers and acquisitions.

1994: Philadelphia and Camden designated as bi-state Urban Empowerment Zone, sharing $100 million in federal aid for economic development.

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

Twenty-First Century
Twenty-First Century

Co-working spaces and business incubators such as Indy Hall in Philadelphia and South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University encourage entrepreneurship.

2000: Philadelphia Navy Yard acquired by Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development; redeveloped as business campus for industry, offices, and research and development.

2013: Government, health care, and higher education sectors are the region’s dominant employers (University of Pennsylvania pictured here). In city of Philadelphia, largest private employers other than education and health care are USAirways, Comcast, and Allied Barton Security Services.

Image credit: J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

Map: Work, Commerce, and the Economy

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