Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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Chemical Industry

Since the eighteenth century, chemical or chemical processing industries have been an important part of the economy of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region and have reflected larger trends in the industry. The earliest chemical companies manufactured products such as sulfuric acid and white lead pigments for local consumption, while other manufacturers, such as tanners, brewers, and soap makers, also employed chemicals and chemical processing. During the nineteenth century, new industries, such as textiles, required many different types of chemicals, including dyes, soaps, and bleaches. Pharmaceutical production also became important. World War I led to the rapid expansion of local chemical production. Following the war, the American chemical industry thrived by developing many new products, especially synthetic materials. After 1980, however, industry innovation declined, growth rates slowed, and competition increased, leading the region’s largest chemical manufacturers to be consolidated on a national level.

[caption id="attachment_23697" align="alignright" width="300"]DuPont gunpowder mill. Construction of the DuPont powder mill on the Brandywine River was personally supervised by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, starting in 1802. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In Philadelphia, John Harrison (1773–1833) built the first chemical plant in the United States in 1793. His plant on Green Street, west of Third, produced sulfuric acid using a lead chamber process, originally developed in Europe. Sulfuric acid was the first chemical produced on an industrial scale, leading to its widespread use. In 1802, the French immigrant family led by Eleuthère Irénée duPont  (1771–1834) founded the DuPont Company, which manufactured gunpowder, a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, on the Brandywine River a few miles northwest of Wilmington, Delaware. Several years later, in 1804, Samuel Wetherill (1736–1816) began to make white lead pigment for paint near Harrison’s plant. When the War of 1812 disrupted trade and cut off European supplies of sulfuric acid, Wetherill began to make his own.

Soap and Sulfuric Acid

The regional chemical industry grew along with the local economy. By the start of the War of 1812, Philadelphia had twenty-eight soap and candle works, eighteen distilleries, fourteen glue factories, ten sugar refineries, seven paper mills, and six drug-making concerns. By 1830 Charles Lennig (1809–91) operated the largest sulfuric acid plant in America, located in Bridesburg. He diversified into other chemicals, and by 1859 his plant was one of the most important chemical operations in the United States. During the Civil War, the DuPont Company prospered by selling gunpowder to the Union. Later, the company diversified into the new high explosive, dynamite, and military smokeless powder. DuPont was one of 105 local chemical manufacturers to mount exhibits at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_23716" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of a man in overalls holding two clear pieces to form the nose of an airplane together. In this 1941 photograph, a Rohm and Haas employee cements together the Plexiglas nose cone of a bomber. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the twentieth century, the DuPont Company and Rohm and Haas emerged as the two most important chemical enterprises in the Philadelphia area. Rohm and Haas became a Philadelphia company in 1909 when Dr. Otto Haas (1872–1960) arrived to sell a leather tanning chemical, Oropon, which had been developed by his partner Otto Rohm (1876–1939) in Germany. After World War I, Rohm and Haas began making chemicals for Philadelphia’s leather and textile industries. In 1920, it acquired the Charles Lennig Company. In the 1930s, company researchers developed a lightweight clear acrylic polymer that was trademarked Plexiglas. Plexiglas was widely used for windows in airplanes during World War II. After the war the company continued to develop important products from acrylic polymers, such as water-based paints. In the postwar decades, Rohm and Haas became a large and profitable manufacturer of specialty chemicals.

DuPont Faces Antitrust Action

By 1912, DuPont had grown so large that the U.S. government had filed an antitrust suit, which forced the company to spin off parts of its explosives business to form two new companies, Hercules and Atlas, named after popular brands of dynamite. These companies later became diversified chemical manufacturers, which were bought by other chemical companies in the second half of the twentieth century. DuPont’s assets grew tremendously during World War I, when the company supplied the Allies and the United States with explosives. DuPont used its newfound wealth to diversify into chemical manufacture, principally by buying other firms, such as the venerable Harrison Brothers Company in 1917, which by this time made chemicals and paints at Gray’s Ferry. During the war, DuPont began a major research initiative to manufacture the dyes that the Germans had supplied before the war. To make dyes, the company built a large plant on the Delaware River at Deepwater Point, New Jersey (just north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge).

[caption id="attachment_23715" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of a woman inspecting nylon yarn with several spools of yarn sitting on a table in front of her. In this 1938 photograph, a young woman inspects nylon yarn manufactured by the DuPont Company. (Joseph X. Labovsky Collection of Nylon Photographs and Ephemera, Chemical Heritage Foundation)[/caption]

After the war DuPont continued to diversify into rayon fibers, cellophane films, and plastics. Having been one of the first American companies to establish research laboratories (early in the twentieth century), DuPont called upon its chemists to improve these products, but they soon began to invent new ones. In the 1930s researchers began a decades-long investigation of polymers (long-chain) molecules that produced, among many iconic products, neoprene synthetic rubber, nylon, Teflon polymers, Lycra spandex, Tyvek spun-bonded fabric, and Kevlar fibers. These inventions helped to make DuPont an extremely prosperous company, a bulwark of the Delaware Valley economy, employing tens of thousands of people in several local plants, but mainly in management, research, and engineering.

The Philadelphia area also was well-represented at midcentury by two industries closely related to chemicals: oil refining and pharmaceuticals. There were five large refineries in the Delaware Valley, making it the second only to Houston, Texas, in output, and the city also hosted four major drug manufacturers.

Late Twentieth-Century Slowdown

Beginning in the 1980s, the chemical industry generally began to experience a decline in innovation, slowing growth, and shrinking profits. Rohm and Haas’s performance, following these trends, deteriorated significantly. In response, it sold off its Plexiglas business and acquired a company that made chemicals for the semiconductor industry. In 2008, the Michigan-based Dow Chemical acquired Rohm and Haas. DuPont survived by shifting its focus to pesticides and seeds. However, competition in this field led the company to a merger effort with Dow Chemical, its longtime competitor, in 2015. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, the chemical industry had been radically reorganized through numerous mergers and acquisitions.

Chemical production began in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century to serve nearby manufacturers in what soon would become one of America’s major industrial cities. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Delaware Valley companies, notably DuPont, were taking advantage of railroad transportation to serve larger markets. In the twentieth century, the regional chemical industry served national and international markets, expanding to become a significant contributor to the local economy. In the last quarter of the century, however, the chemical industry globally matured, leading to a decline of its importance locally.

John Kenly Smith Jr. teaches history at Lehigh University. He specializes in the history of technology and is coauthor with David A. Hounshell of Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902–1980.

Gothic Literature

From the early nineteenth century onward, Philadelphia spawned an abundance of mysterious tales starring shadowy strangers, fantastic happenings, and deadly conspiracies. Prominent genre writers including Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), George Lippard (1822-54), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) made the City of Brotherly Love the birthplace of American gothic literature.

[caption id="attachment_17805" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white photo of the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philadlephia. The Edgar Allan Poe House, 530 N. Seventh Street (rear), Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Although the gothic arguably reached its first literary high point in the works of Charles Brockden Brown in the early 1800s, its prehistory in Philadelphia dates to the 1790s. Books such as Charlotte Temple (1791) and Rebecca (1792) by Susanna Rowson (1762-1824), though not considered gothic per se, already presented readers with many characteristic themes of the genre (such as vivid depictions of madness and adultery). Even William Bartram (1739-1823) in his famous travelogue of 1791 often lapsed from scientific verbiage into a much darker style, casting, for instance, Floridian crocodiles as lurking monsters with smoke bellowing from their nostrils.

Although the 1796 St. Herbert (published and taking place in New York) is generally considered to be the first gothic novel of the early American republic, Philadelphian Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) was undoubtedly the most influential. While novels like Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800), by Sally Barrell Keating Wood (1759-1855)—allegedly penned before Wieland—adopted European-style gothic plots, Brown proclaimed his novel to be an “American tale” and rooted the genre firmly in the United States. Wieland set the stage for what the gothic in the New World would be about: the perils of wilderness, the problematic indebtedness of the young democracy to old Europe, and the repressed legacies of war, colonization, and slavery.

[caption id="attachment_17819" align="alignright" width="240"]black and white photograph of Edger Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales and poems of the macabre are still celebrated, lived six years on North Seventh Street in a house that now is part of the popular Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Wieland tells the story of members of a German family living on a large estate by the Schuylkill River who—after the spontaneous combustion of the father—are haunted by ghostly voices that drive them to insanity, murder and, ultimately, flight to Europe. The tensions that the characters embody between European culture and American lands, violent past and republican present, and bucolic enclosure and untamed wildness remain unsettled—even after the novel’s convoluted plot is resolved. While the colonial past of Pennsylvania only plays a subliminal role in Brown’s first book, his later Edgar Huntly (1799) addresses it head-on: The spectral hints about the dispossession of native peoples that appeared Wieland become fully materialized. In trying to resolve a vicious murder, the eponymous narrator discovers a system of dark caves (a trope that Poe’s 1842 story “The Pit and the Pendulum” revisited) below Philadelphia. Becoming lost in this rocky subconscious, Huntly discovers bands of native peoples intent on getting revenge for the injustices of the past. In the violent conflicts that ensue, the novel again and again returns to a fundamental question: How can one inherit land if it was acquired through crime?

Orphans and Malicious Parent Figures

In the decades after Benjamin Franklin’s death in 1790, the Philadelphia gothic of Brown and his contemporaries negotiated the conflicting legacy of Republican values and the monarchic cultures of Europe. Rivaled perhaps only by the Disney movies of much later times, these novels are largely populated by either orphans or malicious parent figures. Many of Brown’s characters lose or have lost their guardians: The title character in Laura (1809) by Leonora Sansay (1773-?) succumbs to seduction after her parents’ death while the main protagonist in Kelroy (1812) by Rebecca Rush (1779-1850) is ultimately driven to illness and death by an evil, scheming mother. In the shadow of the influential image of American independence as akin to a child breaking away from tyrannical parents created by Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in Common Sense (1776), gothic authors began to expose how frail and conflicting these lines of separation could be. In the age of industrial capitalism and urban squalor, they seem to sense a resurgence of a monarchical past that the young republic hoped to leave behind—and what better place to examine this than in the birthplace of the Continental Congress?

[caption id="attachment_17788" align="alignright" width="193"]cover of the book Monks of Monk Hall, or, The Quaker City The cover of The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1844) by George Lippard. Lippard dedicated the book to his friend and fellow writer, Charles Brockden Brown. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

With Robert Montgomery Bird, a local physician turned writer, the Philadelphia gothic found its second best-selling author. Often advancing themes from Brown—such as his vivid depictions of anti-Native American violence—Bird turned from setting his novels in Mexico (Calavar, 1834; The Infidel, 1835) to writing gothic tales placed in and around Philadelphia. Among these, Sheppard Lee (1836) and Nick of the Woods (1837) remain his most successful publications. Where Brown’s fictions are somber and highly complex, Bird introduces satire into the Philadelphia gothic. From the conundrum of an Indian-killing, pacifist Quaker in Nick of the Woods to parodies of the two-party system (Whigs vs. Democrats) in Sheppard Lee, Bird playfully exposes the often self-contradictory nature of Philadelphia society in the age of Jacksonian democracy.

As comments on Philadelphia life, books like Bird’s Sheppard Lee or Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799), take their readers from the wilderness surrounding the city to the city itself. In contrast to the revolutionary past, these fictions portray the city as a metropolis of disease and crime, populated by thieves, beggars, and assassins. Bird’s fantastic tale of the body-swapping Sheppard Lee (1836) satirizes a society of empty ambition and pseudo-aristocratic pomp. George Lippard takes a step farther. His novel The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1845)—dedicated to Brown—depicts the city as a hotbed of sin ruled by a decadent elite who meet in an underground brothel to orchestrate their exploitation of Philadelphia. Reveling in seduction, drinking, gambling, and murder, this elite of Chestnut Street create a new Sodom behind a façade of republican morality. Lippard’s subterranean rulers of Philadelphia turn republican values on their head: Accompanied by the ringing of the bell of Independence Hall, journalism becomes blackmail, justice can be bought, and priests try to defile their own offspring.

[caption id="attachment_17808" align="alignright" width="239"]George Lippard, head and shoulders portrait, facing left] This daguerreotype portrait of George Lippard, author of The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1845) is from about 1850. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The most successful American publication before Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Lippard’s graphic indictment of Philadelphia culminates in an apocalyptic dream-vision of hordes of black and white slaves lining the streets while the new aristocracy of the Quaker City abolishes democracy and crowns a new king for the United States. The fame of Lippard’s novel spawned a boom of “mysteries” set in Philadelphia, such as the anonymously published Mysteries of Philadelphia (1848), Aristocracy, or Life in the City (1848) by Joseph A. Nunes (c. 1820-c. 1905), Mysteries and Miseries of Philadelphia (1854) by George Thompson (1823–c. 1873), and The Homeless Heir, or, Life in Bedford Street (1856) by “John the Outcast.” All mirror Lippard’s attack on Philadelphia’s moral shortcomings, but they often miss the labor activist’s more fundamental critique of high capitalism.

The Turmoil of Slavery

While this new aristocracy of money exposed by Lippard and his followers represented one of the major contradictions in American society, slavery was certainly another. Brown informed the readers of Wieland that dark secrets lay in the exploitation of forced African labor, but both Bird and Lippard addressed Philadelphia’s problematic relationship with slavery much more directly. One of Sheppard Lee’s many narratives, for instance, takes readers into the slaveholding South, where a Philadelphia Quaker is to be lynched for alleged abolitionist activities—with the added irony that the Quaker is at best on the fence about the issue and has turned over fugitive slaves to the authorities just moments before. Lippard’s work includes frequent references to slaves “acquired” below the Mason–Dixon line who remain in bondage in Philadelphia, even though the institution had been outlawed there since 1780. In characters like the Creole slave boy “Dim” (The Quaker City), Lippard captures in gothic ornament the political climate of the years between Prigg v. Pennsylvania (an 1842 Supreme Court decision undermining local laws freeing slaves brought into the state) and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Philadelphia’s double-faced position on the issue culminated in an 1849 race riot, which Lippard fictionalized in characteristically stark images in his novella The Bank Director's Son (1851). Although both Bird and Lippard were by no means free from racial prejudice—indeed their depictions of slaves often rehearse overtly racist stereotypes—they nonetheless brought the issue to the center of their works, reminding Philadelphia, as one of the major hubs of trade for the South, of its duplicitous role in perpetuating human bondage.

While Bird’s and Lippard’s satirical interventions into Philadelphian society were hugely successful, Edgar Allan Poe spent some of his most productive years (1838 to 1844) in the city and stands as its most influential gothic author. From “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), some of Poe’s most famous pieces were produced in Philadelphia. Even his renowned poem “The Raven” was originally written for a local literary journal, though it was declined and later published in a New York monthly. Well-acquainted with the local gothic tradition, Poe’s fictions show an indebtedness to Brown’s work, he positively reviewed Bird’s Sheppard Lee, and he became a personal friend of Lippard, who lent Poe financial support for his writing.

Nonetheless, Poe’s gothic differs markedly from his contemporaries. Modeling his writing on English and German high culture and reshaping it for a popular American taste, many of Poe’s tales (with the exception of his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) take place either in undisclosed locations or shadowy European mansions. Although certain events in Philadelphia’s history have been traced to Poe’s writings (such as a local insanity-defense trial that also inspired Lippard), none of his tales are specified as taking place in the city, and only one, the satiric “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838), even mentions Philadelphia. Instead of directly exposing local, social wrongs through gothic satire (as his benefactor Lippard had done) Poe’s fictions take a more psychological turn, brooding on issues of the mind, murderous urges, hallucinations, and the supernatural. Still, in Poe’s proto-modern gothic, we can sense the City of Brotherly Love lurking behind many seemingly European plots. In tales like “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), we might also hear the buzz of Philadelphia’s busy downtown streets, while pieces like “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) seem to echo Philadelphia’s past—in this case, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that also inspired Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799).

While the era of the American gothic appeared to come to a slow close with the deaths of Poe (1849) and Lippard (1854) and the rise of literary realism, some of its central themes had a remarkably resilient afterlife. Besides the continuing presence of Poe, the criminal underbelly of Lippard’s Philadelphia reappears in 1950s noir fiction. And while the Old Philadelphia Mystery Series (1998-2000), by Mark Graham (b. 1950), revisits a gritty, murderous Philadelphia of the past, one can also hear faint echoes of the violent rioters of The Bank Director's Son or the drug-fueled robbers of Mysteries and Miseries of Philadelphia in works set in modern-day Philadelphia such as Steve Lopez’s (b. 1953) Third and Indiana (1994) or Solomon Jones’s (b. 1967) Pipe Dream (2001). As deep as the mysterious caverns below the City of Brotherly Love may be, it appears that its lurid secrets never quite seem to stay down.

Stefan Schöberlein is a doctoral candidate at the English Department of the University of Iowa and the managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.


[caption id="attachment_17622" align="alignright" width="245"]An ornately engraved ticket for <i>The Meschianza</i> showing canons and flags under a crown. The Meschianza was an elaborate celebration held for Sir William Howe in 1778 in recognition of his service to the Crown. Ornately engraved tickets like this one were used by over 400 elite Philadelphians and British members of society to attend the lavish affair, which included jousting and a regatta on the Delaware. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

On May 18, 1778, four hundred British officers and elite Philadelphians embarked on a regatta down the Delaware River. This aquatic procession kicked off the Meschianza, an extravagant fete to honor General William Howe (1729-1814) and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe (1726-99), on their departure from North America. General Howe’s army took control of Philadelphia in September 1777, and the British occupation of the city in 1777-78 featured a busy schedule of concerts, parties, and other entertainments. The Meschianza—which derives its name from mescolanza, the Italian word for “mixture” or “medley”—was the climax of this social season.

Organized by Major John André (1750-80), the Meschianza included a mock jousting tournament between two groups of British officers, the Knights of the Blended Rose and the Knights of the Burning Mountain, on the plain between the Delaware River and Walnut Grove (an estate near Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, later demolished to make way for the urbanization of South Philadelphia). After a procession through two triumphal arches, one in honor of each of the Howe brothers, the guests enjoyed dancing and fireworks, and then dined in a mirrored tent. The young, marriageable daughters of Philadelphia’s colonial elite—including Peggy Chew (1760-1824) and Rebecca Franks (1760-1823)—appeared in Turkish costumes, and enslaved Africans in turbans and sashes waited on the guests.

The opulence of the Meschianza made it an easy target for patriotic satire. After the British defeat at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, just six weeks after the Meschianza, General Anthony Wayne (1745-96) quipped: “The Knights of the Blended Rose & Burning Mount… have resigned their Laurels.”

Christian DuComb, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of theatre and English at Colgate University and the author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Christian DuComb

Christian DuComb, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and English at Colgate University and the author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Public Education: Suburbs

In the second half of the twentieth century, many parents moved their families out of Philadelphia, Camden, or Wilmington so that their children could enroll in suburban public schools because they perceived them to be better than their urban counterparts.  Before then, many believed that the best public schools were urban and that rural schools were inadequate.  But as many rural communities became suburban, they created comprehensive public school districts with programs and facilities that matched or exceeded those found in the region's cities.

[caption id="attachment_7645" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial photograph of Lower Merion Senior High School, Ardmore Junior High School Lower Merion Senior High School, Ardmore Junior High School, and nearby, 1925. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

More often than not, the rural districts that upgraded their public schools were in communities that began to suburbanize as early as the 1870s with the advent of commuter railroads and, later, electric trolley lines.  The residents of these communities wanted urban benefits and services — paved roads, sewer lines, and, above all, comprehensive systems of public education.  Audubon, Collingswood, and Haddonfield, in Camden County, New Jersey, and Abington, Cheltenham, and Lower Merion, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, acted on such expectations.  So, too, did those who lived in the several small but thriving centers of commerce and industry outside the region’s big cities, in places like Norristown, Pottstown, and Conshohocken in Pennsylvania and Gloucester City in New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_7541" align="alignleft" width="300"]Cheltenham High in 1905 Cheltenham High in 1905. (Post Card Collection, Old York Road Historical Society, )[/caption]


Rural Districts Become Suburban

Between 1895 and 1920 many rural school districts in Montgomery County became suburban.  In 1897 there were 498 public schools and fifty-five public school districts in the county; forty-four of these operated only one-room schools.  By 1916 the number of districts operating just one-room schools had been reduced to ten; the total number of public schools had been reduced by more than 200; and the number of districts operating high schools had risen from a handful to twenty-one.  Not surprisingly, these included Norristown (with 474 students in high school), Pottstown (380), and Conshohocken (101), along with Abington (205 students), Cheltenham (273), and Lower Merion (336).  Jenkintown and Narberth did not have separate high school buildings in 1916; instead, they set aside rooms for high school classes in their elementary school. But the suburban die was cast, and by 1930 there were high schools in thirty-six of the county’s sixty-six public school districts. 

[caption id="attachment_7573" align="alignright" width="300"]The Main Building of Haddonfield Public School The Main Building of Haddonfield Public School housed most of the district's high school classes for nearly twenty years. (Historical Society of Haddonfield)[/caption]

The fifty years that followed the end of World War I might be called the era of suburbanization in Greater Philadelphia. Population grew substantially in the four Pennsylvania and three New Jersey suburban counties between 1920 and 1940, and the pace accelerated after World War II. In South Jersey, for example, population in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties grew more than twice as fast in the twenty years after 1940 (+77%) as it did in the twenty years before (+33%). Some of this demographic growth resulted from the Baby Boom that began in 1946. But some of it came about because many young families relocated, and they often settled far from the city, renting or buying housing in newly developed communities. In 1960, for example, more than one-third of Burlington County residents had been living in their present house for no more than two years.  Levitt and Sons persuaded many white-collar and even some blue-collar families to uproot by building planned communities for them in both Bucks (1951) and Burlington (1958) counties.  

Most public school systems were unprepared for this demographic shift.  Those in Pennsylvania had some time to adjust because the effect was modest at first; between 1954 and 1958 public school enrollment in the four Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia grew by just eighteen percent. Over the next twelve years, however, it increased by more than two-thirds, climbing from 228,551 to 384,200 students. The comparable numbers for the three New Jersey counties across the Delaware River from Philadelphia are staggering. Public school enrollment in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties nearly tripled between 1950 and 1970, soaring from just over 78,000 to just under 211,000 students.  The lion’s share of this growth (60 percent) took place in Burlington and Gloucester counties where the population before 1945 had been small and scattered.  

These numbers alarmed educators and reformers not only because none of the school districts in these suburban counties had enough teachers or classrooms but also because many districts still functioned as they always had.  In 1945 more than a few in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania relied on supervising principals rather than superintendents. Several did not operate their own high schools, paying for their students to go elsewhere. But by far the most vexing problem was the persistence of small school districts.  When Harvard University’s former president James Bryant Conant loudly complained in 1959 that far too many communities in the United States had public high schools that were too small to offer sufficiently rigorous academic programs, his words described the Greater Philadelphia suburbs. Most of their residents still believed that smaller was better in public education or at least not bad enough to justify the consolidation through reorganization of small school districts.  New Jersey codified this expectation by requiring local school boards to submit their annual budgets to the voters for approval by referenda.

Push for Modern Curriculum

Reorganization was not a new idea in 1950. As early as the turn of the twentieth century many school reformers advocated it. They wanted to eliminate the one-room, one-teacher school and form high schools that offered a modern curriculum including contemporary foreign languages, social studies, physical science, bookkeeping, and stenography. They wanted schools capable of housing a varied extra curriculum, including interscholastic athletics for boys and in most cases girls. Small rural districts could not provide these amenities; their tax base was too small, their unit costs too high. Between 1910 and 1940 reformers made considerable progress in achieving reorganization, especially in New England and the South Atlantic states.  But progress came more slowly to the Mid-Atlantic region where local loyalists resisted.   

[caption id="attachment_7714" align="alignright" width="228"]Pierre S. du Pont Pierre S. du Pont decided, unexpectedly and in middle age, to devote considerable time and money to the improvement of Delaware schools by founding and funding three philanthropic organizations with a $6 million gift. (Hagley Museum and Library)[/caption]

Delaware is a case in point. The crucial variable there was not the economic disparity between Wilmington, its biggest city, and the rest of the state but the political gap between Dover, its capital, and its rural school districts. The idea to reorganize came from the state’s first Commissioner of Education, Charles A. Wagner (1863-1924); his boss, Governor John G. Townsend (1871-1964), ran with it. At Townsend’s behest the legislature instructed the governor to appoint a school reform commission in 1919.  It devised a new school code that put considerable power in the hands of county school boards.  One of the most powerful men in the state, industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), endorsed this reform, but in the face of fierce opposition from local school districts the legislature reversed itself in 1921, dismantling the county school board system. Once again, public education would be overseen by local authorities working with the state Board of Education. But the unintended consequence of this reform was to increase the power of the state board and the state Commissioner of Education.

The state board hoped to modernize public education through reorganization.  At the time there were more than 400 incorporated school boards and unincorporated school committees in Delaware.  Many supervised just one school. The state’s first consolidated rural district (Caesar Rodney) had been formed south of Dover in 1916. By 1921 there were thirteen such districts, and the reformers hoped that consolidation would make it possible for more rural students to get a high school education.  Not including Wilmington, there were only 116 students in the state poised to graduate from a four-year public high school in 1918. Over the next twenty years the state commissioner convinced some rural districts to accept consolidation in exchange for help from Dover with teacher salaries and pupil transportation. In 1953 the state board drafted legislation to reduce the number of school districts from 105 to fifteen, but rural school consolidation did not really come to pass until the General Assembly adopted the Educational Advancement Act in 1968. It cut the number of school districts in the state from sixty to twenty-six.  Meanwhile, reorganization barely touched the lives of Delaware’s African American children before the 1970s because until then the state maintained a dual system of public education. Only Howard High School in Wilmington was available to black students while school segregation remained widespread.  In 1965 the state board of education ordered the closure of twenty-five “Negro” districts, but most of them were in rural communities.

In New Jersey reorganization reshaped the map of public education following World War II, but the state’s tradition of local control affected the way this occurred. Perhaps because New Jersey lacked a major metropolis, most people had no experience with anything other than “neighborhood” schools.  Not surprisingly, new school districts formed when population grew. Between 1900 and 1970 the number of school districts in the state almost doubled, rising from 395 to 576. Camden County’s total stood at thirty-eight in 1950, and this number did not change over the next twenty years because the fastest suburban development in South Jersey was taking place elsewhere. Burlington and Gloucester counties added seven districts in the same period. In many of them home buyers found a four-year public high school, one of the features they wanted most in a suburb. In the three-county region the number of school districts with a high school almost doubled between 1950 and 1976 (from 21 to 41) with Burlington (7) and Gloucester (8) counties registering the largest increases. Twelve of these were regional high schools operated by regional high school districts. For many years families living in a rural district without a high school sent their children to one in a nearby suburban district. In Camden County, for example, they sent them to Merchantville, Haddon Heights, or Haddonfield. But now rural and suburban families could send their children to one of twelve high schools operated by a regional high school district (RHSD). The first two of these, Rancocas Valley RHSD in Burlington County and Lower Camden County RHSD were formed in the 1930s; the rest came to life after World War II. The reason for them, according to the New Jersey State Department of Education, was that they “bring together a sufficient number of pupils and financial resources to offer a broad and comprehensive educational program.” Collaboration, not consolidation, was New Jersey’s response to the people’s demand for public secondary education.

Pennsylvania Takes the Lead

Pennsylvania took a different approach, committing itself to school reorganization after World War II. Larger than New Jersey and Delaware combined, it had 2,544 school districts in 1945, nearly ten percent of which (240) were in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties. Thirty years later the number of school districts in Pennsylvania had been drastically reduced to fewer than 600. In Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties there were sixty-one (as before, about ten percent), but they were now educating more than twice as many students. The justification for reorganization was partly financial.  Even in Montgomery County the tax base in some suburban communities was not large enough to pay for an educational program with all the essentials, much less any extras. The state could have used its equalization subsidy program to compensate for the differences, but it chose to help less affluent communities by achieving economies of scale.  

Lawmakers knew that Pennsylvania had too many small school districts as early as 1854 when they first made provision for collaboration among them.  At the beginning of the twentieth century the commonwealth adopted a new school code that authorized the use of state aid for student transportation in districts that collaborated or consolidated. But it was not until the late 1940s, when many Americans realized that public education had been neglected for far too long, that the Pennsylvania legislature mustered the political will to attack the problem. In 1947 it passed a law that gave the county boards of school directors, created in 1937, the “power and duty” to prepare long-range plans for eliminating districts with no or only a few students. It also set aside money to give school districts an incentive to collaborate, but a commission appointed by Governor George Leader (1918-2013) concluded in 1960 that such financial incentives were ineffective.   Leader’s successor, David L. Lawrence (1889-1966), repeated the call for reorganization because he considered the real estate tax base in many rural and even some suburban districts to be insufficient to support a modern educational program. Some of those districts (such as those in Jenkintown Borough and Bristol Township) were in the Philadelphia suburbs. The legislature responded in 1961, passing legislation (Act 561) to reduce the number of districts, but quickly repealed it after Republican William Scranton (1917-2013) defeated Democrat Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) in the 1962 gubernatorial election. Once in office, Scranton endorsed a watered-down version of Act 561 (Act 299) that retained its predecessor’s minimum enrollment provision of 4,000 students but allowed for numerous exceptions based on topography, pupil population, community characteristics, transportation, and educational quality.

[caption id="attachment_7572" align="alignright" width="144"]Wilmot E. Fleming Wilmot E. Fleming, president of the Jenkintown Board of School Directors for six years, believed that the best small districts should remain independent.(Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Perhaps the most outspoken opponents of school district reorganization came from the Philadelphia suburbs. Jenkintown’s Wilmot E. Fleming (1917-1978) believed that the best small districts should remain independent. Others argued that consolidation would lead to higher taxes or decline of community spirit and loss of local control. In 1966 State Senator Clarence Bell, a Republican from Delaware County, warned that reorganization would eventually lead to the formation of a metropolitan school district, an idea that Richardson Dilworth floated while he was the president of the Philadelphia School Board.  If such a district had been created, it would have brought a wave of African Americans from the city to the suburbs, a prospect certain to upset many of the whites living there. They did not see the minority children already in their midst, perhaps because they lived in neighborhoods and patronized schools that were mostly segregated. This discrimination led to civil rights protests in places like Mt. Holly, New Jersey, and Abington, Pennsylvania.  It even convinced the Lower Merion School District to close the Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in 1963 because it was segregated.  But it also led to a long and bitter fight against school reorganization – in Delaware County especially.

Just beyond West Philadelphia, southeastern Delaware County began to suburbanize at the beginning of the twentieth century. Public transportation allowed many of its white-collar and blue-collar residents to commute to jobs in Chester or Philadelphia. Some of the area’s public school districts took on suburban characteristics. In 1908, for example, the Darby Borough district replaced its supervising principal with a superintendent. It also opened a four-year high school, as did the Lansdowne Borough School District in 1914. The population of southeastern Delaware County, which rose rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century, leveled off during the Great Depression but started growing again once prosperity returned. Folcroft’s mostly white population increased by twenty-six percent in the 1950s. Public school enrollment did not increase as fast, in part because many young families chose the leafier suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery counties instead.

Shifts in Racial Balance

Between 1900 and 1960 the African American proportion of the population in Delaware Country shrank from ten percent to seven percent.  But in places like Darby Township and Yeadon Borough there were already enough black families to deter prospective partners in any reorganization effort. In 1964 the county’s plan for reorganization faced opposition because it proposed to combine three school districts that were almost exclusively white – Collingdale (99.9 percent), Folcroft (100 percent), and Sharon Hill (98.8 percent) – with two that were significantly black, Darby Colwyn (22.7 percent) and Darby Township (68.2 percent).  Responding to an appeal from the white districts, the State Board of Education placed Darby Colwyn in another reorganized district. The Delaware County Board of School Directors approved the consolidation of the Folcroft, Sharon Hill, Collingdale, and Darby Township school districts in 1968, and subsequent appeals that eventually went all the way to U.S. District Court failed to prevent the formation of the Southeast Delco School District. But discrimination persisted because minority students living in the southern portion of Darby Township were bused past all-white schools in nearby Folcroft and Sharon Hill to schools in the northern part of Darby Township that already had many black students.

The elaborate appeals procedure set up by the state in 1968 (Act 150) slowed but did not prevent reorganization from being implemented.  In 1975 there were thirteen local and forty-eight regional school districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties; many of the latter emerged out of cooperative arrangements, known as “jointures,” which had been in place for years. For example, the eight districts in Montgomery County that had participated in the North Penn Jointure for grades seven through twelve stayed together as the North Penn School District. Its 11,400 students made it one of the largest in Greater Philadelphia. But some small districts avoided reorganization, especially in Montgomery County, because they met the state’s requirements for independence.  Despite never enrolling more than 828 students, the Jenkintown School District was not forced to merge with either Abington or Cheltenham because its leadership convinced county and state officials that it had the economic resources and the educational standards to remain self-governing.

By the early 1980s segregation had become a regional problem in Greater Philadelphia because the public schools in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Camden now had such a high proportion of black students. There were simply not enough whites enrolled in these urban school systems to achieve racial balance. Aware of this disparity, most educators and politicians ignored it. Change did occur in Delaware when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a District Court decision (Buchanan v. Evans, 1975) that led to the consolidation of all the public schools in New Castle County where Wilmington is located. Formed in 1981, the Brandywine, Colonial, Christina, and Red Clay Consolidated school districts brought the black children of the city together with white children living in its suburbs. But such sweeping changes may have helped convince at least some people that public education was failing not just in the region’s cities but everywhere. Whether urban or suburban, public schools increasingly found themselves being compared unfavorably with private schools, charter schools, and even home schooling.

The crisis of confidence in public education that began in the 1980s stemmed in part from the fact that suburban public schools were not able to escape the problems of their urban counterparts. Given a choice, suburban educators would immunize their schools against violence and substance abuse. All their students would excel on standardized tests and be admitted to college. None would be victimized by the ravages of poverty or the sting of racism. But this is not how public education works, even in the most affluent suburbs.  

[caption id="attachment_7576" align="alignright" width="261"]JV Field Hockey Team, Yeadon High School, 1971. (Yeadon High School Yearbook) JV Field Hockey Team, Yeadon High School, 1971. (Yeadon High School Yearbook)[/caption]

Public schools are open and free to all – by definition. Those in charge cannot ignore at-risk students, no matter what the problem. Children with special academic needs or debilitating personal problems are not geographically bounded, and their right to a “thorough and efficient” public education is legally protected. But some previously all-white suburbs had to contend with more equity issues than others at the end of the twentieth century because by then they had absorbed enough nonwhite residents to make race a significant issue in their public school systems. Consider, for example, the Cheltenham School District in Montgomery County, whose minority population had become big enough by the mid-1990s to attract attention.  In 1996 the Cheltenham School Board decided to achieve better racial balance by busing some elementary students. This decision was denounced – not by white, but rather by some black parents, who accused the board of racism because its busing program increased one school’s proportion of white students. The board members who made this decision did not anticipate such opposition, but they stuck by it because they believed it would make the Cheltenham public schools better for everyone.  

Over the course of the twentieth century the relationship between suburban and urban public schools in Greater Philadelphia flipped. Suburban schools at first emulated their urban counterparts and hoped to be compared favorably with them. When urban public education fell on hard times, suburban schools ran away from such comparisons. But suburban and urban public schools could not run away from each other not only because they shared the same fundamental characteristics but also because they served a region that was itself becoming increasingly diverse and interdependent.

 William W. Cutler III is Professor of History, emeritus, at Temple University. He was a member of the Jenkintown Board of School Directors for eight years (1995 to 2003), the last two as president.  Catherine D’Ignazio holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University. She is an adjunct professor of History at Rutgers University, Camden campus.

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