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Garment Work and Workers

Garment work was once one of Philadelphia’s largest industries. Clothing and textiles (a category including hosiery, a Philadelphia specialty) employed more than 40 percent of the city’s paid workforce by 1880. Starting in the first third of the nineteenth century, the garment industry became a center of labor activism, experiencing periodic strikes and union organizing drives until it began to decline in the mid-twentieth century. Although the structure of Philadelphia’s garment industry, which consisted mostly of small shops financed largely by cash on hand, provided flexibility, a reluctance to use credit also meant that deindustrialization hit the city’s garment industry harder than the same sector elsewhere in the nation.

Before the Civil War, women working for their families or as seamstresses and journeymen tailors working under master artisans made Philadelphia’s clothing. Though work as a journeyman could be a route to self-employment, master artisans’ reluctance to increase wages or heed labor agreements often led to conflict. In 1827, a group of journeymen tailors formed a protective association, the Tailors’ Benevolent Society, and convinced their employers to agree to standardized prices and a closed shop.

[caption id="attachment_32252" align="alignright" width="230"] This photograph, taken c. 1850–60 by Frederick DeBourg Richards, depicts William McMackin’s tailor shop at the southwest corner of Second and Chestnut Streets. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Despite this agreement, five journeymen at Robb and Winebrener (Third and Chestnut Streets) discovered later that year that they had been paid less than the agreed-upon prices for women’s riding outfits. When they argued with their employer, they were fired. Over the course of the next week, fourteen other journeymen in the shop walked out over the firings. Strikers surrounded the shop, discouraging potential replacement employees from breaking the strike. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took the men to court on the owners’ behalf, accusing them of conspiring to get unfairly high wages and of attacking strikebreakers. The court, however, largely sided with the journeymen; they had not threatened strikebreakers, their employers, or others and could not be convicted of conspiring to extort higher wages. The court did find the journeymen guilty of conspiring to reinstate their colleagues, but even this charge it later dropped. Members of the Tailors’ Benevolent Society won wage increases from their employers again in 1844 and 1847.

Influences of Technology and Immigration

[caption id="attachment_32255" align="alignright" width="225"] This 1892 advertisement for Singer sewing machines depicts a series of images of peoples of different nationalities using treadle machines. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Journeymen tailors’ skills gave them leverage in labor disputes. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, factory work existed alongside the artisan shop and outwork. Three factors lay behind this transition: new technology—including the foot-powered sewing machine (1846); mechanical cutting knife (1876); and steam power, adopted by most factories by the 1890s as it grew less expensive over the previous several decades—increased speed and efficiency; improvements in transportation meant more consumers had access to manufactured goods; and new waves of immigrants—first from northern and western European nations including Germany and Ireland, later from Russia and other southern and eastern European nations—many skilled in garment making, provided a ready supply of workers. In 1850, Philadelphia was home to 10,532 clothing workers (18.2 percent of the total) and 10,422 textile workers (18.0 percent of the total); by 1880, the number increased to 34,548 clothing workers (19.8 percent of the total) and 37,741 textile workers (21.6 percent of the total).

Such developments did not take place evenly across the nation, and the garment industry in Philadelphia developed differently from the large textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, or Newark or Paterson, New Jersey. Most strikingly, garment shops in Philadelphia remained small. Manufacturers were loath to take on debt to expand their operations, preferring to pay with cash on hand. Additionally, due both to the kinds of work available and an aging port infrastructure, Philadelphia did not receive the same numbers of immigrants as New York City or other parts of Pennsylvania, including the coal and steel areas. The result was a decentralized industry scattered across small shops, tenement-based production, and outwork (contractors, often women and children, paid by the piece for work completed in their own homes). In both 1850 and 1900, shops tended to employ no more than twenty-five people.

The decentralized nature of Philadelphia’s garment industry posed challenges. Manufacturers resisted credit, making expansion difficult and keeping the number of employees in each shop small; labor organizers found it difficult to organize a scattered workforce. Employment could also be cyclical. Large manufacturers such as Morris Haber (1874–?) outsourced excess orders to smaller firms that kept workers on only when they had orders to fulfill and let them go during slack periods. Such periodic unemployment could be particularly devastating for outworkers and other contractors. 

A Boost from the Civil War

This arrangement also had benefits, however: Philadelphia garment shops were more nimble and could change direction more quickly than mass-production shops elsewhere, which often kept large amounts of stock on hand. With the onset of the Civil War, for example, the government urgently needed uniforms, and Philadelphia firms were well-positioned to secure lucrative contracts to produce them.

[caption id="attachment_32254" align="alignright" width="300"] John Wanamaker’s department store, depicted in this c. 1910 postcard, sold ready-to-wear clothing produced by its own employees and other Philadelphia firms. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

After the Civil War, firms that had mobilized to produce uniforms found ready buyers in the new ready-to-wear market. Justus Clayton Strawbridge (1838–1911) and Isaac Hallowell Clothier (1837–1921) founded Strawbridge and Clothier, and John Wanamaker (1838–1922) opened his own department store. Firms that had built up capacity during the war and grown accustomed to high levels of production were prepared to fill these retailers’ bulk clothing orders. Changing fashions meant that retailers regularly placed new orders, a boon for the garment industry. In 1882, Old City alone hosted almost seventeen thousand clothier employees (many in outwork). Many of Wanamaker’s 2,485 employees worked in garment manufacturing. At the same time, smaller firms, such as men’s suiting shop Jacob Reed’s Sons, continued to supply high-quality made-to-order clothing.

[caption id="attachment_32253" align="alignright" width="300"] Uriah Stephens founded the Knights of Labor, the first national industrial union in the United States, in Philadelphia in December 1869. He is honored in this 1886 Kurz & Allison lithograph. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Though large corporations did not dominate the economic landscape of Gilded Age Philadelphia to the same extent as they did elsewhere, the city was not exempt from the labor strife experienced across the nation. As tensions grew among skilled workers, unskilled workers, and owners, new organizations formed to represent the interests of each. The most skilled of factory clothing workers were the garment cutters, and in 1869, Philadelphia garment cutter Uriah Stephens (1821–82) formed the Knights of Labor (KOL), an organization to represent the interests of all working people. At its peak, the Knights had seven hundred thousand members. The KOL’s inclusivity made it unwieldy, and it could not escape associations with radicalism after Chicago’s deadly Haymarket riot in 1886. Founded that same year by former Knights, the American Federation of Labor organized skilled workers along craft lines. The United Garment Workers of America received an AFL charter in 1891, though the new garment workers union only included skilled workers, excluding most garment workers. The two most important organizations representing the interests of less-skilled workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, organized in 1900 and 1914, respectively.

New York Strike Spreads to Philadelphia

[caption id="attachment_32318" align="alignright" width="188"] A Philadelphia secretary for the United Textile Workers of America, photographed by the Philadelphia Record in 1934, displays a sash to be worn by local textile workers who joined a widespread strike that originated in mills in the South. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Although New York City was the center of garment worker activism, developments there could not help but affect Philadelphia workers. In late 1909, thousands of New York City garment workers—many of them young, Jewish, immigrant women from southern and eastern Europe—walked out of their jobs. The strike spread to Philadelphia after the ILGWU learned that many New York City firms were sending their work there. Strikers in both cities eventually won many of their demands. In Philadelphia these included a fifty-four-hour week, higher wages, and an end to the practice of charging for work materials. They did not, however, win a closed shop, in which employers recognize the union as sole bargaining agent for all employees.

Philadelphia garment workers demographically resembled their New York City counterparts. Jewish Philadelphians predominated in the early twentieth-century garment industry, both as factory owners and employees. Factory owners tended to be German-Jewish, while their employees were largely Russian-Jewish. Concentrated in South Philadelphia, garment workers often lived close to their workplaces. In 1909, 85 percent of Philadelphia shirtwaist (a woman’s garment resembling a man’s shirt) makers were female, and 85 percent were Jewish. A handful of Italians also worked in the garment industry. As in other industries, however, African Americans first gained access to the garment industry, including in 1909–10 and again in 1921, as strikebreakers. For this group, the expanded production of World Wars I and II brought about longer-term, though not permanent, opportunities.

In the interwar era, anti-union firms such as Philadelphia’s A.B. Kirschenbaum tried to lure workers away from unions with corporate welfare —employer-dominated company unions and other benefits meant to encourage loyalty to the company and discourage independent organizing. Union strength continued to grow, however, and a 1933 general dress-industry strike forced Philadelphia employers to recognize the ILGWU. The labor-friendly legislation of the New Deal helped consolidate these gains, though not consistently. A 1934 Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry survey of garment workers in Allentown, Doylestown, Philadelphia, and Shamokin found National Recovery Act regulations laxly and sporadically enforced.

Early Deindustrialization Takes a Toll

[caption id="attachment_32320" align="alignright" width="300"] This photograph, taken in 1950, depicts workers at sewing machines piecing together garments on the the fifth floor of 134 N. Thirteenth Street. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Deindustrialization affected the Philadelphia garment industry as early as the 1920s. In search of cheaper labor, employers increasingly turned to “runaway shops”—firms that relocated to areas where unions were weaker—setting up factories in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania (including its anthracite region), and the South. Though New York City firms were the first to deploy this strategy, the ILGWU reported that Philadelphia firms also began to do so by the 1930s. The development of synthetics also posed challenges; many firms that produced silk hosiery, for example, could not afford to convert to nylon and closed. Post–World War II labor militancy further encouraged Philadelphia manufacturers to relocate. By the 1960s, the industry also faced international competition. Nationally, imports made up only 3 percent of the garment industry in 1955, but up to 88 percent in 2000. Sectors of the industry that had long relied more on machine technology, including knitwear and menswear, were able to stave off this competition for longer, but even these areas declined precipitously by the 1970s. In Philadelphia, the garment industry alone lost ninety-one thousand jobs between 1947 and 1986—79 percent of the city’s total manufacturing job losses in those years.

Philadelphia garment work bore many similarities to the industry elsewhere, especially New York City. In both places, the industry grew to employ large numbers of young, immigrant women who worked for low pay and long hours under sometimes dangerous conditions. The Philadelphia garment industry was not simply a smaller version of New York’s, however. The city had its own demographic, economic, and geographic factors that influenced the shape and development of this sector. Employers were more likely to be risk-averse, and employment was scattered across factories, shops, and homes. The decentralized nature of the industry gave employers flexibility but could mean insecurity for employees. Unions also had difficulty organizing such a diffuse workforce. Ultimately, however, both the large factories of other cities and Philadelphia’s smaller shops and factories faced the same fate. They could not compete with overseas manufacturing, and the industry declined.

Christina Larocco is editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and scholarly programs manager at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Christina Larocco

Christina Larocco is editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and scholarly programs manager at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Fabric Row

A textile and garment district emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on South Fourth Street, between Catharine and Bainbridge Streets in South Philadelphia, as immigrants transformed the neighborhood into a Jewish Quarter. Fabric businesses survived the Great Depression and remained prosperous for more than a century, employing generations of garment workers. Some shops continued to be active in the twenty-first century in the district that became known as Fabric Row.

In the 1880s, as part of a widespread and varied wave of immigration to the United States, Philadelphia became home to a large number of Eastern European Jewish newcomers. The Jewish population increased significantly in 1905, when nine thousand Russian Jews arrived in Philadelphia following renewed pogroms against them in Russia. Moving into areas that later became known as Queen Village and Society Hill, these waves of immigrants created a “Jewish Quarter” extending from Spruce Street in the north to Christian Street in the south, between Third and Sixth Streets. Fourth Street became the core of the Jewish community, while the perpendicular South Street became a diversified hub for immigrants of other ethnicities. Starting in the late nineteenth century, Fourth Street became known as “Der Ferder,” meaning “the fourth” in Yiddish, and began to fill with fabric and garment-related trades.

[caption id="attachment_31976" align="alignright" width="300"] Before they were banned in the 1950s, many immigrants made a living by selling dry goods out of pushcarts. This 1914 photo shows a line of pushcarts and merchants on Fourth and Fitzwater Streets. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Initially, many immigrants worked as tailors or seamstresses in sweatshops or did sewing work at home, but during the first half of the twentieth century they also transitioned to peddling fabrics, dry goods, and produce from knapsacks or at curbside stands made from boards and sawhorses. The most prosperous peddlers sold goods from pushcarts, for which licenses could be purchased for $5 from City Hall. By 1906, immigrant entrepreneurs operated hundreds of pushcarts on South Fourth Street between Lombard and Carpenter Streets. Peddlers who could not afford to buy pushcarts had the option to rent them from wealthier businessmen who purchased licenses in bulk and rented them out for 25 cents per day or $1.50 per week. 

Many fabric businesses on Fourth Street started as curbside stands or pushcarts, then moved into storefronts. Families played important roles in establishing and sustaining these businesses for decades. For example, Abraham Marmelstein (1891-1969), a Polish immigrant, entered the fabric industry in 1919 as a peddler selling needles and thread door-to-door. Eventually, he purchased a pushcart and later, in 1937, a three-story row house on Fourth Street where he lived and ran his business with his wife, Dora (1896-1979), and family. The business passed down to succeeding generations, remaining in operation until 2015. Other family businesses—Paul’s, Maxie’s Daughter, and Albert Zoll’s, among others—followed a similar pattern. South Fourth Street became dominated by fabric- and garment-related trades (textiles, bridal, drapery, wallpaper) but also included kosher butcher shops and other grocery-related food shops (vegetable and fruit stands, fish and meat markets). The Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen, which opened in 1923 at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets, became a symbol of Jewish culture and prosperity, featured in films such as Philadelphia (1993) and In Her Shoes (2005).

[caption id="attachment_31973" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of South Fourth Street spanning from South Street to Christian Street in 1936. Fourth Street was once covered with over five hundred pushcarts. This photo of South Fourth Street, spanning from South Street to Christian Street, was taken in 1936, after most fabric businesses moved from pushcarts to store fronts. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As it grew, the Fourth Street business community weathered and responded to world events. In 1905, thousands of people marched on Fourth Street in mourning for the victims of the pogroms against Jews in Russia. In 1918, the worldwide influenza epidemic hit densely populated areas like Fourth Street especially hard. Many businesses voluntarily closed and helped distribute food and supplies to the needy. During the Great Depression (1929-41), fabric businesses on Fourth Street remained prosperous because people who could no longer afford to buy ready-made clothing from department stores purchased fabric to sew their own garb. Nevertheless, in 1933 merchants formed the South Fourth Street Business Men's Association in to promote continued trade and address issues such as street sanitation, police security, and hours of operation.

The Second World War and its aftermath brought new challenges to Fourth Street. During the war, merchants found it difficult to keep their stores stocked as manufacturers constantly supplied the armed forces. To conserve electricity, all stores on Fourth Street closed early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After the war, postwar trends of consumerism and movement from cities to suburbs added to the challenge. As demand for fabrics shifted to décor for new suburban homes, Fourth Street merchants adapted their merchandise to offer goods such as ready-made curtains. Some of the merchants themselves moved to the suburbs, still running their businesses on Fourth Street but no longer living above the store. With the increase of automobiles and demand for parking spaces, in 1955 a city ordinance brought an end to an era by banning pushcarts from Philadelphia streets.

Some Fourth Street businesses expanded to the wholesale market. Fleishman Fabrics & Supplies, which opened in 1923, started as a men’s fabric wholesaler while also keeping a room devoted to menswear fabric for suits. Other businesses formed wholesale divisions, including Winitsky and Company (Win-Tex Fabrics) and Rosenblitt’s Fabrics (Rose-Line). When Rosenblitt’s was taken over by the founder ’s grandson, Jay Adler, it continued to operate on Fourth Street as Adler’s Fabrics.

[caption id="attachment_32011" align="alignright" width="300"] This printed textile c. 1951 was designed by Stapler Fabrics and is currently part of a collection at the Philadelphia Museum at Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Some stores, such as the drapery and bedding manufacturer J. London & Company, extended their sales nationally. David Stapler  of Stapler's Fabrics—which started as a pushcart in 1892—became an ambassador for exclusive fabrics and textiles inspired by Philadelphia’s history and art. David & Dash made custom textiles for Atlantic City hotels and grew rapidly into a business with designs featured in museums and university collections, including The Design Center at Philadelphia University and the Textile and Costume Collection at Jefferson University. Internationally, Samuel Goldberg, of Sam Goldberg’s Fabrics, traveled from the streets of Philadelphia to Europe, Latin America, and Asia to hand-pick fabric choices for his clients. Goldberg’s personal touch and stylistic eye attracted the business of public figures like Jacqueline Kennedy (1929-94) and couture designers like Christian Dior (1905-57).

Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s fabric businesses declined during the 1960s controversy over the proposed Crosstown Expressway, which would have run through South and Bainbridge streets. Shop owners and customers fled from Fourth Street to the suburbs in anticipation of demolition, and many of the businesses closed in the process.

[caption id="attachment_31975" align="alignright" width="300"] Moon + Arrow is a socially-responsible and environmentally conscious boutique for handmade and vintage artisan materials. Colorful boutiques like this one now populate Fabric Row. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 1996, seeking to generate new publicity, businesses on South Fourth Street formed a merchants association called “Shops of Fabric Row,” led by Dan Sullivan  (owner of Maggie’s Drawers, opened in 1993). The group’s advertising caught the attention and support of Councilman Frank DiCicco (b. 1946) and led to the city officially designating South Fourth Street as “Fabric Row.” By 2015, a steady decline of foot traffic prompted the South Street Headhouse District to begin major Fourth Street renovations and fund-raising to attract new retailers ranging from traditional fabric and upholstery stores to ready-to-wear apparel, restaurants, and performing arts venues.

[caption id="attachment_31974" align="alignright" width="300"] Specializing in leatherwork, Baldwin Leather & Fabric is one of Fourth Street’s trademark fabric shops. (Photograph by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, fabric stores that had been open for generations, including Marmelstein’s and Albert Zoll’s fabric store, closed their doors. The Philadelphia History Museum in 2016 featured an exhibition called “Philadelphia’s Fabric Row: the Pushcart Years, 1905-1955.” However, the exhibit also noted the presence of a new generation of entrepreneurs. As of 2018, eleven fabric stores remained open on Fabric Row, including Fleishman Fabrics and Supplies, Maxie’s Daughter, and Valentia Fabrics. Fabric Row is not simply a street—it is a culturally dense and rich center marrying history with prospects for a unique and innovative future.

Danielle D’Amelio is an M.A. student in the Department of English at Rutgers University-Camden.

Danielle D’Amelio

Danielle D’Amelio is an M.A. student at in the Department of English at Rutgers University-Camden.

Paper and Papermaking

Home to the first paper mill in the British American colonies, Philadelphia was the nation’s primary papermaking center through the early nineteenth century. The region lost its national preeminence in papermaking in the late nineteenth century, but it continued to host important makers of paper and paper products.

Skilled papermakers, including William Rittenhouse (1644–1708), a German-born Dutch Mennonite, and Thomas Willcox (c. 1689–1779), an English Catholic, were among the immigrants who came to southeastern Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. Rittenhouse settled near Germantown, where fellow Mennonites had founded a community and the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries provided water power for papermaking. Willcox settled in Concord Township, Chester County (later part of Delaware County), where Chester Creek provided the same. In addition to their importance in early American papermaking, both men were religious leaders in their communities.

William Rittenhouse established British America’s first paper mill on the Monoshone Creek, a tributary to the Wissahickon, in 1690. It was the only paper mill in the colonies for twenty years. Claus Rittenhouse (1666–1734), William’s son, managed the mill with his father and became its proprietor following his father’s death. In 1710, Claus’s brother-in-law, William DeWeese (1677–1745), also a Dutch immigrant, built a second paper mill on the Wissahickon Creek nearby. Claus and several partners purchased the mill from DeWeese in 1713, while DeWeese and his son went on to build other paper mills in the Germantown area in the 1730s and 1740s. Several generations of the Rittenhouse family made paper at the original mill site through the mid-nineteenth century. Later renamed Historic Rittenhouse Town, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.

[caption id="attachment_31726" align="alignright" width="300"] Rittenhouse manor (pictured right) and a small outbuilding are portrayed c. 1922 in this sketch by Frank H. Taylor. The Rittenhouse family built several paper mills near these buildings over the years, beginning with the first mill in 1690.(Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The colonies’ third paper mill was that of Thomas Willcox (c. 1689–1779), who in 1729 built what became known as Ivy Mills on Chester Creek in Concord Township, Chester County. Willcox was a key supplier of paper to Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and other local printers. He and his descendants later specialized in making currency for colonial governments, the United States Treasury, and various South American and European countries. They also made checks for major banks. The Willcox family built another paper mill in nearby Glen Mills in 1836 and ran Ivy Mills until it closed in 1866. The Ivy Mills site, including the mill ruins and surviving nineteenth-century houses, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Expanding Industry

Philadelphia’s rapidly growing population in the eighteenth century created a major demand for paper. By 1739 there were five paper mills in southeastern Pennsylvania; ten years later there were eleven. Powered by the region’s many waterways and the developing technical expertise of its mill operators, the Philadelphia area remained the center of America’s papermaking industry throughout the colonial period. Of the twenty-six paper mills operating in the thirteen colonies by 1769, twenty were in the Philadelphia area. Domestic production was not enough to meet local demand, however; most paper was imported in the eighteenth century.

Colonial Philadelphia was an important publishing center, and the city’s printers and publishers often had financial stakes in local paper mills to ensure a reliable source of paper for their businesses. Pennsylvania’s first printer, William Bradford (1663–1752), was a partner in the 1690 Rittenhouse mill, which was originally a partnership between Rittenhouse, Bradford, and two others before Rittenhouse bought out the other three. Germantown printer Christopher Sauer (1695–1758), the first German-language publisher in North America, and his son owned or had an interest in several mills in the Philadelphia area, while Benjamin Franklin was affiliated with at least four local paper mills by the late 1740s.

Another related industry was the manufacture of paper moulds, the screened frames used in early papermaking. Philadelphia engineer Nathan Sellers (1751–1830) began making paper moulds as early as 1776. The firm he established with his brother in 1779, N & D Sellers, was the nation’s primary manufacturer of paper moulds through the early nineteenth century. Sellers was a leading figure in a group of Philadelphia-area mechanical engineers and inventors that made the region a key center of technological innovation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Papermaking was one of many industries that saw major mechanical breakthroughs through the efforts of this group.  

Innovation and Automation

Paper was generally made by hand in America until the introduction of mechanized production in the early nineteenth century. In 1816, Thomas Gilpin (1776–1853) patented the nation’s first papermaking machine and the following year put it into operation at his family’s Brandywine Paper Mill, which had been established in 1787 by Thomas’s brother Joshua Gilpin (1765–1841) on the Brandywine Creek, near Wilmington, Delaware. Thomas constructed the machine based on English models, using information provided by Joshua, who had toured Europe in the early nineteenth century and sent back materials on new papermaking technologies being developed in England. Early on, the Gilpins conferred with Benjamin Franklin on developments in the industry and later they supplied paper to another prominent Philadelphia publisher, Mathew Carey (1760–1839). The Sellers family also played a key role in the mechanization of papermaking. Coleman Sellers (1781–1834), Nathan’s son, took over the N & D Sellers firm in 1817 and invented various papermaking devices in the 1820s and a complete papermaking machine in 1832. By the 1830s, machine-based production had largely replaced traditional hand papermaking in America.

Although machines replaced water power in this period, paper makers continued to establish mills on waterways. A number of paper mills operated during the nineteenth century along the Brandywine Creek and its tributaries, running through central Chester County and northern Delaware. In 1833, James Guie (?-1893) opened the mill later known as Eagle Paper Mill on Beaver Creek, a tributary to the Brandywine Creek near Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Specializing in waterproof buckskin paper, the mill remained in operation for over 100 years. In 1843, Augustus Jessup (1797-1859) and his son-in-law Bloomfield Moore (1819-78) started the Jessup and Moore Paper Company on the lower Brandywine Creek in Kentmere, Delaware, not far from the Gilpin’s Brandywine Paper Mill. Jessup and Moore acquired other paper mills, both along the lower Brandywine and throughout the greater Philadelphia region, and the company eventually became one of the largest makers of book and magazine paper in the nation.

Demand for paper grew dramatically in the antebellum period, as America’s printing and publishing houses, many based in Philadelphia, produced an increasing number of newspapers, magazines, and books. Paper mills were established throughout the greater Delaware Valley to meet the demand. The Roxborough-Manayunk area became an especially important papermaking center in this period. This part of the city saw dramatic industrialization in the early nineteenth century, with the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal powering textile, paper, and other mills that were later converted to steam-production. Among the major paper producers in this area were the Flat Rock Paper Mill, owned by the Nixon family (descendants of William Rittenhouse); the Wissahickon Paper Mill, owned by the Megargee family; and the McDowell Paper Mills. All were family-run operations that were established in the 1820s through 1840s and continued in various capacities into the early twentieth century. Family members built new mills or established partnerships with other mills in the region over the years, resulting in a web of interrelated family-run paper businesses throughout the greater Philadelphia area.

[caption id="attachment_31724" align="alignright" width="300"] An oil painting advertisement by William E. Winner, c. 1858, shows the Wissahickon Paper Mills, originally constructed by William Dewees  in 1731 and expanded by Charles Megargee in 1853. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The introduction of paper made from wood pulp in the 1860s transformed the American paper industry. Paper had traditionally been made from cotton or linen rags, which were pulverized into fibers that were then formed into paper. Papermakers depended on rag collectors for their raw materials, and rags were often in short supply. In some cases, they were actually imported. Wood pulp proved a cheaper and more plentiful raw material and largely replaced rag-made paper over the course of the late nineteenth century, although straw was also used as a raw material. The American Wood Paper Company built the Manayunk Pulp Works adjacent to the Flat Rock Paper Mill in 1864. Martin Nixon (1818–88), part owner of the Flat Rock mill, managed the new pulp works.

Transition and Specialization

The industry’s transition from rag to wood pulp production coincided with Philadelphia’s decline as the nation’s preeminent papermaking center. Much of the paper industry’s growth in the late nineteenth century occurred in New York and New England, particularly Holyoke, Massachusetts, which became known as “The Paper City.” While no longer the national leader, the Philadelphia area continued to support a significant papermaking sector. In 1880 there were seven paper mills in Philadelphia, employing 452 workers; in 1912, there were eight, four in the Roxborough-Manayunk area. Among the largest were the McDowell and Dill & Collins mills. The latter firm had a mill in Port Richmond and also took over the Flat Rock mill. There were also dozens of paper mills operating in the surrounding counties in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Philadelphia was also an important center for specialty papermakers, including manufacturers of wallpaper and roofing paper in the nineteenth century, and later, in the twentieth century, cardboard, toilet tissue, and paper towels. Scott Paper, founded by brothers Edward Irvin (1846–1931) and Clarence (1848–1912) Scott in Philadelphia in 1879, was among the nation’s largest makers of toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues for much of the twentieth century. From 1971 to the mid-1990s the company headquarters was in Tinicum Township, Delaware County. John Connelly (1905–90) worked in the Philadelphia plant of Container Corporation of America in the 1940s before starting Connelly Container, a very successful cardboard box–making company, originally located on the site of the former McDowell Paper Mill in Manayunk. Both Scott Paper and Connelly Container eventually stopped local manufacturing operations and were acquired by other companies in the 1990s.

[caption id="attachment_31725" align="alignright" width="300"] An advertisement postcard depicts the McDowell Paper Mills in Manayunk, c. 1910. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the early twenty-first century, most of the Philadelphia-area paper mills had closed, leaving only a few major papermakers in the region. Newman Paper Board Company, established in 1919 and located on the Delaware River in lower Northeast Philadelphia, remained a family-run business into the early twenty-first century and was Pennsylvania’s leading recycler and supplier of rigid paperboard. Paperworks Industries, established in 2008 through the merger of several paper companies and headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, operated a historic Manayunk paper mill for several years before closing it in 2017.

Although the industry declined in the twentieth century and operated at a fraction of its nineteenth-century heyday, Philadelphia played a key role as the birthplace and longtime center of early American papermaking.

Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who specializes in three areas of Philadelphia history: music, business and industry, and Northeast Philadelphia. He regularly writes, lectures, and gives tours on these subjects. His book In the Cradle of Industry and Liberty: A History of Manufacturing in Philadelphia was published in 2016 and he curated the 2017–18 exhibit Risk & Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia for the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Music Center and from 2011–16 directed a major archival project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the collections of the region’s many small historical repositories.

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