Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Daniel Sidorick

Scientific Management

The "Scientific Management" movement was born in early twentieth-century Philadelphia factories but spread rapidly, transforming not only management techniques but also popular conceptions of industrialized society itself.  According to its founders, the system simply sought the "one best way" to perform any task.  But its time-study engineers, along with the assembly line, came to symbolize the bleak and mechanical organization of workers' lives by industrial engineers.  Its advocates, on the other hand, hailed scientific management as the basis for the transformative increases in productivity that, they argued, improved the lives of working people.

[caption id="attachment_13611" align="alignright" width="200"]A black and white photograph a man from the shoulders up. The man is wearing a suit with a tie and is facing slightly to the right. Frederick Winslow Taylor, "Father of Scientific Management," developed a methodology that changed the shape of industrial manufacturing in the early twentieth century. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Although many early management consultants contributed to the development of the system, Philadelphia's Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) is acknowledged as the "Father of Scientific Management"; in fact, the system is also known as "Taylorism."  His concepts and practices were embraced by industrialists and municipal reformers, attracted devoted followers and harsh critics, and inspired, if indirectly, numerous movements seeking to reorganize society by making it more efficient.  The first incubators of Taylor's experiments were Philadelphia factories, and by the mid-twentieth century his associates and imitators had installed "scientific" systems of management in all kinds of establishments throughout the region and, from there, the world.  By the twenty-first century, timed-to-the-second fast-food and help-desk workers were so commonplace that most Americans did not realize how Taylorized their workplaces had become.

According to its proponents, scientific management sought the "one best way" to perform any task.  Applied to manufacturing, and later to other fields, it meant that "waste" of any kind, especially waste of time, must be eliminated, resulting in vastly improved productivity.  Whereas earlier manufacturing relied on the expert knowledge and decision-making of craftsmen, the new approach attempted to transfer all knowledge of the manufacturing process to management—and in particular to new planning departments—which would then instruct workmen on the precise methods and motions to be used to perform each job. 

The "Efficiency Craze"

[caption id="attachment_13610" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of two men in overalls looking at a machine in a production shop. The man on the left of the image is holding a stopwatch. Every piece of equipment used in the production process had to be timed and tested by a "Time Engineer" to determine the most efficient way to complete a series of tasks. (How Scientific Management is Applied, via Google Books)[/caption]

The system's implementation, in companies as varied as the Link-Belt Engineering Company at Hunting Park Avenue and Twenty-First Street in Nicetown, Cramp Shipyard in Port Richmond, and Bethlehem Steel in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was often beset with problems and sometimes ultimately rejected.  Yet the "efficiency craze" that Taylor launched spawned numerous management consulting firms as well as do-it-yourself efforts at many companies.  His arguments also convinced corporate management that it must control all aspects of how work is done if it was to survive in the cutthroat competitive world of twentieth-century capitalism.  Not unexpectedly, unions like the International Association of Machinists fought these new management schemes in order to defend their members' prerogatives and union work rules, and in other cases to oppose "speedup" or at least gain a larger share of the increased proceeds from greater productivity.

Despite the global spread of scientific management, its origins and first several decades were a thoroughly Philadelphia story.  Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 in Germantown to an old Quaker family.  He spent his youth attending Germantown Academy, touring Europe, and engaging in cricket with friends from similarly wealthy families, though he never matriculated at Harvard as expected.  Perhaps surprisingly, he used family connections to instead begin an apprenticeship as a patternmaker and machinist at the Enterprise Hydraulic Works, a pump manufacturer at Twenty-Second and Race Streets.  The Industrial Revolution was reshaping not only the American economy by the 1870s but also society itself, and Philadelphia was at its lead, rapidly becoming the "Workshop of the World."  It was not unusual for some young men from wealthy families to use the route of apprenticeship to gain the knowledge they needed to advance in industry. 

[caption id="attachment_13612" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a group of men working around large pieces of machine equipment. Some men are holding tools and looking at the viewer. Midvale Steel, where Frederick Taylor began with a brief stint as a laborer, produced steel products using a variety of techniques, including the crucible process used by the workers pictured here in 1881. (Kheel Center Image Archive)[/caption]

After he completed his apprenticeship at Enterprise, Taylor began working at Midvale Steel in Nicetown.  Once again he tapped family connections, for Midvale was owned by the father of Taylor's tennis partner and by Taylor's future brother-in-law.  He started at the bottom, working as a laborer for a few weeks to learn how jobs were done and to attempt to understand the motivations of workers.  Taylor moved up quickly, eventually becoming chief engineer of the works, and it was in the course of his employment there that he developed the prototypes for the innovations he would become famous for.

Although Taylor is most remembered for his management and organizational ideas, he also made contributions to mechanical processes and machinery, designing a giant steam hammer at Midvale, developing "high-speed steel" at Bethlehem Steel, and earning 42 patents.  In fact, he first used a stopwatch to gauge the performance of machine tools, but he soon applied the same techniques to measure the motions of human workers.  As Taylor formulated and refined his approach to scientific management at a succession of companies in the Philadelphia region from the late 1870s to the early 1900s, he increasingly regarded workers as elements of the production process.  In his view, their actions could be precisely molded, with the right incentive schemes, by a new type of management that left no leeway for personal discretion. 

"Schmidt" the Achiever

In Taylor's most well known, if partially fabricated, description of his techniques, he claimed to have turned an average laborer at Bethlehem Steel he called "Schmidt" (actually named Henry Noll [1871-1925]) into a superhuman loader of pig iron (although he "firmly believe[d] that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man can be").  Revealing his own class attitudes towards laborers, Taylor related, in his lectures and writings, what he thought of Schmidt, a "man so stupid that he was unfitted to do most kinds of laboring work," though he built his own house, was married, and had a grade-school education. 

Although Schmidt was purportedly happy with the deal, other workers at Bethlehem and elsewhere were not.  Taylor claimed that he did not oppose unions, but he believed they would be an unnecessary encumbrance in a scientifically managed company, where increased wages for greater output would make everyone richer—and happier.  Consequently, he urged companies like Link-Belt to keep unions out and was disappointed when they ignored his advice.  The experience of scientifically managed companies in regard to organized labor was checkered.  Taylor proudly noted that workers at companies for which he consulted, such as Link-Belt and Tabor Manufacturing, did not participate in Philadelphia's massive general strike in 1910.  But he did not mention the long and bitter strike that same year that targeted the bonus system at Bethlehem Steel, one of the remnants of Taylor's earlier efforts there.  The resentment expressed by one employee of a Philadelphia manufacturer for the "silk-shirted bespectacled slide rule and stopwatch expert" who watched and timed his actions was not uncommon.  Labor opposition to "speedup" systems grew rapidly, and Bethlehem workers even gave the system's founder a new moniker: "Speedy Taylor."

[caption id="attachment_13609" align="alignright" width="228"]A black and white photograph of two workers in a cluttered factory looking at a time sheet. Efficiency managers or "speed bosses" would coach workers to remove wasteful steps or even movements from the production process. Instruction cards would be placed near workers' stations while they trained. (How Scientific Management is Applied, via Google Books)[/caption]

Unionists were not the only opponents of scientific management, however.  Philadelphia companies like Baldwin Locomotive relied heavily on the expert skill and knowledge of their craftsmen and had no interest in Taylor's ideas.  Others, like Cramp Shipyard and Bethlehem Steel, experimented extensively with the new approach but eventually rejected it, claiming it was expensive and highly disruptive.  Yet even those companies kept some parts of the system in place: Bethlehem simply renamed Taylor's "instruction cards" to "speed cards."  Cramp's management rejected his recommendation to "speed . . . up all of the machinery in your shops 60% beyond its present speed," but kept his better-organized tool room.  Some avid enthusiasts, like Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) of Bridgeton, New Jersey's Ferracute Machinery Company, wanted to install the system, but Smith was "appalled" at the estimated expense to implement it in 1907, though he finally implemented a similar program some years later.

Workers and socialists attacked Taylor's version of scientific management for turning workers into automatons, deskilling craftsmen, and firing those who could not or would not perform as "first-class men."  Yet, if managers strictly followed Taylor's prescriptions, the workers who remained did at least see pay increases, and piece rates were not reduced (at least initially).   But after Taylor withdrew from active consulting in 1901, his disciples and followers, and soon other "consultants" who saw an opportunity to cash in on the latest management fad, were often less scrupulous about how the returns from increased productivity should be shared. 

The Spread of "Taylorized" Systems

Several of the consultants who installed Taylor's system in Philadelphia became important in their own right and were responsible for the spread of "Taylorized" management systems far beyond the relative handful of companies that the founder implemented himself.  His assistants worked on the two installations that became Taylor's showpieces of scientific management for visitors to Philadelphia, Link-Belt and the Tabor Manufacturing Company, and implemented some elements of the system at Philadelphia's Frankford Arsenal and the Navy Yard.  The Link-Belt Company also led to the longest lasting direct Philadelphia descendant of Taylor's original group, the Day & Zimmermann management consulting firm.  Although later diversified, it was started as Dodge & Day by Link-Belt founder's son Kern Dodge (1880-1958) and his friend Charles Day (1879-1931).  After helping "modernize" Link-Belt with Taylor's consultants, they formed their own company and began doing the same for other clients, often in consultation with Taylor, starting with the Jeanesville Iron Works in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_13607" align="alignright" width="224"]A black and white photograph of a man from the shoulders up, in a suit with glasses and a mustache looking directly at the viewer. Morris Llewellyn Cooke, a close associate of Taylor's, attempted to bring scientific management principles to Philadelphia's city government by firing a thousand city employees and bringing in expert managers to direct workers. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Another close confidante of Taylor's, Morris L. Cooke (1872-1960), broadened the reach of the system to Philadelphia's city government and marked the further integration of scientific management with the Progressive movement, when he became the city's director of public works in 1911 and introduced several efficiency measures.  Cooke wrote: "That these principles—enunciated by Taylor—can be applied to city work as they have been applied to scores of different kinds of industrial work is to me only too obvious. It opens up a field of endeavor which staggers the imagination."  He followed up by firing a thousand city employees for inefficiency, brought in two hundred "expert" engineers to direct highway workers, and claimed to have saved the city some five million dollars.  His attempt to convince President Woodrow Wilson to turn Washington, D.C., into a municipal laboratory, however, failed.

The "efficiency craze" spread across the country and the world after future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis coined the term "Scientific Management" during the famous Eastern Rate Case in 1910 and Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management the next year.  But paradoxically, the founder's original strict interpretation of the system was diluted as more "efficiency experts" rushed to take advantage of the new opportunities.  In 1911 Taylor complained that Harrington Emerson (1853-1931), a former close adherent of the Taylor method, had told Navy Yard officers that he could install all the "important" parts of Taylor's system in a few short months.  Emerson later introduced his quicker and cheaper alternative in many other plants, including Lukens Steel in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.   

Other companies like DuPont decided to try converting to "scientific" management methods on their own.  Unfortunately, DuPont began its experiment in its Repauno High Explosives Operating Department near Gibbstown, New Jersey, in 1913.  Although some employees complained that foremen were "rushing the men," the project continued until a massive explosion killed four workers.  The experiment was moved to another building. It, too, suffered an explosion soon after, killing several more men. Interest in putting an efficiency scheme into practice did not resume until the Great Depression induced the company to find new ways to reduce costs.

Charles Bedaux, Simplifier

[caption id="attachment_13884" align="alignright" width="432"]A large group of striking workers are standing outside one of the Campbell buildings; filling the sidewalk and blocking the doors of the building. From their first strike in 1934, Campbell Soup’s production workers fought an ongoing battle with their employer, not only for better wages and working conditions, but also to protest the Bedaux system. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

When DuPont did again embark on systematizing its operations, it did so with the consulting company of the colorful and controversial Charles Bedaux (1886-1944).  His simple and relatively inexpensive program promised a quick return on investment without the lengthy and painstaking selection of workers, plant redesign, and job study required in Taylor's approach.  In addition to DuPont, Lukens Steel also switched to the Bedaux plan, as did numerous other Delaware Valley companies.  At Campbell Soup's flagship plant in Camden the system became the flashpoint for innumerable conflicts between workers and management for several decades starting in the early 1930s.  Soup plant workers complained that the "B" system was difficult to understand, targets were hard to meet (resulting in hundreds of firings), and that management changed targets unfairly.  Yet the efficiency program was a central element of Campbell's successful drive to keep costs down and profits high.  Workers at Keasbey and Mattison, an asbestos shingle manufacturer and the largest employer in Ambler, Pennsylvania, however, were more successful in ending the Bedaux system there; the company threw the system out in 1937 due to "labor unrest."

By World War II, time-and-motion study and job standards were no longer a novelty.  Young women working in the secretarial pool at the Army Ordnance offices on South Broad Street and machine tenders in steel fabrication plants had become accustomed to "efficiency experts" timing and monitoring their work.  Later management trends claimed to replace Taylorism with newer approaches to work and workers, but most of them were deeply indebted to the Germantown native.  The central concepts of "Lean Production," for example, were the elimination of waste—especially waste of time—and continuous improvement, all with the goal of increasing productivity.  Both original scientific management and its later incarnations also claimed to be in the best interest of workers.

The central argument for the beneficial effects of Taylorism for employees rested on the premise that the proceeds from increased productivity would be shared equitably between management and labor, by the mechanism of the system's bonus incentive plan.  It has even been credited with raising the standard of living for Philadelphia's working class generally.  The first objection to this argument concerned all those left out of it.  Taylor himself said there were very few "first-class men" for any job, and those who could not make the grade, whether at Bethlehem Steel or Campbell Soup, were dismissed.  Those who survived the cut worked much harder than before and lost any discretion they previously had in determining how they performed their jobs, but they did see increased wages—in companies that strictly followed Taylor's rules.  The cardinal principle here was that management would not raise the amount of work needed to reach the bonus level once a job had been "scientifically" studied and rated.  Very few companies kept to this precept for very long, however. 

At its core, Taylorism was a class philosophy, in which strict but benevolent masters would provide well for their subordinates as long as they did exactly as they were told.  Far more responsible for raising Philadelphia's workers' standard of living were the efforts they expended themselves.  In the defensive strikes of unionized craftsmen early in the twentieth century and the mass unionization drives by industrial workers during the Great Depression and World War II, workers fought for and often won a greater share of the increased productivity resulting from Taylorism and other efficiency schemes.

Daniel Sidorick teaches labor history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.  He is the author of Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century.

Food Processing

The food industry has always held a special place in Philadelphia and its surrounding region, though it never became a center of a massive industry like meatpacking in Chicago. Still, the methods of processing food at different periods and the people who did the work tell much about the state of Philadelphia's economy and its residents. From colonial times, when most Americans processed their own foods, through the rapid changes in food manufacture introduced by the industrial revolution, to the consolidation and globalization of the food industry in the late twentieth century, the ways agricultural produce has been transformed into food and consumed at Philadelphians' dinner tables has defined both the changing economic structure of the region and its level of integration within the larger world.

The indigenous and early colonial residents of the Delaware Valley were largely self-sufficient. The minimal processing needed to make bread or to preserve meat was done mostly at home or on the farm. Yet the inklings of the future food industry were visible in the trades marching in the Philadelphia Grand Federal Procession in 1788 celebrating the new Constitution: bakers, butchers, sugar refiners, and brewers joined their fellow predecessors of the coming Industrial Revolution in the line of march.  And even in this early period, food processing brought the region into the global economy. Hogs driven to Philadelphia for slaughter and grain transported to the city for milling ended up not only in market stalls on High Street (later Market Street) but also as provisions traded for Caribbean sugar destined for the city's refiners.

Philadelphia's propitious location in the midst of the rich agricultural lands of southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey made it the natural location for the artisans and merchants who would establish a wide array of food-processing businesses. Yet until the mid-nineteenth century only flour milling, brewing, and sugar refining had established enterprises beyond the size of small artisanal shops.  Philadelphia, in fact, became the center of the new country's largest food industry, dominating flour milling in the late eighteenth century  through the first third of the following century and exporting some 400,000 barrels of flour (and a smaller quantity of corn meal) per year. The city also housed many sugar refineries from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century.

Although  leadership in flour milling fell first to Baltimore and then the Midwest, Philadelphia, Camden, and nearby towns soon saw phenomenal growth in an amazing range of food-related industries: canning, the baking of bread, biscuits, and soft pretzels, candy-making, meat processing, the production of ice cream, mustard, and vinegar, and much more. Most new companies were of the type Philadelphia was best known for: small- to medium-sized and family-owned, often operating in the production of specialty items. But some of them grew to become national or world leaders in the mass production of food products and obtained financing from sources of capital beyond the wealth of their founding families.

[caption id="attachment_5995" align="alignright" width="300"]The Breyers factory in West Philadelphia employed 500 workers at its start, and the mint green building became a familiar landmark for those driving in to the city. The Breyers factory in West Philadelphia employed 500 workers at its start, and the mint green building became a familiar landmark for those driving in to the city. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]


Food Processing Outpaces Manufacturing

Spurred by the demands of war and growing urban populations, food industry expansion nationally outpaced manufacturing as a whole in the late nineteenth century, and, in Philadelphia, food processing become the city’s second largest industry (after textiles) by 1910. Canning, invented to feed Napoleon's armies, became essential in the Civil War and remained so in America's twentieth-century conflicts and in ordinary consumption.

Urbanization separated more and more people from the farms that produced their food, and the new advertising industry, as well as the promise of lightened housework, helped convince Philadelphia housewives (and others) that they needed factory-made canned soup and mass-produced sliced bread. Fears of contamination that led to governmental regulation also provided advertisers with arguments for why consumers should buy brand-name (and government-inspected) ice cream and cellophane-wrapped chocolates. Philadelphia's many ethnic groups expanded the range of food processing methods and markets even further. Meat processing, for example, took the form of a first-floor Kosher butcher shop in West Philadelphia, an Italian basement butchery in South Philadelphia, and a Polish smokehouse in Port Richmond.

Canning, more than any other food-processing sector, brought the industrial revolution to the cities, towns, and hamlets of the Delaware Valley in the second half of the nineteenth century. In virtually every town in the lush agricultural region surrounding Philadelphia, tinsmiths built canneries, partnered with farmers and merchants, and sold their products not only in the city, but along the trade routes stretching west along the railways. When the steamboat Bertrand sank in the Missouri River in 1865, it carried to the bottom peaches and cranberry sauce from canneries in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey (as well as rival Baltimore). Canning also spurred development of allied industries.  Southern New Jersey's glass manufacturers provided the first containers for the industry, and several can makers followed (like the Continental Can Company located next door to Campbell Soup in Camden), while Bridgeton's Ferracute Machine Company built canning machinery used throughout the region. This growth of related industries and synergies among producers of raw materials, intermediate outputs, and final consumer goods was seen most clearly in the case of canning, but it was a phenomenon that characterized all branches of the food industry in the Delaware Valley.

Most canneries remained fairly small, but several grew into sizable establishments, employing hundreds or even thousands of workers, typically doubling in size during harvest season.  Philip J. Ritter first tried his hand at confectionery, but had more success when he began selling his wife's preserves in 1854. When operations outgrew the family's Kensington home twenty years later, he opened a factory on Dauphin Street. By 1894 his cannery employed 150 workers year-round and 300 at peak season. To get even closer to its raw materials, especially tomatoes for its award-winning Ritter Catsup, the company opened a plant across the river in Bridgeton, New Jersey.  An even more famous product, Campbell's Soup, rolled off the lines of that company's mammoth plant in Camden.

New Eating Habits

Eating new items like canned soup was something Philadelphians were learning to do, but bread and other baked goods had been part of their diet from colonial days.  Yet even with the onset of the industrial revolution, most people in the city and surrounding towns continued baking bread at home or purchasing it from the hundreds of small neighborhood bakeries. The first attempt at building a large mechanized bread bakery at Broad and Vine Streets in 1857 ended in failure three years later. But by the end of the nineteenth century a number of local bakeries and branches of national bread makers had implemented modern production and distribution methods, and brands like Freihofer‘s and Stroehmann’s became household names.

One of the main obstacles to commercial production of bread was overcome by Charles Fleishmann's (1835-1897) invention of consistent packaged yeast in 1868 in Cincinnati.  His "Vienna Model Bakery" became one of the highlights of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The Model Bakery moved to 253 North Broad Street after the Exposition (managed by Fleischmann's brother-in-law) and the company expanded from there to Manhattan and elsewhere. Other bakers quickly adopted the use of commercial yeast, and store-bought brand-name bread spread rapidly.  Philadelphia baker Charles Freihofer (1860-1942) continued the Vienna theme when he teamed with his brother to open the Freihofer Vienna Baking Company in Camden in 1899 and a similarly named company at 24th and Master Streets in North Philadelphia a year later. Rapid growth in the business led to a move to 20th and Indiana Streets in 1913 and expansion to several other cities. Freihofer's and competitors' home-delivery vans, originally horse-drawn, became a fixture in Philadelphia's neighborhoods as many smaller bakeries closed their doors.

Entrepreneurs Philip Bauer and Herbert Morris conceived the idea of mass-producing and marketing small "sanitary-wrapped" cakes and opened a plant on Sedgley Avenue in 1914. Their Tasty Baking Company was so successful that "Tasty Kakes" became a Philadelphia icon. By 1922 they moved to a much larger facility on Hunting Park Avenue.   Other Philadelphia traditions remained the province of smaller establishments.  Small soft pretzel bakeries were found in almost every neighborhood, though some, such as Federal Pretzel Baking Company in South Philadelphia, introduced limited mass-production techniques to increase their output. Similarly, the rolls used for Philadelphia's cheesesteak sandwiches and hoagies came from a variety of bakers.  But the Amoroso family enterprise, originally just another small bakery in Camden in 1904, repeatedly outgrew its facilities until it was able to produce enough rolls to meet region-wide demand in a large plant on South 55th Street in Southwest Philadelphia.

Although large-scale production of breads and cakes got off to a slow start in Philadelphia, the manufacture of biscuits and crackers was well established by the Civil War, when "hard-tack," a hard, usually saltless biscuit, was widely used for military rations. Godfrey Keebler (1822-93) had worked in a number of bakeries by the onset of the war, and in 1862 opened a bakery in South Philadelphia. His success from supplying the Union Army as well as the Philadelphia market led to expansion to a mechanized facility at 258-264 N. Twenty-Second Street and later, after a merger that formed the Keebler-Weyl Baking Company, to a large plant at G Street and East Hunting Park Avenue. The National Biscuit Company conglomerate (formed in 1898) also opened operations in Philadelphia at Broad Street and Glenwood Avenue, and later near the Roosevelt Boulevard in the Far Northeast section of the city.

Confectionary Leader

Philadelphia has also long been a leader in the confectionery industry. Stephen F. Whitman (1823-88) opened a confectionery shop on the waterfront in 1842 and introduced prepackaged candy in 1854. His company pioneered the use of cellophane in its famous Whitman's Sampler (1912) and moved several times, eventually to Fourth and Race Streets.  It relocated once again, in 1960, to a new industrial park in the Far Northeast, where it employed 1,650 workers.  (Another Philadelphia candy shop, opened in 1873 by the young Milton Hershey [1857-1945], failed after a few years; he moved about a hundred miles west where he founded the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1894.)  Among other well-known Philadelphia candy makers were Richardson's Mints (1893), C. A. Asher (1892, moved to Germantown in 1899), and David Goldenberg (who started his candy store on Kensington Avenue in 1890 and created Goldenberg's Peanut Chews as a World War I ration in 1917).

A related industry, the manufacture of ice cream, was also important in Philadelphia. Among other ice-cream makers in the city, William A. Breyer (1828-82) began making ice cream in 1866 and opened a retail store on Frankford Avenue in 1882. The business was continued by his wife and sons after his death.  The company trumpeted the pure ingredients of its ice cream, and growing sales led to several moves, eventually to a large plant at Forty-Third Street and Woodland Avenue that employed 500 workers by 1931.

Meat, poultry, and seafood processing have been small but continual parts of Philadelphia's food industry from the beginning from the beginning.  Excellent transportation to the West enabled meat processors to supply the needs of the large regional market. A few small-to-medium-sized slaughterhouses were found in the area, such as Cross Brothers in Kensington and Triolo’s in Burlington County, New Jersey. Dietz and Watson started making delicatessen meats in 1939 and expanded to other cities while maintaining a large plant in the Tacony section of the city. The nineteenth-century shad fisheries and markets of Shackamaxon even resulted in the change of that neighborhood’s name to Fishtown.

[caption id="attachment_5996" align="alignright" width="300"]Meat, seafood, and poultry processing have been small but continuous pieces of Philadelphia’s food processing history from the industry’s beginning. Meat, seafood, and poultry processing have been small but continuous pieces of Philadelphia’s food processing history from the industry’s beginning. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]


Local Consumers Were Producers, Too

Philadelphians were not only consumers of the products of the companies founded by the area's food industry entrepreneurs; residents of working-class neighborhoods throughout the region were also the ones who did the work that turned agricultural raw or semi-processed materials into finished products. And that work was often long, hard, and low-paying, especially before employees joined together in unions to press for better pay and working conditions. Among the first recorded activities of united Philadelphia food workers was a strike for higher wages by the Journeymen Bakers in 1835. Journeymen Biscuit Makers were mentioned in the press a year later.  Some crafts in the industry were unionized over the next century, but it was only after the organizing drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s that most of the areas food workers became union members--even the 1,500 confectionary workers who organized Candy Workers Local 350. Union contracts improved the lives of food workers but often only after strikes and other industrial actions. One example among many was the strike of 1,900 bakers in 1946 against eight major bakery firms including Freihofer and Fleischmann in Philadelphia and Stroehmann Brothers in Norristown. Working-class support for unions and picket lines was impressive.  A sense of the strong traditions against crossing picket lines can be garnered from an arbitrator's report about what happened at Cross Brothers Meat Packing Company when employees who had struck a different unit of the company crossed the street to an unrelated division of the firm:

 On July 1, 1971, [Cross Brothers] expected approximately 65 slaughterhouse and 18 boning employees to report for work. None reported, since they refused to cross the Local 195 picket line. The office and clerical employees and the delivery employees, represented by Teamsters' locals 161 and 500 respectively, similarly did not report for work. . . . Employees of an independent contractor building an addition to Packers' building, as well as those of a garbage removal contractor, also refused to cross the picket line in order to perform their job duties.

Several of the most intense clashes between workers and management in the food-processing industry occurred in South Jersey, especially at Campbell Soup in Camden and Seabrook Farms in Cumberland County.  The workers at Seabrook, mostly African Americans and Italian immigrants, who were paid 12-15 cents per hour, initially won a big increase in their  wages when they struck in 1934, but their union was destroyed a few months later after concerted attacks by company, police, and vigilantes.

By the early twenty-first century much of Philadelphia's food processing industry had disappeared or been absorbed into global food mega-corporations, though, just as in earlier centuries, small establishments continued to compete in various niches. There were many reasons for the decline. The rich agricultural hinterlands of the city that had supplied canneries and other food processors were no longer the source of raw materials. Although local farms still produced a smaller amount of food for the fresh market, food processors preferred cheaper mass-produced intermediate inputs like tomato paste from California and China. Beyond reasons specific to the food industry, Philadelphia's food workers suffered along with others from the increasingly aggressive cost-cutting strategies of global capitalism that ramped up in the 1970s. The lure of highly automated factories with fewer workers, remaining workers who would accept lower pay and not join unions, states and countries offering corporate tax breaks and little regulation, and repeated bouts of merger-and-acquisition mania all took their toll on Philadelphia's industries, including its food processors.

Recent Consolidation

Freihofer's and Stroehmann's breads (along with Arnold's, Entenmann's, and others) had been absorbed into the largest bakery corporation in the United States, Bimbo Bakeries, a unit of Mexico's Grupo Bimbo. Area residents might have taken some comfort from the fact that Bimbo's American headquarters located in Horsham in Montgomery County. Tasty Baking Company closed its Nicetown plant and moved to a new taxpayer-subsidized facility at the former Navy Yard in 2010. Because the new plant was highly automated, hundreds of employees were laid off.  Yet the company avoided bankruptcy only by becoming part of Georgia-based Flowers Foods (a Bimbo competitor). After Whitman's Chocolates' much-heralded move to the new Philadelphia Industrial Park in 1960, it was sold to Pet, Inc. When Pet later sold the brand to Russell Stover Candies in 1993, it closed the Philadelphia plant.  Breyer's Ice Cream went through several corporate owners; it became part of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever in 1993 where it made mostly "frozen dairy desserts" rather than ice cream.  It laid off the 240 workers at its Philadelphia plant in the mid-1990s and demolished the building. One of the city's oldest industries--sugar refining--ended with the closing of the National Sugar refinery (Jack Frost sugar) in Fishtown in 1981 and the Amstar (formerly Franklin) refinery (Domino sugar) in South Philadelphia a year later.

Still, food processing companies large and small remained in the area in the twenty-first century. Cross Brothers was gone, but 400 workers at Dietz and Watson continued curing meat in Tacony, and the Czerw family still smoked kielbasa in its Port Richmond smokehouse. Keebler's factory in Juniata was closed long ago (and the company itself had been absorbed into Kellogg's), but 700 workers still made cookies and crackers at the Nabisco plant in Northeast Philadelphia, though it had changed ownership by then to Kraft Foods. Federal Soft Pretzel Bakery was sold to snack food giant J&J Snack Foods Corporation across the river in Pennsauken in 2000, but Philadelphia Soft Pretzels continued hand-twisting pretzels at its Feltonville bakery, though by then it was competing with dozens of new franchised pretzel makers.    

The Philadelphia food-processing industry had fallen far from its important position of the early twentieth century.  Most large mass-production facilities had taken the same route as the region's other large manufacturers and moved to newer and cheaper locations in the globalized food economy. Some foods that had short shelf life or were difficult to transport were still made in plants in or near large cities, including Philadelphia. For example, while Bimbo managed all of its U.S. holdings from Horsham, it still relied on local bakeries (such as Stroehmann's) for most of its bread production (and it continued using old local brand names). A few independent companies with strong local ties (like Dietz and Watson) still employed hundreds in the area, and the growing ranks of "foodies" and newer immigrant groups provided opportunities for numerous niche producers of specialty and ethnic foods. These, along with a handful of national and global corporate headquarters of food companies like Campbell and Bimbo, marked the latest stage in the history of food processing in Philadelphia.

Daniel Sidorick has taught history at Temple and Rutgers Universities and the College of New Jersey.  His book Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press) was awarded the Richard P. McCormick Prize by the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Campbell Soup Company

[caption id="attachment_5555" align="alignright" width="312"]Strike in Camden Workers strike outside the Camden plant in 1952. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Anyone crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia to Camden during most of the twentieth century saw one of the best-known icons of American consumerism, the giant Campbell-Soup-can water towers looming over the company's flagship cannery. Campbell Soup may have been "America's Favorite Food," as the title of the company-sponsored history claims, but it was also much more to residents of the Delaware Valley. South Jersey's farmers grew the tomatoes that went into the cannery, and at its height in the middle of the century it employed five thousand production workers year-round at its Camden plants. Thousands more high school students, housewives, and temporary workers newly arrived from Puerto Rico or elsewhere swelled the workforce at peak harvesting time.  By 1991 no evidence of the cannery remained, though the company continued to maintain corporate headquarters in the city of its birth.

When a tinsmith and a vegetable merchant joined forces to form the Anderson & Campbell Preserve Company in Camden in 1869, there was little to differentiate their establishment from the dozens of other small canneries scattered among the towns and fields of South Jersey. But after the wealthy Dorrance family of Bristol, Pennsylvania, invested in the company and the young John T. Dorrance (1873-1930) carved out a new niche for the firm in convenience foods--condensed soup--it rapidly outpaced all other canneries in the region. Dorrance also aggressively experimented with new forms of advertising, placing placards in streetcars and ads in popular magazines, and later was among the first to advertise on radio (Amos 'n' Andy) and television (Lassie).   Campbell Soup became one of the most recognizable brands in America. In painting American icons, Andy Warhol famously chose the Campbell Soup tomato can as his commercial subject.

A Focus on Detail

But sales and marketing were dependent on the continued availability of good-quality but low-cost products. Dorrance devoted extraordinary attention to controlling every detail in the production of his soups. He employed agronomists to develop the perfect seed for his tomatoes and dictated to farmers how much fertilizer to apply and when. In the soup factory Dorrance's industrial engineers closely observed each task performed by workers, decreed the optimal procedure to be followed, and calculated the precise wage to be paid for each subtask. His efforts at "scientific management" and automation yielded impressive results. The Camden cannery turned out ten million cans per day during peak season and generated fabulous wealth for the Dorrance family.

The pressure to produce took its toll on the cannery workers. Employees labored long hours for low pay in hot, noisy, and often dangerous conditions, and their frustrations eventually erupted in a spontaneous strike in 1934. Workers succeeded in winning union recognition in 1940, and over the next several decades work stoppages and other industrial actions were regular features in area newspapers. The company countered by bringing in new sources of low-wage labor and by building canneries elsewhere.  Although Camden and Chicago union locals won a united strike in 1946, an attempt at a multi-plant strike in 1968 eventually ended in failure. 

End of Line for Camden Plant

When Campbell stopped using South Jersey's famous tomatoes in 1979 in favor of industrially produced tomato paste from California, the company was free to move production to newer and, it hoped, less contentious rural plants. The last can rolled off the line in Camden in 1990, and the plant was imploded a year later.

Campbell Soup Company remained, however, an important corporation nationally and in the Delaware Valley. By continuing to aggressively cut costs and make innovations in its product portfolio, the company consistently delivered profits of about a billion dollars annually on sales of some eight billion dollars in the early twenty-first century. In Camden, where 1,200 white-collar employees continued to work at the firm's world headquarters in an expansive campus setting, Campbell remained one of the region’s most important and visible local companies.

Daniel Sidorick has taught history at Temple and Rutgers Universities and the College of New Jersey.  His book Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press) was awarded the Richard P. McCormick Prize by the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Share This Page: