Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jacob Downs

Industrial Neighborhoods

The growth and decline of industry in the Philadelphia region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also shaped the character of many of its neighborhoods. Compact industrial neighborhoods originated at a time when the lack of public transportation made it necessary for workers to live within walking distance of the factories. These row house blocks became home to generations of working-class residents, but as industry declined in the second half of the twentieth century, communities near shuttered factories faced challenges of economic and social dislocation.

[caption id="attachment_11786" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white aerial image depicting a series of factory buildings surrounded by residential houses, businesses, and churches. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, employed hundreds of workers who lived in the immediate area around the factory. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The region’s earliest industrial neighborhoods were mill towns near waterways, a location necessary for water-powered factories. For example, Manayunk, which became a neighborhood of Philadelphia with the city’s consolidation in 1854, originated as a textile village along the Schuylkill River in Roxborough Township. Only lightly settled during the early nineteenth century, the area experienced rapid development after 1819, when the Schuylkill Navigation Company completed construction of the Flat Rock Canal and dam. By 1828 the power produced by the new waterfall from canal to river had attracted ten textile mills, which touched off a population and housing boom. The textile industry attracted English, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants, and a community formed, featuring houses for mill workers and factory owners, churches, schools, expanded mills, and improved roads. By the 1830s the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad connected the village to Philadelphia. With urbanization, residents of Manayunk—grandly touted as “the Manchester of America”—also experienced problems of the early industrial era, including instability of work, health hazards, and high rates of poverty.

From the early to middle nineteenth century, access to waterways and rail lines dictated the locations of mills and factories, which in turn created or attracted the housing necessary to sustain a workforce. In Kingsessing (later Southwest Philadelphia), for example, the village of Paschalville developed in 1810 near the Passmore Textile Mill on Cobbs Creek. In Kensington, home to mills, factories, and shipyards near the Delaware River, the population more than tripled between 1820 and 1840, from 7,000 to 22,000 residents. In Camden prior to the Civil War, factory owners built housing for workers close to their waterfront mills, sawmills, lumberyards, and railroad companies. Near Camden’s Kaighn’s Point manufacturing district, developer Richard Fetters (1791-1863) built inexpensive houses so enticing that laborers moved across the river from Philadelphia.

Homes in Shadow of Factories

In this era of the “walking city,” before streetcars or subways, industrial workers lived literally in the shadow of the factories. For most, home meant a two-story row house (or a rented room in a row house) on a street lined corner-to-corner with identical homes. The sounds and smells of the factories permeated these neighborhoods. Smokestacks sent pollution into the air, and smoke-belching locomotives shared the streets with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. The rapid growth of industry could easily overwhelm the capacity of the neighborhoods. By 1859, for example, the Manayunk Star and Roxborough Gazette described Manayunk as densely packed with overcrowded and poorly kept houses. 

[caption id="attachment_11783" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white image of a  series of brick row homes. THere is a factory with three smoke stacks further down the street. A telephone pole, a car, and a truck carrying pieces of wood are in front of the houses. Row houses were often selected as inexpensive designs that took up small amounts of space, resulting in views like this 1930s image of Camden, New Jersey, where a factory and a series of row houses could occupy the same city block. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Immigration and ethnicity also shaped life in the industrial neighborhoods. So many English immigrants settled in Kensington in the nineteenth century that it became known as “Little England.” German immigrants found work in the yarn and knitting mills and tanneries of Germantown. The Irish, who represented half of Philadelphia’s nineteenth-century foreign-born population, dominated areas such as Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Harrowgate and found work in a variety of trades, including textiles. Irish immigrants did much of the bricklaying for the industrial buildings, bridges, and railroads necessary for Philadelphia’s next industrial boom.

An alternative to the typically congested factory neighborhood developed in Northeast Philadelphia when Henry Disston (1819-78) transformed Tacony from a resort spot into a planned industrial community for his saw works and its workers. In the 1870s, Disston purchased a large tract of land in Tacony for a factory to replace his earlier plant in Northern Liberties and for worker housing. In contrast to the row house blocks elsewhere, the town plan for Tacony included lot sizes large enough to accommodate twin homes. Exercising paternalistic control over the district, Disston banned taverns, stables, and steam engines for industries other than the saw works, but he also provided a popular opera house, parks, banks, and a commercial corridor. The small community developed rapidly and gained a favorable reputation. In an 1886 report, the Pennsylvania secretary of Internal Affairs praised Tacony as the ideal manufacturing town.

By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered technology dramatically changed the nature and efficiency of industry and produced substantial growth in Philadelphia and other cities. The population of Philadelphia more than doubled from 565,529 in 1860 to 1,293,697 at the turn of the twentieth century as industry grew and intensified across North Philadelphia and in neighborhoods near the Delaware River waterfront. Many workers achieved modest prosperity, often enough to purchase their own homes. Elsewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania, Coatesville’s population expanded by 447 percent between 1850 and 1910, fueled largely by expansion of the powerful Lukens Steel Company. The increase at Chester was even greater,  from just over 1,000 residents in 1850 to 20,226 in 1890, an eleven-fold increase produced chiefly by its large shipbuilding industry. In South Jersey, Camden grew nearly as remarkably, from just 9,500 in 1850 to more than 58,000 by 1890 and 75,000 by 1900.

The Streetcar Revolution

During this era of industrial expansion, new forms of public transportation such as the streetcar (introduced in the 1850s and motorized in the 1890s) created the option of moving to less congested, less polluted suburbs for those who could afford the fares, generally five cents each way. The industrial neighborhoods they left behind absorbed a new wave of immigrants who arrived from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These trends – the departures and arrivals – produced neighborhoods segregated by income, with the poorest and most recent of the new arrivals crowding into areas closest to the factories. With housing in high demand, some of the finer factory-district homes vacated by mill owners or managers became boarding houses. At transit hubs, such as Kensington and Allegheny (K&A) in Philadelphia, business districts developed around banks, taverns, and shops, which served the neighborhoods as well as commuters.

The new immigrant groups changed the industrial neighborhoods and forged new social and cultural networks. They infused the neighborhoods with the cultures and traditions of their homelands, but public transportation also allowed them to connect with others of the same nationality elsewhere in the city. For the large number of Roman Catholics in the latest generation of immigrants, communities were defined not only by industrial geography but also by the boundaries of their parishes. As the Catholic population increased, the spires of new Catholic churches joined the factories as neighborhood landmarks.

[caption id="attachment_11787" align="alignright" width="234"]A map of Philadelphia that shows the roads, waterways, and the more prominent buildings. Districts are outlined with bolder lines, and parts of the map are color coded with red, blue, green, and yellow ink. This Home Owners Loan Company map of Philadelphia labels many of Philadelphia's industrial neighborhoods as undesirable by marking them in red ink.[/caption]

Philadelphia promoted itself as the “City of Homes” as well as the “Workshop of the World,” but over the first half of the twentieth century, the oldest industrial neighborhoods fell into decline. When the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) surveyed Philadelphia in the 1930s, it judged many row house blocks close to factories to be inherently undesirable because of nearby manufacturing, aging housing stock, and presence of immigrants. Color-coded in red and marked with the lowest grade of “D” on maps produced by the HOLC, these areas gained a stigma that discouraged investment and accelerated the deterioration of property even as new generations of residents occupied the homes.

 Already challenged, Philadelphia’s industrial neighborhoods experienced a dramatic shift in the second half of the twentieth century when industries closed or left the region, part of a national trend of industrial decline that affected traditional “Rust Belt” cities. While much of the white middle class moved to the suburbs, jobs left the industrial cities, poverty increased, and abandoned factories posed fire risks and offered havens for drug users. Crime and violence increased. In Philadelphia’s industrial neighborhoods, working-class white residents with few resources fought against integration longer than those who had settled the old streetcar suburbs. By the time they left, when they found the means to do so, the African Americans and Latinos who made up the next generation of occupants often found homes dilapidated and lacking in basic amenities. Similar trends occurred in industrial neighborhoods in smaller cities of the region, including Camden, Coatesville, Norristown, and Chester.

Aging Housing & Poverty

By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, residents in many of the former industrial neighborhoods faced problems such as poverty and limited educational opportunities while inhabiting aging, inadequate housing close to abandoned and hazardous industrial buildings. In many areas, important community institutions such as churches and schools closed or merged as the population declined.  At the same time, however, the compact nature of these districts, including their access to public transportation, guided efforts at renewal. With the aid of government programs such as tax credits for adaptive reuse of buildings, some of the former factories gained new life. Other efforts aimed to revitalize the former industrial areas by demolishing abandoned buildings, encouraging new social and commercial investment, and acting to reduce crime.

In Manayunk, revitalization came to Main Street, its primary commercial district. New restaurants moved into abandoned buildings, and businesses once again occupied previously empty storefronts. Developers and business owners promoted the neighborhood and attracted a new wave of residents. Some industrial buildings became apartment complexes and factories, while investors demolished others that could not be converted and replaced with condominium towers for the growing population. In Coatesville, officials embarked on a revitalization project of demolishing abandoned buildings to promote growth and investment. In Camden, attractions such as the New Jersey State Aquarium occupied former industrial sites, and Cooper Hospital and Rutgers University worked toward redeveloping parts of the downtown, although it proved to be a slow process. In Philadelphia, neighborhoods such as Old City and Northern Liberties experienced dramatic redevelopment. Developers adapted old industrial buildings as residences or workspaces or replaced them with new homes and apartments.

In the early twenty-first century, many of the region’s old industrial neighborhoods became just shadows of the vitality of earlier days. But remnants of the industrial neighborhoods remained, undergoing new transitions long after the golden age of industrialization.


Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Jacob Downs earned a master’s degree in history at Rutgers-Camden.

World War I

Although the United States’ military involvement in the First World War lasted just over a year, the conflict in Europe had a lasting impact on the Philadelphia region. The war created new opportunities for the industrial base of Philadelphia, Chester, and Camden, and as men and women enlisted for military service, the region developed a sense of a patriotic community through food drives and bond campaigns. World War I, known at the time as the Great War, also reshaped the region’s social landscape. African Americans migrated from the South in large numbers to fill industrial jobs, and women found new opportunities outside the home. However, the war also caused a serious backlash toward German Americans, one of the region’s earliest and long-lasting population groups.

[caption id="attachment_11554" align="alignright" width="300"]A photograph from April 26, 1918 depicting a supply convoy of military supply trucks outside city hall. Supply convoys, such as this, carried supplies from the region's production facilities to its harbors for transport to the Allies in Europe. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As Europe became engulfed in a bitter war in 1914, most Philadelphians supported the position of neutrality proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson. While the United States did not deploy combat troops in the early stages of the war, it did send munitions, weapons, textiles, and other goods to England and France. Philadelphia played a vital role in that supply.

In the Philadelphia region, the war in Europe sparked meetings, discussions, and public gatherings, and major events had local impact. For example, after local newspapers reported that German armies committed atrocities in Belgium in 1914, residents of Philadelphia and the surrounding area raised money for Belgian relief. In May 1915, twenty-seven Philadelphians died when a German U2 boat torpedoed and sank the British ocean liner Lusitania. Eight of them were members of the family of Paul Crompton (1871-1915), vice president of the Surpass Leather Company in Northwest Philadelphia. He was en route to England with his family and a large shipment of sheepskin accoutrements that had been purchased by the British Army.

Backlash Against German Ancestry

While most in the Philadelphia region supported U.S. neutrality, the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) generated enough antagonism to prompt discriminatory actions against residents of German ancestry. Federal agents raided the offices of the Tageblatt, a German newspaper in Philadelphia, and arrested staff members for treason. Philadelphians pressured the school board to halt the teaching of the German language, and vandals defaced statues of Goethe, Schiller, and Bismarck. As in other American communities, sauerkraut was renamed “Liberty Cabbage,” and Christmas legends such as Kris Kringle and Santa Claus were banned from public mention.

German Americans throughout the region, especially in Philadelphia, protested the rhetoric directed against them as well as U.S. involvement in the war. German Americans asked Philadelphia officials to help develop a better understanding of Germany and its people and to denounce anti-German demonstrations. Many of Philadelphia’s German Americans also called upon the United States to cease shipping goods to the Allies. Their actions only served to deepen suspicions. Socialists and Quakers also opposed U.S. entry into the war.

War created a significant boost to the region’s industries, which produced clothing, ammunition, weapons, and war machines for the U.S. military and the Allies. Even before U.S. entry into the conflict on April 6, 1917, the war helped to reinvigorate the region’s textile industry, which had been suffering in the early twentieth century. For example, the Dobson’s Mills, located in Kensington, Manayunk, and Germantown, filled an order for 100,000 blankets to the French army in the first year of the war, while the Roxford Knitting Mill in Kensington filled a similar-sized order for underwear. Area shipyards expanded, producing 328 ships during the war years. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation in South Camden and the Pusey and Jones Shipbuilding Corporation in Gloucester City became major contributors to the war effort. The war also vastly expanded the Camden Forge, a major supplier for the shipyards. The Baldwin Locomotive Works manufactured artillery shells and other munitions. Seventy-five percent of the military’s boots and shoes came from Philadelphia tanners.

Du Pont Prospers

In Delaware, the gunpowder manufacturer E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company vastly expanded its munitions production, from $25 million in sales 1914 to $319 million in 1918. Providing 40 percent of the munitions used by the Allied Forces during World War I, DuPont became one of the wealthiest companies in history. Its profits during World War I later drew scrutiny from the U.S. Senate, which held a series of committee hearings in the 1930s to investigate the role of industry in the U.S. decision to enter the war. Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was among the industrialists called to testify.

[caption id="attachment_11647" align="alignright" width="248"]Members of the South Philadelphia Women's Liberty Loan Committee standing on the steps of Rush Library in Philadelphia. Organizations such as the South Philadelphia Women's Liberty Loan Committee advocated the purchase of Liberty Loans to raise money for the war effort. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Homefront civilians contributed to the war in a number of ways. They donated extensively to the three major “Liberty Loan” campaigns, which allowed Americans to contribute capital to the war effort. Further developing a connection between the “Liberty Loan” and Philadelphia was the use of the Liberty Bell as the campaign’s official symbol. The campaign was so popular in Philadelphia that it was oversubscribed.

During the war, the City of Philadelphia urged residents to use less food and fuel, even going as far as to implement “heatless Mondays,” when people were expected to use no fuel, and “wheatless Wednesdays,” when they were to avoid using wheat or wheat products. Contributions to the war effort caused dramatic shortages in food, fuel, and other necessities. During the late years of the war, some Philadelphia businesses and other commercial buildings closed due to a lack of coal and food.

Rise of Americanization Programs

Progressive reformers also joined the war effort. Growing fears about the loyalty of immigrants spurred Americanization programs to promote assimilation of immigrants to American customs, language, and social norms. Advocates of Prohibition also used the war to their advantage by arguing that beer consumers were anti-American and pro-German. They suggested the grain used to make beer could be better used to feed those in need in Europe.
While the war created difficult conditions for many, it also opened doors to new opportunities. Many women filled the jobs of men who were drafted or serving in the military. They organized Liberty Bond drives and other fundraisers. Women joined the Red Cross in great numbers and served as nurses overseas, and some women enlisted in the military. While they did not serve in combat, they worked in offices and other clerical positions. The U.S. military enlisted nearly 2,000 women from the city of Philadelphia.

Wartime growth of industry and labor shortages in the North also drew southern African Americans to northern industrial cities in a movement that became known as the Great Migration. African Americans who wanted to escape economic hardship, threats of violence, and discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South hoped to find better opportunities in the North. In Philadelphia, Camden, Chester, and other cities, African Americans sought employment in industries including Baldwin Locomotive, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Reading Railroad, and Midvale Steel. While African Americans were poorly paid and forced to perform the least-desirable jobs, their chances for economic independence and advancement were better in the Philadelphia region than in the South.

Competition for Jobs and Housing

White Philadelphians, especially recent immigrants, saw African Americans as competitors for jobs and housing and resisted their arrival. In July 1918, after an African American woman moved into a house at 2936 Ellsworth Street in Philadelphia, a white neighborhood, angry white residents stoned the house and attacked nearby African Americans. The event triggered a riot that lasted two days and resulted in deaths of one African American and two whites. The threat of violence became so intense that the Colored Protective Association formed to assert the rights of African Americans.

[caption id="attachment_11648" align="alignright" width="300"]Men of the 28th Infantry Division marching down Chest Street during a homecoming parade in 1917. For its pivotal performances in the defense of the Champagne-Marne line and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division, shown here marching on Chestnut Street, earned itself the moniker "The Iron Division." (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While many of the area’s residents contributed to the war effort at home, thousands crossed the Atlantic to fight for the Allies in Europe. Nearly 60,000 men were called to arms from Philadelphia and surrounding neighborhoods. Large groups of these men served in single divisions, which resulted in numerous Philadelphians being killed at the same time. For example, 7,000 Philadelphian men served in the Army’s Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division, which saw constant combat at the front in Marne and Argonne, France, throughout 1918. The Seventy-Ninth Infantry Division also drafted a large portion of its men from Philadelphia.

The success of the Allies in Europe came at a price. As the war came to a close, the area experienced two major challenges. First, the industrial boom came to an abrupt end. No longer supported by the high demand for war matériel, many of the factories and mills in Philadelphia, Camden, and the surrounding area closed in the early 1920s. Dobson’s textile mills, for example, were hit particularly hard. The company, which had delivered 30,000 blankets to the United States Army each week and grossed $20 million in the last year of the war, began closing mills in the early 1920s. By 1928 the last of the Dobson’s mills had closed. In Camden, the New York Shipbuilding Company as well as other industrial firms had to lay off many of their employees. Massive layoffs exacerbated growing social unrest spurred on by the red scare.

The second challenge came in the form of an influenza epidemic. The epidemic struck Philadelphia, Camden, and other cities particularly hard because of their dense populations. Measures were taken to limit the spread of the infectious disease, such as closing theaters, schools, saloons, and other public places. In just four weeks between October and November of 1919, the influenza epidemic claimed the lives of many more Philadelphians than had been killed during the entire course of the war.

World War I provided the “Workshop of the World” and the surrounding area the opportunity to flex its industrial prowess. Philadelphia produced massive quantities of goods for the war effort, and the war gave women and African Americans the opportunity to become more active in public and in the workforce. However, the war also brought with it discrimination against German American citizens, food and fuel shortages, and the death of nearly 1,400 Philadelphia men. When the war came to an end, workers, beginning with African Americans and women, were laid off in great numbers, and industries and businesses began to close, creating new challenges for the years ahead.

Jacob Downs has a master’s degree in history from Rutgers University-Camden.

Walking Encyclopedia: Harrowgate

Like many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Harrowgate, located just northwest of Kensington, experienced dramatic changes as a result of the industrial boom in the nineteenth century. Prior to industrialization, Harrowgate was a small community built around medicinal springs and attracted only the wealthiest of Philadelphia’s citizens. Industrialization, however, transformed Harrowgate.

By the late nineteenth century, Harrowgate was a densely populated industrial neighborhood with mills, factories, homes, apartments, and civic institutions such as churches and banks. Irish immigrants, attracted by the large textile industry that existed there, settled in the neighborhood. Germans, English, and Scots also came to Harrowgate during the industrial boom to work in the textile industry.

While industrialization transformed Harrowgate from a vacation spot for wealthy Philadelphians in the eighteenth century to a massive community of working people in the nineteenth century, deindustrialization caused dramatic changes in the twentieth century. Despite the boost that Harrowgate's textile industry got from World War II, by the 1950s industries throughout the neighborhood began to close their doors. There were many causes for deindustrialization. Neglect during the Depression years caused irreversible damage to many buildings and factories. Industry had to share space with densely packed residences, commercial buildings, and office buildings. Industry's ability to grow was choked off by the narrow streets and congested landscape. After the war, many people migrated to the suburbs to get away from the congestion and overcrowded conditions of the inner city. Harrowgate's wealth and many traditional elements of community such as schools and churches were lost as a result of deindustrialization.

Today, the community that can be seen from the platform at Tioga Street Station of the Market-Frankford El is a place of parks occupied by families and children, streets lined with row houses, repurposed factory buildings, and people coming to and from banks, restaurants, homes, and churches. In marked contrast to its earlier history, forty-eight percent of the neighborhood's population is Hispanic. The remaining population is thirty-four percent white non-Hispanic, ten percent African American, and four percent Asian. Poverty in the area has led to high rates of crime and drug use. Many of the industrial buildings of Harrowgate have closed, fallen into disrepair, or have been demolished, although some are being put to new uses. Some of the churches and schools built during the industrial era struggle to stay open because of waning attendance and funds, while new churches, social service agencies, and small businesses serving the Spanish-speaking population are taking root.

Take the virtual tour of the Harrowgate neighborhood by clicking on the image gallery located on the right.

Jacob Downs earned his Master’s degree from Rutgers University, Camden, in American history. His focus while in the program was the effects of industrialization and urbanization on women during the late nineteenth century. While earning his degree he gained an appreciation for the industrial neighborhoods of Philadelphia. He served as the project manager and primary researcher for the Walking Encyclopedia Tour of Harrowgate.

The Walking Encyclopedia Project was supported by a Discovery Grant from the Heritage Philadelphia Program of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Project partners and advisers included the Philadelphia History Museum, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Bob Skiba of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, and Patricia Washington Visit Philadelphia. The route for the Harrowgate tour was provided by Francis Ryan, a native of the Harrowgate neighborhood and instructor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Share This Page: