Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jennifer L. Green


When American patriots declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, the single largest boon to their cause was the nation’s ability to feed itself—as well as much of the Atlantic world. Beginning in the mid-1700s, crop failures across Europe and an expanding slave population in the West Indies created a huge demand for food from the colonies. Plantations and farms in the Mid-Atlantic region met this demand, producing vast amounts of flour, wheat, pork, and other foodstuffs to be shipped from the ports of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore. In the process, plantation farming stimulated the development of the region’s transportation infrastructure and energized the already fierce dedication to scientific inquiry in the “City of Firsts,” Philadelphia.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the word “plantation” became inextricably linked to slavery, but in the eighteenth century the word simply meant a property containing between one hundred and one thousand acres. In general, colonials referred to land with fewer than one hundred acres as a farm, and greater than one thousand acres as a manor. The average property in southeastern Pennsylvania in 1700 was six hundred acres, making most early tracts plantation-sized; by 1765 the average holding was still 135 acres.

[caption id="attachment_16707" align="alignright" width="300"]The Newmyer Barn, one of western Pennsylvania's oldest surviving Sweitzer style barn. The Newmyer barn shown here was built between 1794 and 1798 and is one of western Pennsylvania's oldest surviving stone barns. This type of Pennsylvania bank barn, known as a Sweitzer or Swiss barn, was commonly built into a hillside by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germans. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In many ways, there were few differences between the smaller farms and the larger plantations. Both were family-run operations. Not until the 1820s did the first truly commercial farms come into existence. The landscape of both included a farmhouse, a springhouse for fresh water and storage of perishables like butter and milk, and a smokehouse for preserving meat during the fall butchering season. Most farms featured one or more barns for livestock (especially Pennsylvania’s signature “Sweitzer” barns built first by early German settlers), though through much of the eighteenth century farmers raised only as many animals as they absolutely needed. Native grasses were insufficient to graze large herds and the regular sowing of artificial grasses like timothy and clover did not occur until later in the century. Farms and plantations also featured a kitchen garden, which the women in the family managed for growing vegetables and herbs. In addition, farmers often maintained space for secondary occupations such as blacksmithing, tanning, and woodworking as a way of earning money during the off-season.

The High Cost of Labor

In the early colonial period the most limiting factor to farm production was not lack of land to clear, sow and harvest, but lack of hands to accomplish the work. Land was abundant and cheap. A wage laborer might quickly earn enough cash to become a farmer in his own right, and slaves and indentured servants could be prohibitively expensive. In the 1680s a prominent Quaker named Rowland Ellis (1650-1731) received 700 acres from William Penn (1644-1718) that he called “Bryn Mawr,” later known as Harriton. By the 1690s Ellis wrote to a relative that he had only fifteen acres under cultivation, barely enough to support his family. For specific tasks, the plantation owner might hire wage laborers who often “came to stay” for set periods of time. Many of these wage laborers were women (often extended family or near neighbors) who rendered domestic services like spinning, laundering, and butter-making in exchange for pay.

With so little help available, but with the abundant rainfall and temperate climate ideal for grain farming, the commonsense focus of the small farmer often fell to wheat. Wheat farming, characterized by bursts of intense labor interspersed with long periods of inactivity, only required an average of twenty-five working days per year to produce. By 1750 wheat was one of the most sought-after agricultural crops in the world. Between 1768 and 1772 the British North American colonies exported on average 1,989,000 barrels of flour and 599,000 bushels of wheat per year—much of it coming from the plantations and farms of southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

For farmers lucky enough to have many children or large extended families, or who could afford to purchase additional labor, the economic landscape was different. Larger-scale farming still centered on wheat and related grain crops, but more hands allowed farmers to diversify into crops like turnips, potatoes, flax, and tobacco, and to produce goods such as butter and cheese in quantities large enough to sell. With diversification came security against bad harvests or plummeting market prices, and for successful farmers who now had labor needs year-round, it made financial sense to invest in indentured servants and, to a lesser extent, slaves. In eastern Chester County, Pennsylvania, before 1700, for example, thirty-eight percent of households owned white indentured servants; from 1700 to 1760 the number ranged from fifteen to twenty-two percent. While ownership of indentured servants decreased after the mid-1700s—due in part to the disruption in immigration caused by the Seven Years’ War—the ownership of slaves in the liberty-loving Quaker colony increased, especially from 1750 to 1780 when grain and flour exports were at their peak. In the 1770s nineteen percent of households in eastern Chester County held slaves, especially farmers who also engaged in milling, tanning, or some other trade that generated more work than the family could accomplish alone.

Agriculture’s Larger Influences

The success of the Delaware Valley’s plantation economy not only stimulated a global trade, but also contributed to domestic improvements. Getting wheat, potatoes, linseed oil, salted pork, and other items to Philadelphia or Wilmington over coarse dirt roadways proved costly and dangerous. Under the best of circumstances a team of oxen took three days to haul grain just twenty five miles. Farmers in Lancaster County and westward often found it cheaper to float their produce down the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay. This profit loss spurred Philadelphia merchants to support a new toll-based system of paved turnpikes connecting the fertile fields of Lancaster with the bustling markets along the Delaware River.

By 1790, the “best poor man’s country” had begun to show its age. The challenges of new diseases, invasive pests, and the declining fertility of overworked land led to an active regiment of “gentlemen farmers” whose fortunes allowed them to experiment with new techniques with which working farmers could not afford to gamble. These men promoted the use of clover in crop rotations to increase soil fertility, and devised ways to combat the Hessian fly, a pest wreaking havoc with wheat crops.  The North American Hessian fly infestation began in the late 1770s in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; by 1786 it crossed into southeastern Pennsylvania, and by 1792 it devastated the rich wheat fields of Delaware and northern Maryland.

[caption id="attachment_16708" align="alignright" width="300"]A 1860 diploma from the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, an organization dedicated to improving farming methods and agricultural education, was established in 1785. Shown here is a blank diploma from the society, from its annual exhibition in 1860 in Powelton, Pennsylvania. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Former Chief Justice Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) of Philadelphia tested the theories of agricultural reformers for fighting the Hessian fly at his nearly 1,000-acre Whitehall Plantation in Kent County, Delaware, after his wheat yields plummeted from 1,145 bushels in 1792 to a crippling 205 bushels in 1793. Chew responded to this disaster by sowing his wheat later in the season, since the Hessian fly thrived in the warmer and more humid temperatures found in early fall. He also used the new yellow bearded variety of wheat, whose bristled heads seemed better equipped to fend off the insects. Seeking reliable alternatives to wheat, Chew planted as many as 150 acres of corn, as well as barley and rye. By 1800 Chew’s wheat yields had returned to nearly pre-fly levels, but by that time corn had also found a lucrative foothold in the markets of Europe and the Caribbean.

The last two decades of the eighteenth century emerged as a period of incredible agricultural and economic changes. Not only did the Hessian fly topple wheat from its place of honor as the centerpiece of a complex trans-Atlantic trade system, but a revolution in agricultural thought and practice—virtually unchanged for hundreds of years—was underway. In 1785 John Beale Bordley (1727-1804) of Como Farm in Chester County, and Charles Thomson (1729-1824) of Harriton in Montgomery County spearheaded the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, an organization dedicated to improving farming methods and agricultural education. From scientific study of weather to practical experimentation with new tools and machinery, the PSPA challenged many long-held beliefs and farming traditions. Their robust support of the use of fertilizers like gypsum and lime made possible the systemic planting of nonnative grasses like clover, timothy, and alfalfa, which in turn allowed farmers to feed more livestock. As a result, from 1790 to 1840 agriculture gradually shifted away from grain-based farming and toward the dairy farms that made nineteenth-century Philadelphia famous for its butter and cheese. The early nineteenth century also brought the continuing division of plantations through the generations. Where the average property in the mid-1700s was over one hundred acres, by the mid-1800s plantations were less the norm, and more the anomaly.  

Jennifer L. Green is Director of Education for the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, an eighteenth- century living history farm in Media, Pennsylvania. She has previously worked at The Mill at Anselma, a colonial-era grist mill in Chester County, where her study of early American agricultural and industrial history began. In addition to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, she has written multiple articles for ExplorePAHistory.

Flour Milling

At the time the first European colonists settled in the Delaware Valley, few places in the world were as well-suited to the cultivation of grains. The region’s generous rainfall, mild climate, and rich limestone soils provided the perfect environment for planting  wheat, the most desirable and profitable grain in the world.  By 1750 the Delaware Valley produced such a surplus that its wheat and flour not only supplied the American market but also were exported to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.  In the process American millers spearheaded innovations in transportation and food safety and established an industrial foundation for the region’s later reputation as the “Workshop of the World.”

[caption id="attachment_4489" align="alignright" width="300"] Roberts’ grist mill, built in 1683 at Mill Street (Church Lane) and Wingohocking Street in Philadelphia, is considered to have been the oldest grist mill in Pennsylvania. It was demolished in 1873. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As early as the 1650s, industrious farmers produced enough wheat not only to sustain themselves but also to send a surplus to market. For farmers in the city’s hinterland, the center of any rural community was the “custom” grist mill.  More than just a place where farmers took their product for grinding, the mill was where they learned news, met with friends, and transacted  business. These custom mills serviced a geographic radius of five to ten miles—the distance a farmer could travel with a wagon in one day. Custom mills were small, typically one or two stories, and the miller extracted payment by taking a “toll,” or a portion of the product. This he could keep for his own use or sell. Unlike the grist mills of New England and the South, most Delaware Valley mills were powered by indoor water wheels, an innovation unique to this area.  Moving the wheel inside helped prevent it from icing in the winter, and the miller could work nearly year-round.

As demand for Pennsylvania flour increased, larger merchant mills appeared. Merchant mills differed from custom mills in that they purchased unprocessed wheat seeds from the farmers and sold the rendered flour at market themselves or through agents. The most famous of these merchant milling centers developed on the banks of the Brandywine River, where shallops (ships slightly smaller than sloops) were loaded directly at the mill with up to two hundred barrels of flour at a time for shipping to Philadelphia. By the 1770s the Brandywine mills featured prominently in travel accounts as “must-see” destinations.  Their round-the-clock operation contributed to the growth of a symbiotic industrial town,  Brandywine Village, which provided a ready supply of skilled workers such as coopers, millwrights, and ship captains. The difficulty and expense of transporting wheat from western farms to eastern markets, often over roads plagued with potholes and muddy quagmires, led to the incorporation of the first paved turnpikes and turned the simple business of transportation into a potentially lucrative venture.

Flour Inspection Act

The importance of flour to Philadelphia was further demonstrated by the city’s preoccupation with protecting its dominance in the market. After decades of competing with New York and Baltimore, during which time Philadelphia flour developed the reputation of being lower quality than that of its neighbors, the city passed the first comprehensive flour inspection act in 1722. This act stipulated that flour intended for export meet a set standard for quality and be packed in barrels branded with the registered mark of the miller. Millers who improperly classified the quality of their flour or who were caught tampering with weights paid  severe penalties. These laws, among the first of their kind in the British colonies, enabled Philadelphia’s flour exports to increase sevenfold from the 1730s to the early 1770s. 

[caption id="attachment_4577" align="alignright" width="300"] Oliver Evans’ invention of the “hopper boy” revolutionized the way flour was sifted and packed. Evans’ system involved bucket elevators to carry wheat and flour between different floors of the mill to a mechanized rake called a “hopper boy.” (Library of Congress)[/caption]

This commitment to quality, paired with a series of poor harvests in Europe, soon made the Delaware Valley the breadbasket of the world.  A further boon was the work of inventor Oliver Evans (1755-1819). Evans was born in Newport, near Wilmington, Delaware, already  famous for its Brandywine River mills. Prior to his inventions, a grist mill required four or five workmen to keep the machines running smoothly and the wheat and flour flowing. The system often bogged down when it came time to sift the flour, which was warm and moist from the friction of the stones. Moist flour clogged the sifters, and warm flour packed before it cooled could turn rancid before it reached its consumers.  Evans invented a system by which bucket elevators did the work of men to carry wheat and flour between the different floors of a mill, and a mechanized rake called a “hopper boy” cooled the flour and delivered it to the sifting machines. These innovations made flour milling perhaps the first automated industry in America, and on December 18, 1790, Evans received the third patent ever awarded by the United States government.

Area Reigned Until 1815

The Delaware Valley continued to reign as the world’s foremost milling center until 1815. The steady decline after that time period can be attributed to a number of factors.  First, Philadelphia’s flour merchants depended heavily on the trade of high-quality “superfine” flour to European markets.  Improved harvests in Europe in the early part of the nineteenth century diminished demand for American wheat and flour, while at the same time the catastrophic invasion of the Hessian Fly, which first appeared on Long Island in 1777, destroyed wheat harvests in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.  After consecutive years of loss, many farmers stopped planting wheat altogether and focused on corn, rye, and oats, which were fine for domestic use but had no market overseas.

By 1860 railroads made possible the free flow of farmers and commerce to the open, fertile plains of the Midwest. Hard Midwestern wheat, higher in gluten content than softer Eastern wheat, could not be processed on millstones because of its tough hull. When “roller mill” technology emerged to process this desirable product, the giant new commercial mills on the Mississippi River won those sought-after contracts. Millers in the Delaware Valley were slow to refit their machines, and most saw no point in competing with Minneapolis, which after 1880 was simply known as “Mill City,” home to corporations like Pillsbury and Gold Medal Flour.

For a century, Greater Philadelphia served as the powerhouse of the world’s flour economy. Even though the flour bubble burst after 1815, there existed enough of an industrial foundation that many of these mills and commercial centers successfully shifted to more marketable products.  The Brandywine Valley’s world-famous grist mills converted to textiles, paper and gunpowder. Emerging industries took advantage of existing pools of skilled laborers and shippers, as well as one of the best transportation infrastructures in the country. All of these were built in large part on the back of the flour industry.

Jennifer L. Green spent four years as the education and interpretation director at a historic grist mill in Chester County, Pa., and continues her work in the industrial history of the Greater Philadelphia area as Program Manager at the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, Pa.

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