Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Lisa Minardi

Sugar and Sugar Refining

Fueled by extensive trade with sugar islands in the Caribbean, Philadelphia became a leading center of sugar refining in colonial America. Although the city lost its dominance of the industry to New York by the end of the eighteenth century, local sugar refining continued to expand, particularly under the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”). The rise of national sugar conglomerates and increasing production of sugar extracted from sugar beets proved to be insurmountable challenges, howeverAfter acquisition by the National Sugar Refining Company in 1947, the Penn Sugar refinery closed in 1984. Its legacy briefly revived in 2010 with the naming of the SugarHouse Casino, but only until rebranding changed the name to Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019.  

[caption id="attachment_35340" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of silver sugar nippers that are slightly tarnished. The bottom of the nippers features two rounded blades to cut sugar. Philadelphians who purchased single- and double-refined sugar loaves used sugar nippers, like those pictured here, to cut small pieces of sugar from the loaf. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s early dominance as a principal seaport gave the city ready access to sugar. The type of sugar consumed and refined in early Philadelphia was extracted from sugar cane, a plant that grows only in tropical and subtropical zones. At the time, most sugar plantations were located in the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans worked under brutal conditions to harvest tough sugar cane stalks with sharp bladesExtracting the sugary juice of the cane before it spoiled required the cane to be immediately crushed or run through a roller mill. The liquid was then heated to evaporate liquid and concentrate the sucrose. This raw sugar was next packed into wooden casks and transported to cities such as Philadelphia, where it was refined—a labor-intensive process of cooling and heating the sugar repeatedly to remove impurities and produce a finer, whiter sugarPhiladelphia’s status as a center of transatlantic commerce and the availability of laborers—including European immigrants, free blacks, and enslaved people—made it a desirable location for sugar refining. 

Philadelphia consumers had access to a wide range of sugar products. The coarsest and least expensive was raw brown muscavado, a product left over after draining off molasses during the first stage of refining. Consumers also could buy single- and double-refined loaf sugar, formed in earthenware cones at sugar refineries by successive rounds of boiling and evaporation. To use the sugar loaves, which were rock hard, required wielding implements including steel nippers and hammers to break the sugar into smaller chunks. Another laborious process made granulated sugar and powdered sugar by crushing the chunks of sugar in a mortar and pestle to the desired size, using a fine sieve as needed to separate varying sizes. 

[caption id="attachment_35341" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of silver sugar tongs. The top has two rings to fit fingers through and move the tongs. The bottom of the tongs are wider and flat to grip sugar cubes. Wealthy consumers used delicate silver sugar tongs to remove sugar cubes from a sugar bowl—and to communicate their social standing. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Sugar also played an important role in social rituals. In formal settings or social occasions such as taking tea, wealthy Philadelphians used delicate silver tongs to pick up sugar chunks from a sugar bowl in order to sweeten cup of tea. Sugar bowlsoften made from costly materials such as silver and porcelain, sometimes came with larger tea services that also included teapots, cream jugs, cups, and saucersSpecialized tea tables became a popular furniture form, made of either tropical mahogany or local hardwoods such as black walnut. These tables typically had a tripod base and a circular top that swiveled for ease of use and could also be flipped up to store against a wall when not in use. 

 Riverfront Refineries 

By the mid-1700s, Philadelphia had become one of the leading centers of sugar refining in colonial America. Philadelphia sugar refiners (also known as “sugar bakers”) included both English- and German-speaking people, many of them merchants engaged in transatlantic trade who saw an opportunity to increase profits by refining the raw sugar they were importing. Many of these early refineries were located near the waterfront, with convenient access to the wharves where the heavy barrels of raw sugar were unloadedIn 1772, merchant William Coats advertised “loaf, lump, and muscovado SUGARS” in addition to rum, wines, indigo, and spices at his store, identified by the “sign of the Sugar-Loaf.” His handbill depicted the store’s interior, with numerous loaves of sugar prominently arranged in the middle. Another Philadelphia merchant, Edward Pennington (1726–96), kept a notebook in which he compiled "Observations on Making Sugar.” He noted consumers’ preference for white sugar and advocated using more water during the refining process. Prominent Germans also invested in sugar refineries, including David Schaeffer (d. 1787) and his son-in-law Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801). After Schaeffer’s death in 1787, Muhlenberg bought out his brothers-in-law’s shares in the sugar refinery and formed a partnership with Jacob Lawerswyler. The business initially thrived, but was terminated in 1799 due to intense competition and the devastating loss of a ship, the Golden Hind, of which Muhlenberg was part-owner. 

By the 1830s, pro-abolitionists in Philadelphia sought to find alternatives to cane sugar due to its reliance on enslaved labor. Sugar beets offered a promising alternative as they could be grown in temperate climates. This prospect gained plausibility after 1747, when German chemist Andreas Marggraf (1709–82) discovered that the sucrose contained in beets was indistinguishable from that in sugar cane. His protégé, Franz Karl Achard (1753–1821), discovered a method of extracting the sucrose from beets to make sugar. Philadelphians founded a Beet Sugar Society in 1836, but it failed due to the poor quality of the product. (Beet sugar later found success in California and by the twenty-first century about half of all sugar produced in the United States came from sugar beets.) 

Philadelphia encountered increasing competition in the sugar industry during the nineteenth century, especially in major port cities with an abundance of labor. By 1810, sugar refineries had opened in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia. Bthe late 1800s, New York, the nation’s greatest port, dominated the industryNew York became home to the largest sugar refinery in the world after an 1882 fire destroyed an earlier plant (est. 1852) and spurred construction of a massive, ten-story structure and sprawling industrial complex in Brooklyn—the American Sugar Refining Company. Owned largely by the wealthy Havemeyer family, American Sugar became the largest manufacturer in the United States. 

[caption id="attachment_35339" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph depicting men standing on a dock completely covered in barrels full of sugar. Barrels of raw sugar awaiting refining lined the wharves at the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company complex, known as the Sugar House. It can be seen in this photograph circa 1883-1896. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia, meanwhile, became the base of operations for large sugar refineries such as the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”)Founded in 1868 by German immigrant John Hilgert (1807–81)at Fifth and Girard Streets, the company moved in 1881 to the base of Shackamaxon Street along the Delaware River in the city’s Fishtown section. There, under the leadership of John Hilgert’s son Charles, the company repurposed an earlier whale oil works into a sugar refinery. By the 1950s, the refinery had grown into a massive complex with eighteen buildings and more than 1,500 male and female employeesFormer workers recalled that by that time, most or all of the employees were white, although of varying ethnic backgrounds; previously, during the Second World War, the company had employed many African Americans. In an industrial-scale version of the eighteenth-century process, ships unloaded huge quantities of dark brown, raw sugar (imported from both the Caribbean and now the Pacific basin islands) at Penn Sugar’s wharf along the DelawareThe refinery’s melter house converted the sugar into a thick syrup, then filtered and piped to the pan house to be crystallized, washed, and dried. The refined sugar was then pressed into cubes or packed it into bags, boxes, or large wooden barrels, while pulverizing the rest into powdered sugar. The remnants became black-strap molasses or could used to make solvents, flavorings, and even antifreeze. 

The Decline of Sugar Refining 

During the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refining industry suffered in the face of stiff competition from massive sugar conglomerates and the production of sugar extracted from sugar beetsIn 1947, the New York-based National Sugar Refining Company, also known as Jack Frost, acquired Penn Sugar. The local refinery remained active until 1981when Jack Frost filed for bankruptcyUnable to buy raw sugar, the company laid off its six hundred Philadelphia employees.

[caption id="attachment_35338" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph showing the SugarHouse Casino with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the background. The former site of Penn Sugar lay vacant until 2010, when the SugarHouse Casino—named for the sugar refinery—opened its doors. (Visit Philadelphia, photograph by G. Widman)[/caption]

The Penn Sugar site lay dormant until it was reborn through adaptive reuse as the SugarHouse Casino, which opened in 2010 (renamed Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019). The former refinery’s waterfront location, once a practical necessity, made it appealing for urban redevelopment along the Delaware River. The casino is just one example of Philadelphia’s former sugar refineries being repurposed for new uses; the Sugar Refinery Apartments were one of the first industrial warehouse sites converted to residential use in the Old City historic district.  

Although Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refineries disappeared by the late twentieth century, the industry was a major part of the city’s industrial heritage. While no longer actively used for manufacturing, the few remaining physical traces of once-bustling sugar refineries indicate the vast scale of the sugar refining industry. 

Lisa Minardi is executive director of Historic Trappe and a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where she is studying the German community of early Philadelphia for her dissertation. Her publications include numerous books and articles on Pennsylvania furniture, architecture, and folk art.

Musical Instrument Making

Philadelphia became the leading center of musical instrument making in colonial America and the early republic, reflecting the importance of music in everyday life. Early Philadelphia’s many German inhabitants, unlike the Quakers, openly embraced both secular and sacred music. Philadelphia became particularly noted for producing keyboard instruments and dominated American piano manufacturing from 1775 until surpassed by New York and Boston in the 1830s. Musical instruments continued to be made in Philadelphia, however, most notably pianos. Smaller cities such as Lancaster, Reading, and Harrisburg also became home to musical instrument makers by the late eighteenth century. In 1839, the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, became the headquarters of the C.F. Martin & Company, which continued to be a global leader in the manufacture of acoustic guitars in the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_35076" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Old Swedes Church. This 1858 photograph depicts Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei Church, formerly a Swedish Lutheran church. It is the location of the earliest documented use of an organ in British North America. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Moravian craftsmen who immigrated to colonial Philadelphia brought their skills as makers of instruments, from church organs to stringed instruments. One of the first keyboard instrument makers in the colonies, Johann Gottlob Klemm (1690–1762), immigrated to Philadelphia in 1733. Six years later, he made and signed a spinet, the earliest known American-made keyboard instrument. That same year Klemm completed an organ for the Swedish Lutheran Church (Gloria Dei) of Philadelphia.

With music an expected part of both Moravian and Lutheran worship, their churches were among the first to acquire organs. St. Michael’s Lutheran Church of Philadelphia dedicated an organ imported from Germany in 1751. By comparison Christ Church (an Anglican congregation) acquired an organ in 1728 from Ludwig Christian Sprogel (1683–1729), but it had failed by 1739 and the congregation did not acquire a new organ—built by Moravian craftsman Philip Feyring (1730–67) —until 1766. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, which had numerous German members, also had an organ by 1748. Klemm also worked with the Swedish émigré Gustavus Hesselius (1682–1755), a painter, on an organ commission for the Moravian Church in Bethlehem. In addition to the Moravians, English instrument-maker Dr. Christopher Witt (1675–1765), who joined a German Pietist group of Mystics living along the Wissahickon Creek in 1704, sold an organ, possibly one that he had built, to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Germantown in 1742.

Stringed instruments made by John Antes (1740–1811), a Moravian composer and instrument maker in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, included three examples that survived in museums and private collections: a violin dated 1759, a cello dated 1763, and a viola dated 1764. Among brass instruments, trombones had special meaning for Moravians as the instrument named in Luther’s German translation of the Bible as accompanying the word of God. Trombones typically came from Europe, however, because of the scarcity of sizable quantities of brass in the colonies.

Skills of the Instrument Maker

The making of keyboard instruments, essentially a highly specialized area of furniture production (joinery), required both technical expertise and detailed knowledge of many wood species. For example, mitered dovetail joints typically concealed all evidence of the joinery in a piano frame, which was usually built of solid mahogany to withstand the enormous strain exerted by the tension of the strings. Many instrument makers first trained as joiners and later specialized in building instruments. Both Klemm and his protégé David Tannenberg (1728–1804) worked initially as joiners before taking up instrument making. With nearly fifty organs to his credit, Tannenberg became the most renowned organ builder in early America. Keyboard instruments were complicated to build; a large organ could take a year or more to finish, while a piano might take one hundred or more working days depending on its complexity.

Most keyboard instruments in colonial American homes were in the harpsichord family, in which the strings are plucked. Their volume and tone could only be varied in limited fashion. By the late 1700s, pianos surpassed harpsichords. Distinguished by the use of small hammers that strike the strings, a piano’s sound is controlled by varying the pressure on the keys. The earliest known reference to a piano made in America appeared in Philadelphia in 1775 when Johann Michael Behrent (?-1780) announced that he had “just finished for sale, an extraordinary instrument, by the name of PIANOFORTE, of Mohogany, in the manner of an harpsichord, with hammers.”

[caption id="attachment_35158" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of a square piano produced by Charles Albrecht. This square piano is one of more than twenty surviving instruments constructed by German immigrant Charles Albrecht. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Charles Albrecht (c. 1760–1848), a German, immigrated to Philadelphia in the mid-1780s and worked as a joiner. By 1789, his work included a mahogany piano later preserved in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent—the oldest known American-made piano. In 1792, Albrecht offered for sale “TWO new and elegant PIANO FORTES which he will warrant to be good.”  By 1798, Albrecht’s shop made at least ninety-three pianos, more than twenty of which survived into the twenty-first century. Later examples feature gilded and painted floral decoration on the nameboards, likely made by an ornamental painter. Albrecht employed numerous apprentices and journeymen, including Joshua Baker (b. 1773) and Charles Deal (b. 1793), but he also advertised pianos imported from London in 1799, 1800, and 1802.  His brother, George Albrecht (?-1802), also made pianos in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

By the 1790s instrument makers working in Philadelphia included the Scottish immigrant Charles Taws (c. 1742–1836), who moved to the city from New York. Taws began advertising in 1790, when he offered for sale “of his own manufacture, a few elegant and well toned Piano Fortes.” Listed in the Philadelphia city directories first as an “organ builder” and in subsequent years as a musical instrument maker, in 1793 Taws advertised his pianos as “superior to any imported” from London or Dublin. By 1805, however, Taws began advertising imported London pianos, which he praised as superior to local products, and in 1813 he derided “HOME MADE instruments.” Given the limited market for pianos, touting imported models as less expensive and of higher quality than locally made ones was evidently advantageous for business owners such as Albrecht, Taws, and others.  

Beyond Philadelphia

Instrument makers also worked in smaller urban centers and towns outside of Philadelphia, including Wilmington, Delaware, and Lancaster, New Holland, Shaefferstown, Reading, and Nazareth in Pennsylvania. In 1839, the German émigré guitar maker Christian Frederick Martin (1796–1873) relocated his six-year-old business from New York City to Nazareth. An early Moravian settlement founded in 1740, Nazareth remained the headquarters and principal factory location for the C.F. Martin & Company into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_35074" align="alignright" width="229"]Photograph of a Loud and Brother's upright piano built in 1831. This 1831 upright piano made by Loud & Brothers in Philadelphia took the form of a secretary desk, with a case of carved rosewood. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

Philadelphia dominated the American piano trade in the early nineteenth century, and in 1830 could boast of eighty piano makers. Skilled instrument makers included new influxes of German immigrants, among them Christian Frederick Lewis Albrecht (1788–1843), who in 1823 opened a shop in Philadelphia (no connection between him and Charles Albrecht is known). During the 1820s, the company known as Loud & Brothers, started by London immigrant Thomas Loud Evenden (1792–1866) and family members, led the local piano industry. In 1824 alone, the firm made an astonishing 680 pianos at its Philadelphia manufactory on Chestnut Street. By 1831 Loud & Brothers also made upright pianos. As the nineteenth century progressed, the company also made the pump organs that became a staple element of genteel Victorian parlors.

Philadelphia soon lost ground to New York and Boston, however. In 1829, approximately 2,500 pianos were built in the United States: Philadelphia made the largest number, nine hundred, followed by eight hundred made in New York and seven hundred in Boston. The locus of the piano industry shifted with the emergence of major manufacturers in Philadelphia’s rival cities. In New York, German immigrant Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (1797–1871) founded Steinway & Sons in 1853. Boston also became a major production center, led by Alpheus Babcock (1785–1842), who moved there from Philadelphia in 1837.

On a gradually smaller scale, Philadelphia continued to produce pianos. C.F.L. Albrecht’s company lived on after his death in 1843 and in 1887 was acquired by Blasius & Sons; they continued to make pianos into the 1920s. Other major firms included the Philadelphia Piano Manufacturing Company of Hunt, Felton & Co., which operated by the 1850s at 211 N. Third Street. In 1891, Irish émigré Patrick J. Cunningham (?–1941) founded the Cunningham Piano Company, with a factory at Fiftieth and Parkside Avenue and show room at Eleventh and Chestnut Streets. After thriving for several decades, the company ceased production in the 1930s when demand for luxury pianos plummeted during the Depression. After World War II, Louis Cohen, a former employee, bought the company and relocated it to Germantown. There, the business focused on piano restoration rather than manufacture. In 2000 Cunningham resumed selling new pianos, assembled in China from parts made in Italy, Japan, Germany, and other countries.

After piano manufacturing declined in the 1900s, particularly during the Depression era, some Philadelphia companies developed a new niche in the restoration of musical instruments. Others became importers of foreign-made musical instruments. These businesses remained in the twenty-first century as the remnants of Philadelphia’s once-leading role in the production of American musical instruments.

Lisa Minardi is executive director of Historic Trappe and the Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where she is studying the German community of early Philadelphia for her dissertation. Her publications include numerous books and articles on Pennsylvania furniture, architecture, and folk art.


From the founding of Philadelphia in 1682 until the late 1800s, a vibrant community of cabinetmakers plied their skills alongside specialists in carving, chair making, and turning. Others who worked with wood included carpenters, coopers, shipwrights, and wheelwrights. These tradesmen were as diverse as the city itself, and their complex webs of language, ethnicity, religious beliefs, family ties, and transatlantic styles helped shape the region’s distinctive furniture traditions and make Philadelphia one of the foremost centers of cabinetmaking in early America. Outside the city, many locally distinct vernacular traditions developed, particularly in areas of heavily German and Quaker settlement. The Philadelphia furniture industry prospered through the 1800s but then sharply declined by the mid-1900s due to the rise of mass-produced, inexpensive furniture from both domestic and global manufacturers. It never entirely died out, however, as some woodworkers found success making handcrafted studio furniture and have continued Philadelphia’s longstanding cabinetmaking tradition.

The earliest craftsmen in “Penn’s Woods” had ready access to an abundance of native trees suitable for cabinetmaking as well as imported tropical hardwoods—especially mahogany—due to Philadelphia’s role as a major port city. Walnut, cherry, and maple were the primary native woods of choice, with tulip poplar, pine, cedar, and oak frequently used as secondary woods for drawer sides, bottoms, back boards, and the like. From these materials came an astonishing range of products made by more than 440 cabinetmakers, joiners, chair makers, carvers, carpenters, and turners who were active in Philadelphia and its environs between 1682 and the 1760s.

[caption id="attachment_26429" align="alignright" width="238"] This escritoire is the earliest known signed and dated piece of furniture made in Philadelphia. Built in 1707 by Edward Evans, it closely resembles English furniture of the same period. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)[/caption]

Furniture, account books, and drawings survive to document cabinetmaking during Philadelphia’s first decades. Most workshops were fairly small at this time, run by the master cabinetmaker with the assistance of several apprentices and possibly a journeyman. The earliest known signed and dated example of Philadelphia furniture is an escritoire or desk-and-bookcase dated 1707 and stamped by Edward Evans (1679-1754). Raised on a farm along the east bank of the Delaware River in West New Jersey, Evans completed his apprenticeship in 1704. His clients included William Penn (1644-1718), who paid him £7 for making a chest of drawers, and prominent merchants including Isaac Norris, James Logan, and William Trent. One of the best documented joiners of this early period, John Head (1688-1754), kept an account book that can be linked to surviving objects, including dressing tables, high chests, and clock cases. In a notebook, English joiner John Widdefield (1673-1720), who immigrated to Philadelphia by 1705, documented the production of items such as spice boxes as well as instructions on everything from sharpening tools to making coffins and clock cases.

[caption id="attachment_25425" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a wooden chest of drawers and dressing table with decorative carvings, thin legs, and brass fittings. The work of John Head is a rare example of early Philadelphia furniture for which there is clear documentation. Head’s account book–one of the earliest surviving joiner's account books  from colonial America–was fortuitously saved, making it possible to attribute pieces to him when there is also a clear provenance. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Many of the cabinetmakers who worked during this early period trained their sons in the trade, in some cases establishing multigenerational woodworking dynasties. For example, woodturner Jacob Schumacher (Shoemaker) Sr., a Quaker and one of the earliest settlers of Germantown, emigrated from Mainz, Germany, in 1683 and moved to Philadelphia about 1715. In 1722 he bequeathed his woodturning tools to his son Jacob Shoemaker Jr. (1692–1772), a joiner/turner whose son Jonathan Shoemaker (1726–1793) became a cabinetmaker. Another multi-generational workshop originated with joiner Joseph Claypoole (1677-1744), and extended to his sons Josiah Claypoole (1716/17-1757) and George Claypoole (1706-93) and grandson George Claypoole Jr. (1733-93).

Emigré Carvers

Philadelphia’s cabinetmaking trade expanded greatly during the mid to late 1700s, leading to increasingly sophisticated craftsmanship and specialization. Highly skilled emigré carvers helped elevate Philadelphia furniture and architectural woodwork to new heights, and the work of London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718-79), who in 1754 published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, influenced many designs. Two of these craftsmen, Hercules Courtenay (c. 1744-84) and John Pollard (1740-87), worked in the shop of Benjamin Randolph (1721-91), one of the foremost cabinetmakers in colonial Philadelphia. His shop was located on Chestnut Street, identified as the Sign of the Golden Ball beginning in 1769. Randolph’s shop produced both the lap desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and, together with Thomas Affleck (1740-95), the ornate furnishings for the Philadelphia town house of John Cadwalader (1742-86). Other prominent city woodworkers included Samuel Harding (?- 1758), Nicholas Bernard (?-1789), Martin Jugiez (?-1815), Jonathan Gostelowe (1744-1806), and Daniel Trotter (1747-1800).

[caption id="attachment_25427" align="alignright" width="208"]A color photograph of a wooden chest of drawers with elaborate carvings on the header and base, and brass fittings. This mahogany high chest was acquired by Michael Gratz and Miriam Simon around the time of their marriage in 1769. (Winterthur Museum)[/caption]

Some of the most celebrated pieces of Philadelphia furniture were crafted during this period, including a high chest made in 1769 for Michael Gratz (1740-1811) and his wife Miriam Simon (1749-1806), prominent members of Philadelphia’s Jewish community. Made of highly figured mahogany with ornately carved foliate-and-shell motifs and pierced chinoiserie brasses, the Gratz high chest is an extraordinary example of Philadelphia furniture. Its elaborate scrollwork, sinuous curves, asymmetrical designs, and naturalistic motifs including shells and flowers, epitomize the rococo or late Baroque style that was popular in America during the mid to late 1700s.

Philadelphia’s diverse furniture makers—which included English Protestants, German Lutherans, French Catholics, Welsh Quakers, and others—developed a furniture tradition that was more regionally specific than it was to any one ethnic group. They generally conformed to a standard design aesthetic rather than developing their own more individualized expressions. For example, Philadelphia Chippendale chairs typically have certain construction features such as side rails that are tenoned through the rear stiles and two-part vertical glue blocks—regardless of the maker’s ethnicity. Outside the city, many cabinetmakers drew on Philadelphia styles, but others developed highly localized forms of decoration and construction techniques. In Lancaster County, for example, Pennsylvania German woodworkers inlaid some of their furniture with molten pewter or sulfur. Other craftsmen of Germanic heritage made painted chests decorated with images of flowers, birds, and even unicorns and camels. Typical Germanic construction techniques included the use of wooden pegs (rather than nails) to attach drawer bottoms and moldings as well as the insertion thin wooden wedges into the pins of dovetail joints for a tighter fit. Quaker cabinetmakers, primarily working in southern Chester County, embellished some of their work with line-and-berry inlay. Their construction practices reflected common English construction methods, including a preference for nails rather than wooden pegs.

[caption id="attachment_25428" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a black chest with colorful painted heart and flower motifs. The name "Magdalena Leabelsperger" and the year 1792 are painted on the top. Pennsylvania German furniture makers decorated many of their works with painted, carved, or inlaid decoration using traditional motifs such as flowers and animals. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Although well-documented examples are limited, consumers made a variety of choices about their furniture. In Philadelphia, affluent and status-conscious consumers were first and foremost concerned with acquiring suitably fashionable furnishings for their homes. It probably did not matter much to them how the objects were constructed, so long as they were well-built and suitable in overall appearance. Research into the city’s German population has suggested some preference for patronizing German craftsmen, but many of the best-documented objects made and owned by Philadelphia Germans show no trace of the owner or maker’s ethnic background. By furnishing their houses with fashionable furniture, elite Pennsylvania Germans were not rejecting their German heritage so much as they were expressing their social status.

Specialization and Diversification

Increasing competition among craftsmen prompted the 1772 printing of Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work, an attempt by Philadelphia joiners to standardize retail prices and journeymen’s wages. Competition also spurred specialization and diversification. For example, Welsh Quaker cabinetmaker David Evans (1748-1819), who lived and worked at 115 Arch Street, began to batch-produce coffins and Venetian blinds in the late 1780s. Leonard Kessler (1736-1804), a German Lutheran who made furniture for leading German families such as the Muhlenbergs, became an undertaker and invested in a potash works. William Savery (1721/22-87) became one of the city’s foremost chair makers. While Savery made primarily slat-back, rush seat chairs, other craftsmen such as Thomas Gilpin (1700-66), Francis Trumble (c. 1716-98), and Joseph Henley Sr. (c. 1743-1796) specialized in Windsor chairs. Philadelphia became such a center of Windsor chair making that venture cargoes were shipped to other colonies and the Caribbean.

The decades following the American Revolution, 1790-1820, saw the rise of a lighter, classically-inspired style influenced by the publication of George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788 and Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet Maker's and Upholsterer's Drawing Book three years later. In Philadelphia, which served as the nation’s capital during the 1790s, leading cabinetmakers such as Adam Hains (1768-1846), Henry Connelly (1770-1826), John Aitken (?-1839), and Joseph Barry (1757-1838) readily adopted the new Federal style. An influx of French refugees also ushered in a vogue for furniture in the French taste.

[caption id="attachment_26541" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a carved wooden desk with gargoyle-like figures serving as the legs. German-born cabinetmaker Daniel Pabst’s works were often massively scaled and reminiscent of architecture rather than furniture pieces. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

During the Federal period, Philadelphia also became home to a small but highly important group of piano makers, many of whom first trained as joiners. In 1789, German émigré Carl or Charles Albrecht (c. 1760-1848) built the earliest known American-made piano. A prolific maker, by 1798 Albrecht had produced at least ninety-three pianos in his shop at 95 Vine Street for clients including Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) of Philadelphia; Peter Dieffenbach (1755-1838) of Berks County, Pennsylvania; and Abner Lord (1760-1821), a Connecticut native who moved to Marietta, Ohio, about 1800. More than twenty examples survived into the twenty-first century in museum and private collections.

Advances in transportation between 1820 and 1840, including improved roads, new canals, and the introduction of railroads, created new or expanded markets for goods throughout the United States. Philadelphia’s cabinetmaking trade grew significantly, propelled by more than 2,100 furniture makers, including 1,290 cabinetmakers, 300 chairmakers, and 250 turners. The output of these craftsmen—nearly 130,000 pieces of furniture, mostly chairs—reached far beyond Philadelphia to about fifty domestic cities and twenty abroad. New merchandising techniques, particularly wholesaling and furniture showrooms, also developed. Retailers could purchase ready-made furniture and ship it to distant locations for resale, while consumers could acquire furniture that was already made rather than ordering, and waiting, for pieces made to order.

Apprentice System Erodes

With increasing production, the traditional apprenticeship system began to erode. Master cabinetmakers increasingly directed the work of journeymen and apprentices rather than making furniture themselves. Conflicts over wages and increasing use of unskilled labor led to strikes in 1796 and 1825. In 1829, the Society of Journeyman Cabinetmakers, founded in 1806 as a benevolent organization, revised its constitution and pushed for set minimum wages and an eleven-hour working day. Unsuccessful in these efforts, the society founded a cooperative furniture wareroom in 1834; it soon became one of the largest furniture retail stores in Philadelphia.

Immigration also continued to shape the trade. Beginning in the 1830s, a new influx of Germans included many skilled cabinetmakers; by 1850, more than one-third of Philadelphia’s cabinetmakers were German-born. Foremost among them was Daniel Pabst (1826-1910), who helped usher in a vogue for curvilinear, rococo revival furniture.

[caption id="attachment_25429" align="alignright" width="234"]A color photograph of a curved wooden step ladder. The tops of the hand rails are carved into a stylized donkey and elephant. Wharton Esherick’s work is often cited as the bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement and modern furniture design of the post-World War II era. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The Philadelphia furniture industry prospered through the late 1800s, but it faced increasingly stiff competition from other regions, including New York, North Carolina, and Michigan. With its highly diversified array of small- to medium-scale industries, Philadelphia became known as the “Workshop of the World” by the early 1900s. But as mass production and marketing gave consumers access to standardized, inexpensive goods made by domestic and global manufacturers, the city’s furniture industry declined and virtually disappeared by the mid-1900s. By the 1970s even the Philco company, renowned for making high quality audio systems housed in “Mastercraft” furniture cabinets, switched to cheaper wood composites and faux wood components made of vinyl and plastic. The radios were also replaced with imports from Taiwan.

Not all furniture making switched to an industrial scale. Followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, part of a larger reaction to the industrial revolution that emerged in the late 1800s, advocated for a return to handcraftsmanship. In the early 1900s, members of the Rose Valley Association (a utopian living experiment in Media, Pennsylvania) made furniture—much of it with heavy carving in the Gothic style—for their own use and to sell to wealthy clients in the Greater Philadelphia area. Several decades later, craftsmen such as Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) and George Nakashima (1905-1990) found success making studio furniture in the mid-1900s and beyond. Their innovative designs combined naturalistic forms and use of figured woods with traditional joinery techniques—continuing Philadelphia’s longstanding heritage in cabinetmaking.

Lisa Minardi is an assistant curator at Winterthur Museum and a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where she is studying the German population of early Philadelphia for her dissertation. Her publications include numerous books and articles on Pennsylvania furniture, architecture, and folk art.

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