Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Twentieth Century to 1945

photograph of the stained glass window of the Victor BuildingOne of the original 1915 stained glass windows of Nipper the dog listening to his master’s voice, the iconic image of the Victor Talking Machine Company and later RCA in North America. (Camden County Historical Society)

Greater Philadelphia, the “Workshop of the World,” felt the impact of national and international events during two world wars and the Great Depression. Although the region’s rate of industrial growth slowed in the first half of the twentieth century, the demands created by war energized manufacturing, particularly in shipyards on both sides of the Delaware River. The textile industry also boomed during the 1920s before being undercut by the onset of the Depression.

By the 1920s, movements of people and industries signaled a new era. The surge of immigration from eastern and southern Europe that had begun in the late nineteenth century came to an end with the First World War and immigration quotas imposed in 1924.  The region did not lack for newcomers, however, as the employment opportunities created during the world wars helped to spur the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. African Americans formed new communities, churches, and cultural institutions in much of West and North Philadelphia, in Camden, and in other cities of the region.

Read More

At the same time, there were signs of a suburbanizing trend in business and industry. Notably, Baldwin Locomotive moved its production lines from Philadelphia to Eddystone, Delaware County, in 1929. Knitting and lace plants opened in the suburbs in the 1920s, some relocating from Philadelphia.  Department stores, the anchors of central business districts, also began to open suburban branch stores. Although an “arsenal for democracy” for World War II, Greater Philadelphia was coming to the end of its industrial prime.

Topics: Twentieth Century to 1945

Gallery: Twentieth Century to 1945

The End of Prohibition
The End of Prohibition

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries (Explore in Taverns).

Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company Workers
Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company Workers

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in African American Migration).

Byberry Hospital, 1927
Byberry Hospital, 1927

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Byberry (Philadelphia State Hospital) ).

Campbell Soup Factory Towers
Campbell Soup Factory Towers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries (Explore in Campbell Soup Company).

Wanamakers Interior Court
Wanamakers Interior Court

Library of Congress (Explore in Department Stores).

City Hall, a Monument to Aspirations
City Hall, a Monument to Aspirations

Library of Congress (Explore in City Hall (Philadelphia) ).

Food Lines
Food Lines

Historical Society of Philadelphia (Explore in Great Depression).

Delaware River (Benjamin Franklin) Bridge
Delaware River (Benjamin Franklin) Bridge

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Delaware River Port Authority).

IWW Membership Button
IWW Membership Button

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (Explore in Industrial Workers of the World).

Breyers Ice Cream Factory Workers
Breyers Ice Cream Factory Workers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries (Explore in Food Processing).

Mackley Houses
Mackley Houses

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Public Housing).

His Master’s Voice
His Master’s Voice

Camden County Historical Society (Explore in Recording Industry).

Timeline: Twentieth Century to 1945

1900: Philadelphia’s population reaches more than 1,293,000.

1900: Philadelphia Orchestra founded.

1900: Consumers League of New Jersey is founded to advocate for reforms related to safe food, water, and working conditions.

1900-20: Great Migration from the South more than doubles Philadelphia’s African American population, from 63,000 to 134,000.

1901: After thirty years of construction, Philadelphia City Hall is completed.

January 1, 1901: First city-sanctioned Mummers Parade (pictured here in 1909).

1901: Pennsylvania approves a rapid transit ordinance for Philadelphia, allowing for subways and elevated lines.

Image credit: Library of Congress

1901: Eldridge Johnson incorporates the Victor Talking Machine Company; as it grows, his company makes Camden a national center for the recording industry (1902 session shown here).

June 9, 1902: Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart open Philadelphia’s first automat at 818 Chestnut Street. By 1932, the company serves inexpensive food at forty-six locations.

1902: Atwater Kent begins producing radios in Philadelphia.

1903: Excavation for the Market Street subway-elevated begins. It opens in stages 1905-8.

1903: March of the Mill Children.

1904: Journalist Lincoln Steffens brands Philadelphia “the most corrupt and the most contented” city in the nation.

Image credit: Camden County Historical Society

1905-18: Immigration doubles Philadelphia’s Jewish population, from 100,000 to 200,000.

1906: Planning begins for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (shown here), and ground is broken in 1907. Construction begins ten years later and is completed in 1926.

1907: Octavia Hill Association commissions Emily Dinwiddie to study housing conditions in South Philadelphia, leading to the Tenement Inspection Law of 1907.

1908: The Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic at Pennhurst opens in Chester County.

1908: First official observance of Mother’s Day, founded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.

1910: Food processing is Philadelphia’s second-largest industry, behind textiles.

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

1910: “Lubinville” film studio opens at Twentieth and Indiana Streets in North Philadelphia.

1911: Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protests when the city destroys more than 50,000 cats. In advocating for the humane treatment of animals, they build one of the nation’s first animal shelters.

1911: In an era of machine politics, Philadelphians elect a reform mayor, Rudolph Blankenburg; he lasts one term.

July 25, 1911: Alice Paul (shown here) and Lucy Burns hold Philadelphia’s first open-air suffrage meetings, concluding the campaign with a rally on Independence Square on September 30.

August 13, 1911: A lynching takes place near Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Image credit: Library of Congress

September 14-October 4, 1913: Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition, held in South Philadelphia, marks fiftieth anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation.

1914-18: Region’s ship builders and other manufacturers help to supply the Allies in the First World War. War mobilizes homefront patriotism but also leads to anti-German intolerance.

1914: Philip Bauer and Herbert Morris open the Tasty Baking Company. Tastykakes sell for 10 cents apiece.

1914: Northeast Boulevard opens (shown here, 1911); renamed Roosevelt Boulevard, 1918.

1915: Second-generation Italian American businessmen form South Ninth Street Business Men’s Association. Ninth Street becomes a sanctioned curb market.

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

1915-20: Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association campaigns across Pennsylvania with the Justice Bell, replica of the Liberty Bell.

July 31, 1917: The federal government contracts American International Corporation to construct a shipyard on Hog Island (shown here).

1917-24: T. Coleman DuPont finances north-south highway from Wilmington to southern boundary of Delaware.

1918-19: Influenza pandemic claims lives of more than 16,000 Philadelphians; more than 500,000 contract the disease.

1918: Race riots occur in Philadelphia and Chester.

By 1920s: Enclaves of Spanish-speakers, predominantly from Puerto Rico, form in Southwark, Spring Garden, and Northern Liberties.

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

1920:  Gimbels Department Store sponsors the nation’s first Thanksgiving Day parade.

May 31-November 30, 1926: Philadelphia hosts the Sesquicentennial International Exposition (shown here), commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

July 1, 1926: First bridge across the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden opens; Delaware River Bridge is renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1956.

March 26, 1928: Philadelphia Museum of Art, under construction since 1919, opens to the public.

1928-32: Broad Street Subway opens.

1929-41: Great Depression; in 1929-32, more than one-third of Philadelphia banks fail.

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

1930: Harry and Pat Olivieri invent the Philly steak sandwich (Cheez Whiz comes later, 1952).

May 1930: Strawbridge & Clothier begins opening branch stores in suburban locations.

1931: Pennsylvania and New Jersey create Delaware River Joint Commission (reorganized as Delaware River Port Authority, 1952).

1932: PSFS tower is the first International Style skyscraper in the United States.

July 9, 1933: Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchase the Frankford Yellow Jackets football team and give it a new name: the Philadelphia Eagles.

1933: First drive-in theater opens in Camden.

1934: Workers at Seabrook Farms in South Jersey (shown here) strike for higher wages and labor union recognition.

Image credit: Library of Congress

1936: Democratic Party holds its national convention in Philadelphia. Republican Party follows suit in 1940.

1937: Elfreth’s Alley Association is founded.

May 14, 1937: Sesquicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution begins at Independence Hall.

1940: Workers at Campbell Soup in Camden secure union representation.

1941-45: Region’s industries become an “arsenal of democracy” during World War II (assembly of cartridge clips at Frankford Arsenal shown here).

1942: Philadelphia Richard R. Wright Sr., educator and banker who was born in slavery, creates National Freedom Day to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Image credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum

1943: After hate-motivated strikes occur in the integrated shipyards of Sun Ship in Chester, management experiments with all-African American workforce in Yard 4. Filling more than six thousand positions, black workers in Yard 4 produce fifteen ships and thirty-five car floats by March 1945.

August 1944: After seven African Americans are hired as drivers, Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) union stages week-long strike that strands war workers (shown here).

1945: ENIAC, the first electronic general purpose computer, is built at University of Pennsylvania.

Image credit: Temple University Libraries

Map: Twentieth Century to 1945

Share This Page: