Human Interest Stories

“Workshop of the World”: Philly’s Forgotten Manufacturing Past

Today it brings to mind cheesesteaks, Rocky, and a certain NHL mascot you either love or hate. But a century ago, Philadelphia was known for something else entirely: Manufacturing.

From roughly 1880 through the 1920s, ships, yarn and just about everything in between were made on the banks of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers and in newly-formed neighborhoods like Kensington, Manayunk, and Germantown. Our founder Edward J. Cohen was in the mix. From his horse-drawn carriage on Philly’s dusty streets, Cohen’s paper goods business laid the groundwork for what is now Acme Corrugated Box.

Today, few traces of Philly’s manufacturing heyday remain – but we do. Acme Corrugated Box is proud to be a third-generation manufacturing company in the Philadelphia region, which was once called the “Workshop of the World.” We only wish more people knew about our city’s rich manufacturing history. So kick back, grab the nearest cheesesteak (wiz wit or witout!) and enjoy this high-level look at Philadelphia’s industrial past.

Market Street from Eighth Street, Philadelphia. Circa 1904. Source: New York Public Library

Market Street from Eighth Street, Philadelphia. Circa 1904. Source: New York Public Library

FROM EXPERIMENT TO EPICENTER

Philadelphia was famously founded by English Quaker William Penn, who envisioned religious freedom and public parks as defining features of his experimental colony. So how did Penn’s carefully-planned “greene country towne” become a manufacturing mecca[1]? We wondered the same – and did some digging.

As it turns out, the City of Brotherly Love’s manufacturing rise was largely a stroke of luck. As the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia puts it, “…no single invention, businessperson, event, or circumstance can be designated as a prime mover.” Rather, “thousands of initiatives” set the stage: A high number of skilled laborers. The arrival of more than one million immigrants between 1870 and 1900[2]. Rail and water infrastructure that made Philly a logical setting for oil refineries[3]. Growing demand for custom goods. By 1910, “Workshop of the World” was a phrase used far and wide to describe Philadelphia’s manufacturing prowess.[4]

THE CITY’S STRENGTH

Something that distinguished Philadelphia from other manufacturing cities was its product diversity. An astounding seven hundred Philadelphia companies produced textiles at the turn of the 20th century ­– yet textile employees represented just a quarter of the city’s industrial workers.[5] Pyrex Glassware, Mack Trucks, Bluestar Stoves, Woolrich Outdoor Clothing, Stetson Hats – these are just some of the enduring brands that got their start in Philadelphia, most in the 1800s.

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This wide variety of output kept Philadelphia’s manufacturing scene going strong well past the 1920s, when more narrowly-focused regions (shoemaking towns in New England, for example) had become empty shadows of their manufacturing pasts as methods of making began to evolve.

END OF AN ERA

Still, changing times eventually took their toll on Philly, too. Like other world manufacturing centers, by the end of World War II, Philly had largely become a victim of deindustrialization[6]. But while we’re no longer a leading manufacturing center, the Philadelphia market is very much still making valued goods.

A local textile manufacturing company, for example – located in Philadelphia city limits – produces the ballistic plates, plate carriers, and helmets currently being worn by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his security detail. Here at Acme Corrugated Box, we produce over 100 million boxes each year, and deliver them every day to businesses throughout the Mid-Atlantic. And while we love looking back at our past, we’re also very much forward-focused. This past year, we debuted a 320,000-square foot expansion that lets us house the most efficient box-making equipment in the business.

More than a century after our company got started, Acme Corrugated Box is proud to still call the Philadelphia region home. If you want to be part of a Philly-area manufacturing company, check out our current job opportunities. And if you want to patronize a Philadelphia region business, contact us for more information. We’re here to talk – just like we have been since 1918.

 

 

[1] https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/themes/green-country-town/
[2] https://hsp.org/blogs/educators-blog/philadelphia-late-1800s-international-industrial-leader-%E2%80%93-then-and-now#:~:text=In%20the%20late%201800s%2C%20Philadelphia,establishment%20of%20numerous%20charity%20organizations.
[3] https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/refineries-oil/
[4] https://whyy.org/articles/why-did-the-workshop-to-the-world-bustle-then-wither/
[5] https://www.workshopoftheworld.com/overview/overview.html
[6]https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/deindustrialization/#:~:text=The%20Great%20Depression%20and%20World%20War%20II,-The%20Great%20Depression&text=In%20the%20core%20city%20and,1920s%20came%20to%20a%20close.

 

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