For Philadelphia, America’s turn to international manufacturing led to lost businesses
Philadelphia can no longer boast of being the “workshop of the world” a claim that was once the cornerstone of city’s civic pride.
The factories that throbbed and hummed up and down the banks of the Delaware River and in many of the city’s neighborhoods are now largely silent due to a variety of factors.
“The industrial sector abandoned most of northeast cities,” said Brad Buckner, chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of manufacturing moved abroad because it was cheaper.”
The flight of manufacturing that has changed the face of the city forever started much longer ago than most people think, beginning in the 1920s during a major economic shift in which smaller businesses were consumed by larger concerns.
Prior to that, for about 40 years following the Civil War, Philadelphia was one of the nation’s most diverse manufacturing centers. Census data from 1920 documented 270 types of manufacturing in the city as Philadelphians toiled to turn out everything from rail cars to socks.
“Unlike New England centers that often focused on a single sector — for Massachusetts, textiles in Lowell, Lawrence, Fall River and New Bedford, paper in Holyoke, shoes in Lyn — Philadelphia could and did do nearly everything across the spectrum of transforming materials into products,” noted Philip B. Scranton, in his 1990 book, “Workshop of the World.”
The density of the city aided it as it grew to a manufacturing center. People knew each other, depended on each other, which often helped businesses grow.
“In its heyday, Philadelphia’s thousands of modest scale firms were linked together through contracts and trade in elaborate ways that make it possible to view the city as a vast workshop as well,” wrote Scranton. “In such relations lay one key to Philadelphia’s special genius. Its flexibility and specializations, its endless versatility, for the firm was not a closed box but a unit in a constantly shifting web of interconnected activities. New products, ideas, solutions percolated through the city.”
Estimates from the time suggest that for decades more than 250,000 residents produced everything from necessities to luxuries, from domestic goods to industrial machines. While host to many large-scale operations like Budd Company and the Baldwin Locomotive Works, most of the city’s workers were employed at smaller shops.
Those small shops started to disappear in the 1920s as industrial giants came to dominate the national landscape, a fact reflected locally.
“Philadelphia’s decay like its advance was spread across half a century,” said Scranton. “A pattern that robbed it of sudden drama and made it difficult to perceive or reverse.”
Nevertheless, manufacturing remained vital to Philadelphia.
It remained so until the mid-1970s, when, unable to escape an overall decline in U.S. manufacturing, the city saw an exodus of manufacturing companies leave or go out of business.
The decline in manufacturing followed a similar decline in population.
The city’s population peaked in 1950 at 2 million. In the years since it has steadily declined and has now settled at about 1.5 million residents.
Conventional wisdom lays a great deal of the blame for that migration on the city’s strong unions. But, said Buckner, Philadelphia may also have been victim of its own earlier success.
“The factories that were state of the art factories in the 20s and 30s and 40s as you got into the 70s and 80s it was probably cheaper to build something new in a foreign country,” he said. “Plus, you could also save on labor and a lot of foreign countries have less regulation.”
In addition, the city’s industry was hit by the change from a coal based energy system to an oil based system. Pennsylvania was one of the nation’s largest coal producers giving the city ready access to the energy needed to power its plants and transport its products via rail.
“The city drew heavily on Pennsylvania’s rich coal reserves, depended on the reliability of the vast Pennsylvania Railroad system, the Reading and the B&O,” said Scranton.
By the 1950s, that was beginning to change.
“There wasn’t as much call for those technologies anymore,” Buckner said. “There is also evolution of things. Societies move from being agrarian to being industrial and manufacturing and on into service type industries.”
That is not to say that manufacturing died out completely.
A look at today’s business directory includes a number of Fortune 500 companies but aside from chemical makers Rohm and Haas Company and FMC Corporation, pharmaceutical companies Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems few are manufacturers.
It appears, however, that the shift is here to stay.
“The new jobs being created here are more in the service industries, healthcare, education, things like that,” Buckner said.