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A History Of Philadelphia’s Industries

The World’s Greatest Workshop’

It was not for nothing that Philadelphia was known as ‘The World’s Greatest Workshop’. Up until the 1920s, the industrial district was filled with mills and plants running at full capacity. As a result, the city manufactured the widest selection of goods that has hardly been matched in any other location. At the time, according to the US census, the city carried out ninety percent of all listed areas of industrial activity.

A little bit of everything

The diversity was enormous. This was not just between categories but also within genres of manufacturing. If you look at textiles alone, you can see how many different products were produced. The city’s factories made socks, carpets, yarns, military cloths, surgical fabrics, ribbons, bindings, tapestries, braids, silk stockings, pantyhose, blankets, rugs, ropes and cords, laces, knit fabrics, men’s suiting, and women’s dress fabrics. Every type of trimmings, draperies and yarns was produced in Philadelphia.

The fabric of wealth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, over seven hundred companies employed sixty thousand people in the textile industry. Unlike many other places which specialized in one industry sector, Philadelphia had the full hand when it came to matters of cloth.

Network of small firms

However immense the textile workforce was, the industry still only employed around one-quarter of the city’s labor. The town was packed with thousands of modest-size firms that were linked together in local supply-chain networks. The carpet makers brought yarn from one firm, dyed it with another, and purchased looms from a third. Philadelphia might have been the world’s workshop, but its purchases and selling were dependent on local markets. The expansion of railroads and shipping inevitably led to the expansion of the state’s horizons.

Coal powered

Around the 1900s, the city thrived on the back of Pennsylvania’s coal reserves and newly introduced railroad system. A considerable percentage of the world’s wool supply flowed through the state’s deepwater ports. Philadelphia supplied the nation with tools, fabric, and machinery, amongst other things. Steel makers produced everything from ship cannons to armor plates and drive shafts. There were machine makers of every device, from locomotives to specialist metal casting manufacturers.


At the end of the 1920s, industry in the city went into an inexorable decline. The increasing importance of science and research carried out by corporate giants is often cited as one of the reasons. Unfortunately, the experiential shop-based learning of smaller firms was not valued in the same way. Government policies failed to address the gulf between artisan and mass production. Standardization came down in favor of mass production to eliminate economic waste. Producers turned to predatory price cutting to secure orders and keep mills running and workers active. In addition, the government restricted the flow of immigrant labor that had kept the industrial sectors alive and vibrant.

Lack of technical education

In addition, there were insufficient educational establishments to train the practical skills required to thrive in the brave new world. Everyone dreamed of automatic production and white-collar jobs for US citizens. What started as a trickle of liquidations led to a torrent of firms closing throughout the 1920s.  World War II gave the city a brief reprieve from industrial decline, but the need for versatile specialists had been lost forever.

Thriving on a different footing

Fast forward one hundred years, and we find a very different picture. Philadelphia is now at the forefront of robotics and AI, which has helped hugely with its adoption of online gambling after its legalization in 2004. Due to this, we’ve seen a slew of online casinos popping up to help bear the brunt of Pennsylvania’s economic growth. However, before diving into this, what’s important is that many factors are taken into account before you choose where to gamble. There is no doubt that this is now an economy underpinned by information technology. The service-based sector covers everything from being one of the largest health and education research centers in the US to the highly lucrative online casino and betting sector. These high-wage businesses have created new wealth in the area and provided welcome revenue to the state’s coffers. In addition, NASDAQ’s Philadelphia Stock Exchange has a home here.

Big names are in town

While it might once have been the most diverse manufacturing web of small enterprises in the US, Philadelphia is now home to the big beasts. Four of the country’s Fortune 500 corporations are headquartered here. The industries that now thrive in the World’s Greatest Workshop include the likes of cable television and internet service provider Comcast. In addition, insurance companies from Independence Blue Cross to Cigna and Colonial Penn have offices here.

A broad range of companies

This city has food service companies, chemical makers, and a cluster of pharmaceutical giants. GlaxoSmithKline, Amicus Therapeutics, and Spark Therapeutics all call Philadelphia home. In addition, there is still a connection to the fashion and textiles industry with retail giants Urban Outfitters and Five Below in town. The list of global name companies is almost endless, but more big names who are either in the city or the surrounding suburbs include Subaru USA, Siemens, and Boeing.

Keeping on track

The railroad continues to play a significant part in Philadelphia’s success story. The Pennsylvania Railroad and 30th Street Station, in particular, mean that Amtrak and other delivery service industries are thriving here. Tourism is also a significant contributor to the state’s coffers, with Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell being a big attraction.

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