Philadelphia – once the workshop of the world

A magnificent city skyline arises behind a white wall of damp from factory pipes as we drive into Philadelphia. Factories, ship yards and terminals as far as the eye can see. Still, it soon becomes clear that many pipes stand tall but idle; no white damp escapes them anymore. Philly – once named “the Workshop of the World” [1,2] – is standing in a rising shadow of its closed down factories. Why?

Photo: Old factory close to Phildelphia city centre. (c)

The decline of manufacturing industries in the US is a hot political issue of today. “Jobs” seems to be the single most important word in the Congress (together with its alter ego “Tax”). Today Apple, with its “designed in California” trademark, and virtual business giants such as Google, Facebook and Groupon are worth more than most manufacturing companies at the NYSE. What a fallacy! How cool is an iPad if you cannot afford it? What happened to the working-class jobs of making and sustaining things and infrastructure? Philly with its 300 years of proud industrial history provides the best example.

As the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776, Philly was the world’s second largest port behind London [2]. Industries as different as apparel, shoes, bookbinding, food, furniture, silk, iron, steel, printing, chemicals, ship yards, machine tools, locomotives, pharmaceuticals, glass, jewelry, and paper have provided people with good salaries and the state with taxes for the last 300 years. This variety of industries also became the trademark of Philadelphian manufacture: customized, innovative, high-quality, and handcrafted production. Unlike other manufacturing cities, Philly didn’t specialize in any industry, nor did it jump on the mass production band wagon [1, 2].

Herein lies also some of the answers for Philadelphia’s manufacturing decline. Its many specialised small- and medium sized enterprises could not compete with the mass production machinery put up in other cities. As consumers got more bang for the bucks other places, the handicraft industries in Philly were doomed [2]. In the city centre today you will not see much of the great manufacturing scene surrounding the city. It is a city that have undergone rapid changes over the last 30 years. Licht [2] writes that “at a postwar height in 1953, 359.000 Philadelphians were employed in manufacture, 45 percent of the city’s entire labor force; in our own times, the number of industrial jobs has dramatically fallen to below 30.000, only five percent of the total.”

Today, the majority of the workforce is found in the service sector with jobs within health, education, business services, government, financial services, leisure and trade [3]. Visiting “the city of brotherly love” it seems evident that the city has done this transition smoothly and well. The fifth largest city in the US is indeed a great city to visit and live in. I literally LOVE it. My concern is about the future sustainability of its many jobs. Service jobs are much more footloose than manufacturing.

One can wonder if The Boss made subtle references to the manufacturing industry of Philadelphia as he wrote the last verse to his Oscar-winning song “The streets of Philadelphia”:

The night has fallen, I'm lyin' awake
 I can feel myself fading away
 So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
 Or will we leave each other alone like this
 On the streets of Philadelphia [4]

Philadelphia. Photo:

Photo: Phildelphia City Hall. (c)


[1] Bowie, J.R. (edt) (1990) WORKSHOP OF THE WORLD—A Selective Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Philadelphia, Oliver Evans Press, adapted for the internet in 2007,

[2] Licht, W. “Workshop of the World”, essay published 15th Oct 2011 at

[3] Greater Philadelphia Employment by Industry Sector, Web:

[4] Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia”, Theme song to the movie “Philadelphia, 1994

3 thoughts on “Philadelphia – once the workshop of the world

  1. Pingback: What a $4 Million Error Says About Market Anxiety: Opening Line | Texas news

  2. Pingback: What a $4 Million Error Says About Market Anxiety: Opening Line | Illinois news

  3. Sad, how a great city at the forefront of American industry and which generated such wealth and pride for its people bore much of the brunt of American industrial decline. How intriguing it would be to see the City at the pinnacle of its industrial greatness.

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