Philadelphia Trivia (Workshop of the World Division)

Disston Saw Works, New State Road and Knorr Street, June 25, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

No question about it: Philadelphia’s WOW is greatly diminished. (And by WOW, we mean the city’s claim to the title “Workshop of the World.”) In the middle of the last century, just under half of the city’s workers made things. Now only one in twenty does.

With very few exceptions (like the surviving DisstonPrecision in Tacony, the subject of a recent post at AxisPhilly) the city’s sprawling industrial complexes are gone. And with the departure of the likes of Baldwin Locomotive Works, Stetson Hats, Quaker Lace and hundreds more smaller mills and factories, we can barely imagine what the city was like before it ran, literally, out of steam. What we have in their place are echoes of pride about all that once was Philly-made, a level of bluster and noise that rings as true with the city’s character and soul that 1776 does—and, come to think of it, maybe even truer. But what’s gone is gone.

How did Philadelphians celebrate their WOW factor when they still had it? With as much pride and bluster as the facts might convey. Apparently, there’s a long tradition of finding solace in the scale of what Philadelphia made.

Looking, for instance, at a printed bird’s eye-view of the city from 1908, The Philadelphia Of To-Day, The World’s Greatest Workshop, we see that the margins packed with what might be considered, for lack of a better word, trivia:

Philadelphia with only one-sixtieth of the population of the Republic, produced one-twentieth of all its manufactures.

Philadelphia has 16,000 manufacturing plants, employing 250,000 skilled laborers, each year consuming $400,000,000 of raw material and producing $700,000,000 of manufactures.

Philadelphia manufactures 8 locomotives every working day, or 2,663 in the year. These locomotives on a perfectly level track would haul 168,000 loaded cars of 50 tons capacity.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 45,000,000 yards of carpet, enough to put a belt around the earth and leave a remnant long enough to reach Cincinnati.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 12,000,000 dozen hose and half hose, enough to allow 2 pairs for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 4,800,000 hats. The bands, end to end, would reach from Philadelphia to Denver.

Philadelphia manufactures each year 180,000,000 yards of cotton piece goods, enough to make a pair of sheets for every family in the United States.

Of course, that’s all in the past, unless we’re talking about DisstonPrecision, the successor to Henry Disston’s Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, which started in a cellar near 2nd and Arch Streets in 1840. They no longer make handsaws at the factory, which moved to Tacony in 1872, and the place is a shadow of its former self. But the making goes on at New State Road and Knorr Street, as it has continuously since 1872. And so with Disston, (thanks to Scranton and Licht, Silcox twice, and TIME) the numbers resonate less abstractly, and even a bit more sweetly.

Henry Disston Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, interior, ca. 1910. (DisstonPrecision)

The number of steps to manufacture a handsaw blade: 82.

Disston’s marketshare of the American handsaw business in 1940: 75 percent.

Disston’s annual usage of coal in the mid 1870s: ten thousand tons.

Order placed by the country of Afghanistan in the mid-1930s: 10 Disston Tractor Tanks.

The number of Disston saws sold annually to amateur and vaudeville musicians: about 500.

In 1918, 3,600 men and women worked in 58 Disston buildings. Those who had been employed for a decade or more: 1,400.

The number of cross-cuts through four-foot hemlock logs in an 8 hour shift made by Disston’s 9’ 2” diameter saws: 900.

And today?

How long it takes the 600 teeth of DisstonPrecision’s 6’ 10″ circular saw to cut through a steel I-beam: two seconds.

Philadelphia’s WOW lives on, after all.

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3 Comments

  1. Ed Robinson
    Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Ken,
    Great Article! Thank you on covering this awesome Philadelphia legacy company. Didn’t Disston even make its own steel? I would like to tour the saw works. Is there anyone to contact?
    Also didn’t there used to be a company town associated with the mills. Did you come across any remains of them?
    Thanks,
    Ed Robinson

  2. Ken Finkel
    Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Ed! Disston DID make its own steel. In fact, in 1855, according to Harry Silcox (in his book, A Place to Live and Work) they were “the first American saw manufacturer to bring steelworkers from Sheffield (England) and open a crucible mill” although they also continued to import steel.

  3. Harry Kyriakodis
    Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Disston and its steel operations, this is from my book Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward:
    Perhaps the best known company making hard products in NoLibs was the saw factory of Henry Disston (1819–1878). Disston had immigrated to Philadelphia from England in 1833 and started making saws and squares in 1840. Ten years later, he moved his business, the Keystone Saw Works, from Second and Arch Streets to a seven-acre site at Front and Laurel.
    Disston built a furnace there—probably the first American melting plant for crucible steel—and in 1855 began producing the first saw steel made in the Unites States. While his competitors were buying steel from Britain, he was turning out his own steel to meet his own specifications. Henry and his sons set the standards for domestic saw-makers, both in terms of producing high-quality saws and in developing innovative manufacturing techniques.
    Henry Disston sought to relocate his expanding business away from the cramped area of Front and Laurel. In 1872, he and two colleagues established what was to become the world’s largest saw manufacturing facility: Disston Saw Works in the Tacony section of Philadelphia. There, the company entered its greatest manufacturing period. The Front and Laurel locale is totally empty today, other than elevated I-95 cutting through.

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