Historical Markers
Philadelphia [Steel] Historical Marker
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Philadelphia [Steel]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
N. Broad Street and John F. Kennedy Blvd. just N of City Hall

Dedication Date:
December 6, 1982

Behind the Marker

Postcard of the shipyard
Cramp's Shipyard, Philadelphia, PA., circa 1910.
In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was the nation's most intensely industrialized city, with numerous small-sized and medium-sized enterprises in the textile, chemical, and metal industries. Leading metal-sector firms included the Baldwin Locomotive Works, William Cramp shipyard, and Midvale Steel, noted for its production of armor-plate, the experiments of management guru markerFrederick Taylor and its employment of African American workers.

Image of William Sellers.
William Sellers (1824-1905), circa 1884.
Midvale emerged after 1873, when Edward Clark and William Sellers began to transform the company into Philadelphia's largest steel works. The son of a prominent city banker, Clark and his family were the wealthiest residents of Germantown, a genteel suburban community northwest of the city center. Since founding his own firm in 1847, Sellers had pioneered a number of innovations -including a standard thread for machine screws and bolts.

By the 1870s he was possibly the country's leading figure in machine tools, the heavy-duty lathes, planers, boring machines, and other metal-cutting machines that constituted the guts of modern industry. Sellers had also attracted numerous talented young men of socially prominent families, forming a "fraternity of mechanicians" that served as a model and prototype for professional mechanical engineering.

African-American workers at the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company, Coatesville Plant.
African-American worker in a steel mill, Coatesville, PA, circa 1920.
In 1875 Midvale secured a challenging order for naval guns and began the transformation that would make it the nation's pioneering maker of steel for large guns and heavy armor. At the time, kerosene torches still lighted Midvale's "dark and dilapidated" factory, located at the southern edge of Germantown in a district grandly called Nicetown. Midvale, with 400 workers, had a small open-hearth furnace for making steel; separate hammer, rolling and machine shops for forming steel; and the needed blacksmith and pattern shops for design and engineering work. Soon, guns up to six inches in diameter left its shops, for battleships and cruisers in the United States' new "blue water" navy, a navy that Congress hoped would transform the nation into a world power.

Portrait of Frederick W. Taylor. Head and shoulders photograph.
Frederick W. Taylor, circa 1905.
For close to a decade, Midvale was the nation's preeminent military contractor, until Bethlehem Steel in the mid-1880s and then also Carnegie Steel entered this supremely lucrative market.(Another prominent member of the Philadelphia industrial scene, Joseph Wharton, was chiefly responsible for reforming Bethlehem in these years.) While rails sold for around $40 a ton, the Navy paid $400 a ton or more for top-grade armor. Mastering the special alloys and heat treatments needed to make hardened armor also made these three firms technological leaders.

Aerial view of The Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company, Nicetown Plant, Philadelphia, Pa.
The Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company, Nicetown Plant, Philadelphia, Pa., 1928.
In 1878, Midvale hired a new machine-shop subforeman. In many ways he fit into Seller's "fraternity of mechanicians," for he had a flair for inventing machinery. An in-law of Edward Clark, and soon Clark's son-in-law and his son's award-winning doubles tennis partner, he lived, with his proper Philadelphia Quaker family, just a mile from the Nicetown factory. His name was Frederick Taylor, the father of "scientific management," and in time his fame would far outdistance any of the Philadelphia social elite.

At Midvale in the 1880s Taylor began the shop-floor experiments that would lead him to his greatest mechanical invention, that of high-speed tool steel. At Midvale, Taylor also sought ways to wring maximum production efficiencies from its workers, and experienced workers' determined resistance to these initiatives. Soon, Taylor gained national notoriety trying to install his resulting "scientific management" scheme at Bethlehem Steel.
Photograph of Midvale Steel Company female workers. One woman grinds a small gear.
Women workers in Midvale Steel's Nicetown plant, circa 1918.

In the late 1800s, Philadelphia had the largest African American population of any industrial city. In a city where skilled jobs were largely restricted to white workers, Midvale was well known for hiring unusually large numbers of African American workers. When W.E.B. Dubois was conducting research for his path-breaking sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1901) in the late 1890s, African Americans constituted 200 of Midvale's 1,200 workers. In 1900 as many as 1,000 of the company's 3,400 workers were African American.

During World War I a flood of military orders forced Midvale to expand its Nicetown plant workforce to 11,500, including 4,000 African Americans, most of whom were part of the ongoing "Great Migration" from the American South. Despites its merger with three other medium-sized Pennsylvania iron and steel firms in southeastern Pennsylvania -Cambria, Coatesville, and Eddystone - Midvale Steel and Ordnance could not keep pace with the larger Pittsburgh mills after the war had ended.

Instead of competing for tonnage orders, Midvale converted its Nicetown plant to specialty steel production. After powerhouse Bethlehem Steel purchased the other three plants, Midvale's Nicetown plant shrank to just 1,800 workers by 1928. For the rest of the century, steel in Pennsylvania would no longer be a Philadelphia story.
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