Stories from PA History
A Diversity of Industries
A Diversity of Industries
Chapter 1: From Craft to Industry

Sepia photo of the restored mill as it appears today.
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George Washington's Grist Mill in Perryopolis, PA, as it appeared in 2005.
The fact that Europeans could construct ships that could navigate across three thousand miles of ocean to the Americas was in itself an indication of their technological sophistication. The construction of a sailing ship required the skills of numerous craftsmen who worked with wood, metal, fiber, and other materials. In the colonial era, technological know-how resided in these skilled craftsmen, who had learned their trade through a long period as apprentices and journeymen before achieving master status. In the late seventeenth century as colonists settled in Pennsylvania, they brought with them technological skills that would be needed to exploit the resources of the region.

Although most settlers became farmers, they still relied on craftsmen, such as blacksmiths, to make or repair iron tools. As farmers started to grow substantial quantities of European wheat and Native-American corn, they needed water-powered grist mills to produce flour and meal. Millwrights employed a variety of skills, including dam and mill race construction, to build what were large machines made primarily of wood. Flowing water turned a waterwheel that, through a series of gears, powered large rotating stones that ground the grain. Although the markercolonial mill was a European import, American colonists quickly applied water power to sawmills.

In Pennsylvania where there was great demand for lumber, an abundance of trees, and a shortage of labor, sawmills followed the path of settlement. Lumber became a major Pennsylvania industry. Thus, the saw mill was an early example of the adaptation of European technology to American conditions. To cut down the trees colonists developed a lighter and more efficient axe than the ones they originally brought from Europe.
Conestoga Wagon with horse team and farmer
Farmer John Shreiner and his Conestoga Wagon, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910.

Two other important adaptations of European technologies were the markerPennsylvania rifle and the markerConestoga wagon, both the products of German craftsmen in Lancaster County. It is impossible to determine a specific date or inventor for these technologies; rather, their designs evolved gradually within a community of craftsmen who borrowed from each other. At some point, however, a more or less standard design did emerge. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Pennsylvania rifle had become a relatively light and long-barreled gun that was accurate at several hundred yards. It became the preferred weapon for hunting and self defense, especially among settlers moving over the Appalachian Mountains. It was so popular on the frontier that it became known as the Kentucky Rifle. Also in the mid-eighteenth century the Conestoga wagon appeared as a general purpose freight vehicle. It was designed to carry goods over the rather poor colonial roads.
Advertisement depicting the large factory's several industrial buildings, sheds, and fenced yard near a busy street and sidewalk. Workers attend to a maze of drying lines with hanging leather pieces. Delivery carts traverse the yard and depart through the gate under the sign McNeely and Co. and a laborer uses a horse-drawn cart to collect coal from a mound beside the main building. Pedestrians stroll and converse on the sidewalk. In the street, an African American couple push a filled handcart and a crowded horse-drawn omnibus from the Frankford Road, Fourth Street line passes by.
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Lithograph of the McNeely and Company Leather Manufactory, 4th. Street below...

Lancaster County teamsters began to make regular trips to Philadelphia with food for the inhabitants of the growing urban area. On their return trips they hauled imported or manufactured goods into the hinterland. Other teamsters served the settlers farther out on the frontier in western Pennsylvania. Conestoga wagons carrying supplies served in the British military expeditions to capture the French Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh), during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Although the Conestoga wagon would eventually be replaced by other forms of land transportation, the manufacture of wooden vehicles became a major industry in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century.
Shown here is a "skidway" of more than 3000 logs next to railroad tracks. Men stand along the tops of the pile that stretches across the landscape.
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Skidway of more than 3,000 logs above railroad tracks, somewhere in Pennsylvania,...

Other European craft technologies served as the basis for Pennsylvania industries. One of the first enterprises in early Philadelphia was a tannery.markerTanning, which involved soaking hides in noisome substances, created so much air and water pollution that markerBenjamin Franklin tried to get tanneries banned from the city. In spite of such drawbacks, tanning proliferated; there was one tannery for every three grist and markerlumber mills in Pennsylvania. The state's industry peaked around 1900, when Pennsylvania produced more than a quarter of the nation's leather. At this time hemlock trees, being logged extensively in the northern tier counties, such as Tioga County, of the state, provided bark used for tanning.
Black and white photograph of a mill. A woman stands near the entrance.
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The old paper mill across from David Rittenhouse's birthplace, Philadelphia,...

Paper, then made from linen rags, was an important commodity for books, newspapers, and legal documents. It was a tax on legal documents, the infamous Stamp Act, that particularly infuriated Americans in 1765. The first paper mill in the colonies was constructed about 1690 near Philadelphia–in what became known as markerRittenhouse Town – by a Dutch paper maker, William Rittenhouse. His son Claus would operate the paper mill until his death in 1734.  The eighteenth century saw the establishment of many other paper mills in Pennsylvania and other colonies.
A glass blower works with a blowing iron and molten glass to blow a window-glass cylinder. Other workers are observing the task.
A glass blower works with a blowing iron and molten glass to blow a window-glass...
Engel and Wolf's brewery and vaults at Fountain Green. Including five large vaults containing 50,352 cubic feet cut out of the solid rock and about 45 feet below ground, where they keep their well known lager beer
Engel and Wolf's brewery and vaults, Philadelphia, PA. circa 1855.

Another important craft was glassblowing. In the 1760s Henry Stiegel established the markerStiegel Glass Manufactory that employed European artisans to make fine glassware, which is still valued by collectors today. In the nineteenth century cheap natural gas would fuel a major glass industry along the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania.

The ancient craft of brewing beer also became well established in America. In the 1840s, a German immigrant to Philadelphia, John Wagner, began to brew markerAmerica's first lager, which soon became the most popular beer among Americans. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania became major brewing centers for over a century.

These are just some examples of European craft-based technologies that became significant industries in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. During this period industrialization usually meant centralized production in factories that increasingly used machines driven by water or steam power. Even when machines were not used, factory production entailed extensive division of labor that allowed employment of unskilled workers. The coming of factories, however, did not displace all skilled craftsmen. As machinery proliferated so did jobs for the skilled craftsmen who could make and fix them.
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