Historical Markers
American Viscose Company Historical Marker
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American Viscose Company

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Viscose Village Plaza, Marcus Hook

Dedication Date:
October 5, 2002

Behind the Marker

Color postcard of the complex.
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Postcard of the American Viscose Corporation rayon plant in Meadville, PA, circa...
Throughout much of human history, people dressed themselves in fabrics made from wool, linen, and cotton. The wealthy few could enjoy the comfort and elegance of silk, an exotic fiber obtained from the cocoons of silk worms. After 1850, chemists attempted to synthesize complex natural materials such as silk. When this turned out to be too difficult, they shifted efforts toward making fibers that at least looked like silk.

The most successful of these fibers was rayon, which was commercialized in England by the Courtaulds Company in 1905. Rayon was made by chemically treating cellulose from wood or cotton to create a thick liquid called viscose, which was extruded through small holes into an acid bath that solidified the fiber. Although the resulting fiber had many shortcomings, it did look like silk.
Balck and white image of a man, wearing a suit, standing with his hands in his pockets.
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Samuel Agar Salvage, a founder of the American rayon industry, and president...

In 1908 Samuel A. Salvage, a New York yarn merchant, began to handle sales in the United States. Soon he was selling considerable quantities for braid, millinery, embroidery, ribbons, and trimmings. A year later Courtaulds decided to build an American plant at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, and formed a new subsidiary, the American Viscose Company. When the plant started operation in 1911, it employed 600 people. To promote the stability of its workforce, the company built an industrial village designed by Ballinger and Perrot, the engineering and architectural firm that had designed the factory and offices.

The Village, as it still known today, was designed Emile G. Perrot as an amalgam of a company town and an English garden city. Perrot drew upon English precedents such as Cadbury's Bournville Estate in Birmingham and Lever Brothers' Port Sunlight Village, as well as Hampstead Garden near London. The houses exhibited several different designs that defy precise architectural definition, though the overall style had been dubbed English Domestic Revival. The Village consisted of 261 two-story brick model homes, two boarding houses, and a store on a twenty-acre plot across the road from the factory in addition to a dining hall/recreational facility on the factory grounds. Several years later a fire hall was added. The residents of the Village, located in the midst of a heavily industrialized area, developed a strong sense of community.
This American Viscose Corporation paper advertisement highlights the many uses and advantages of man-made rayon in the under-garment industry. May 3, 1948.
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American Viscose Corporation newspaper advertisement, May 3, 1948.

Working in a rayon plant was unpleasant and dangerous. The chemicals used to make rayon were harsh, foul-smelling, and toxic; carbon disulfide was an especially noxious and poisonous compound. The Village was intended to be the home of the more skilled workers in the plant. By 1920, five thousand people worked in the rayon plant, eighteen hundred of whom lived in rented houses in the Village.

During the 1920s the rayon business boomed in the United States. Production increased from 10 to 128 million pounds during that decade. Starting with men's socks, rayon soon moved into lingerie and dresses. By the late 1920s Paris fashion designers were using rayon in their creations. But for most people, rayon represented a form of democratized luxury: as one advertisement stated, "the Colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady … look alike, dress alike, and the average man cannot tell one from the other." During this era, American Viscose was the largest manufacturer of rayon in the United States and earned large profits for Courtaulds.

During the Great Depression, the company considered shutting down the Marcus Hook plant, which was its oldest and smallest. However, World War II led to a large increase in the demand for rayon, particularly for tire cord. Every one thousand pounds of high-strength rayon tire cord saved 670 pounds of rubber, which was in very short supply. During World War II, the British government took over the stock of the American Viscose Company and sold it to American investors, using the cash to buy war supplies.

After the war the Marcus Hook plant continued to make tire cord, but rayon was experiencing severe competition in all markets from the newer synthetic fibers–nylon, acrylic, and polyester. The Marcus Hook plant ceased rayon production in 1954 but two years later re-started making a related product, cellophane film. A corporate research and development facility on site provided good jobs for some. The plant finally shut down in 1977, laying off its last 580 workers.

The American Viscose plant at Marcus Hook initiated a rayon boom between the wars that demonstrated the potential of synthetic fibers to transform the apparel industry.
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