Philadelphia is old enough a city that its business community has lived many lifetimes.
Though its Quakerly tradition shunned ostentatious consumption, there are old roots. In 1732, The Rowland Company became one of the first incorporated businesses in the country (and it still operates in Philadelphia). 1881, Wharton became the first college-level business school. The Philadelphia Contributionship(1752) is the country’s oldest property insurance company; Rawle & Henderson (1783) is the oldest law-firm and (since relocated) D. Landreth Seed Company (1783) is the oldest seed companies (George Washington was a customer).
Philadelphia’s global clout declined in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of its prominent manufacturing businesses did not adapt to a changing world. Out of my own curiosity I’ve started a running tab of some of the more prominent closures from that time.
Here’s a list:
- Derringer firearm: The Derringer firearm was first produced in Philadelphia in the early 1800s by gunmaker Henry Deringer. The small, pocket-sized pistol was popular among gamblers and other individuals who needed a reliable, easy-to-conceal weapon. However, the company that produced the Derringer closed its doors in the late 1800s.
- Baldwin Locomotive: Founded in 1825, Baldwin Locomotive was one of the leading manufacturers of steam locomotives in the world. The company’s locomotives were used by railroads all over the globe, and its Philadelphia factory was one of the largest industrial complexes in the world. However, the company closed its doors in 1956, as it struggled to compete with newer, more efficient diesel locomotives.
- William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company: Founded in 1825, William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company was one of the leading shipbuilders in the United States. The company’s ships were used by the U.S. military and for commercial purposes, and its Philadelphia shipyard was one of the largest in the country. However, the company closed its doors in the 1960s, as it struggled to compete with foreign shipbuilders.
- Disston Saw Works: Founded in 1840, Disston Saw Works was one of the leading manufacturers of saws in the United States. The company’s saws were known for their durability and were used in a variety of industries, including lumber, construction, and manufacturing. However, the company closed in the 1980s, as it struggled to compete with cheaper imported saws.
- The Curtis Company: Founded in 1847, The Curtis Company was a publisher of magazines and books. In its heyday, the company published some of the most popular magazines of the time, including “The Ladies’ Home Journal” and “The Saturday Evening Post.” However, the company began to show signs of trouble in 1964, and it ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
- Schmidt’s Brewery: Founded in 1860, Schmidt’s Brewery was one of the largest and most successful breweries in the United States. The company’s flagship brand, Schmidt’s of Philadelphia, was a household name and a staple at bars and taverns throughout the city. However, the brewery closed its doors in 1987, as it struggled to compete with larger national brands.
- Stetson Hat: Founded in 1865, Stetson Hat was a leading manufacturer of hats, with a reputation for producing high-quality products. The company’s factory was located in Philadelphia, and its hats were sold all over the world. However, the company closed its doors in 1970, as it struggled to compete with cheaper imported hats.
- Atwater Kent radio company: Founded in 1919, the Atwater Kent radio company was one of the leading manufacturers of radios in the United States. The company’s radios were known for their high quality and innovative design, and they were a popular choice for both home and car use. However, the company closed its doors in the 1930s, as it struggled to compete with newer, more advanced radio technologies.
- Various printers: Philadelphia was once home to a number of successful printing companies, including those that specialized in printing cigar labels (Example). However, many of these companies closed as printing technology evolved and the industry consolidated.
These are just a few examples of the many prominent companies that were once based in Philadelphia, but have since closed. They speak to a change economy and failure to adapt. Here is an 1870 Philadelphia business directory with other interesting, lesser-known examples.