Workshop of the World

At the turn of the 20th century, Philadelphia was internationally known as “The Workshop of the World” because they produced high quality items in niche markets across many different industries–textiles, iron and steel, hardware, furniture and home goods, pharmaceutical and medical, paints,  and more.

These goods were made by highly skilled workers in homes, small workshops, mills, and giant manufacturing plants. In 1953, 45% of the labor force was employed in some type of manufacturing industry.

Now it’s gone. Mass production made cheap and disposable products look so good. Gone is the respect and understanding for skilled labor, for manufacturing jobs, for high-quality products, for a lifetime of use.All of those jobs and factories aren’t coming back, but some can.


Businesses now have the opportunity to educate the consumer.

Every business producing high-quality products has the opportunity to begin a conversation about craft and quality, to explain the cost and how it is fractional when spread over a lifetime, and how this cost includes the quality of the materials being used to make the final product–the thread, nails, wood, fabric–and the pay going to the workers and laborers.

And they must if we want to stem the tide of low-quality consumerism. As we make and sell goods, we need to ask ourselves – will the user want to keep this item for a lifetime? to pass it down? will the craftsmanship and quality last? is it beautiful? is it well made?

Consumers used to consider these questions before making a purchase; saving to make the purchase. I believe consumers can turn back to these questions and have patience if they understand why these questions are so important.

And this is an increasingly urgent conversation because the mindset of fast and cheap over good is spilling over into our cities. How many stick-built mixed-use monstrosities with large parking decks are being thrown up around your town? How long do you think they will last?

Let’s get to work.

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4 Comments

  1. Let’s look at cigarette lighters.
    Zippo is guaranteed for life… BUT in case of manufacturing defect or failure one must return it (postage costs) to the mfr. Also, Zippo requires maintenance… polish it, replace the flint, keep the lighter fluid filled.
    Bic lasts for 4 months and when it dies a new one is available everywhere for approx. $1.19
    There is no set policy on “new capitalism”… I do think that import tariffs are bad news (basically a new tax). I’ve noticed that a lot of my “fresh” produce is coming from Central America these days. It’s good eats but it’s not “local”.

  2. P.S. Bic lighters (and Bic ballpoint ink pens) originated in France. Guess where they come from now?
    There are some products that I consider “disposable”… for instance a cigarette lighter. There are other products that I consider “not disposable”… for instance I recently replaced a Cross pen (original got misplaced/ lost) that I’ve owned for 25 yrs. I could have bought a $0.79 Bic but now I have a new $37 Cross that will probably outlive me.

  3. There was a time when North Carolina was a world leader in exporting “ship’s stores”… tar, turpentine and wood for the shipping industry. Then tobacco became king and textiles and furniture soon followed.
    The gov’t killed tobacco (kind of), the shipping industry doesn’t require much wood and turpentine anymore and cheap labor elsewhere makes the textile industry in USA pretty much defunct, Your furniture is probably made in China and designed by Ikea to be as cheap as possible to manufacture/ transport. There was a time when NC-built furniture was right up there with Philly and Boston.

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