Stetson Hat Company Site
intersection of 5th Street, Germantown and Montgomery
The famous 10-gallon cowboy hat was born here in urban Philadelphia when John B. Stetson built his company in Kensington, the "Workshop of the World." One of Philadelphia's best-known industrial giants, Stetson employed over 5,000 people and used 16 million animal pelts during its peak production period in the 1920s. Twenty-five buildings occupied nine acres (totaling 32 acres of factory floor) in the vicinity of Germantown and Montgomery Avenues; John B. Stetson started a school, a hospital and a building-and-loan society for his employees, essentially creating a city within a city. The Stetson plant in Philadelphia closed in 1971 following decades of changing fashions and economics.
Though he set up his shop in Philadelphia, John B. Stetson decided to focus on serving customers in the American west to avoid competing in the cluttered east coast market. However, Stetson Hats manufactured far more than cowboy hats. The Stetson shop turned out high quality derbys, bowlers, top hats, straw boaters and the latest fashions, always packaged in unique Stetson-trademarked hat boxes. Stetson used a fully integrated process at his growing factory; everything from stripping fur pelts to making those hat boxes was done in the Stetson complex, usually by hand. Men did the cutting, shaping, and dyeing of hats, while women completed the detailed finishing, wove straw hats, and constructed the hat boxes. During World War I, Stetson Company manufactured the cavalry hats and woolen caps for the American soldiers.
John B. Stetson was staunchly anti-union, and thought that providing lifelong benefits and activities for his workforce he could instill employee loyalty and stave off unionization. In addition to medical benefits, the Stetson Company provided everything from factory floor medical clinics to baseball leagues, Christmas turkeys and "Americanization" classes, all within the sprawling Stetson complex. Stetson's successor, James Cummings, continued the traditions that made Stetson Hats feel like an intimate "family" company. In 2001, the Kensington History Project asked residents, former Stetson employees and the children of former employees alike, to share their memories of the plant, and published their recollections in Pennsylvania Legacies:
...Mildred Schaeflein recorded memories of her father, who worked at Stetson for "fifty years and three months, becoming vice-president of the union, president of the Beneficial Association which tried to solve the new hat treatment which was making employees ill, and he sang in the quartet." Mike Korsnak topped that tenure with "fifty two years and nine months, retiring in 1963." He shared his four-year apprenticeship papers, co-signed by his mother, several photos, and even Stetson medallions with the interested audience. Palma Berenato's father, James "Lefty," started working at Stetson "when he was only twelve and retired after fifty four years." Palma remembered how seasonal the work was, often only six months a year, but the family was grateful for that employment during the Depression "when many hit the soup lines."
By the 1930s, economic conditions challenged the company's prosperity and its ability to provide for the welfare of its workers. To stay competitive during the Depression, Stetson management introduced time-motion efficiency studies and mechanization to the factory floor. The combined pressures of the new procedures and the strain of the Depression galvanized the Stetson labor force to unionize and, in 1936, to strike. The employees won recognition of the union, a 40-hour work week, and an end to the onerous efficiency studies.
The closure of the Philadelphia Stetson plant in 1971 seemed to solidify the neighborhood's long post-industrial decline. The exodus of industry from North Philadelphia left entire neighborhoods physically and spiritually gutted, destroying hard-won working-class ways of life. Nothing remains of the Stetson complex; the imposing eight-story Stetson clock tower at 4th and Montgomery burned down in 1980, symbolically erasing all traces of the neighborhood's former industrial prosperity.
Although the industrial economy is long gone, the longtime Puerto Rican and newer pan-Latino population are remaking and rebuilding the neighborhood around the old Stetson plant, and the revitalization of Northern Liberties is spreading north beyond Girard Avenue.