The John Stortz & Son machine shop at 210 Vine St. is typical of the small, specialized manufacturing that turned Philadelphia into the “Workshop of the World” beginning in the 19th century. The company was founded in 1853, and miraculously little has changed since then—the fifth generation of the Stortz family is still making hand tools in the same Old City location. Stortz & Son is one of the few surviving businesses from the era before large factories, when Philadelphia’s industrial activity was concentrated near the Delaware River, in Old City and adjacent Northern Liberties and Fishtown.
The company’s founder, John Stortz, was born in Tuttlingen, Germany, a town then and now renowned for the manufacture of the finest surgical instruments. The family had for generations practiced this trade and he himself worked for several years as a full registered journeyman in shops in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
In 1847, dissatisfied with conditions in Germany, he decided to emigrate to the United States. Six years after his arrival in Philadelphia, he purchased an existing cutlery and tool manufacturing business at 210 Vine Street.
A brief survey of period Stortz catalogs reveals tools and whole industries that have come and gone. Before the advent of refrigeration, for example, Stortz furnished full lines of ice handling tools such as ice axes, tongs and shavers. At one time, Stortz furnished tens of thousands of loom shears to the textile industry, paving hammers for installing cobblestones and a host of other tool groups now made obsolete by technology or economics. Today, the company specializes in roofing, masonry, gardening and cooperage hand tools.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.