Photography

Family Affair

November 18, 2011 | by Peter Woodall

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.

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About the Author

Peter Woodall Peter Woodall is the Project Director of Hidden City Philadelphia. 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.

7 Comments:

  1. AM 251 says:

    What a unique story during the current economic climate!

  2. Pat Moore says:

    Stortz tools have been on display at the Smithsonian in D.C. We saw them on a visit there. Great family.

  3. Brookes Britcher says:

    The story of this shop is vital in relation to the current economic climate – when many small, family businesses are thinking of closing their doors. Opening this space up to the public could be a powerful reminder of the dedication of small businesses in this country. I hope the public supports this space.

  4. Colin Keefe says:

    Beautiful.

    Makes me think of all the other crafts that are subsumed by mass production, and the little flickers of individualism that still spark. Bespoke toolmaking.

    I shared a studio, back when sculpture was my main thing, with friend who, for his day job, made molds for a small bicycle helmet factory. He’d labor over the wooden forms for months, building tools to make tools with, bootstrapping a final product from raw materials.

    It’s an art, making objects that conform exactly to another maker’s needs. Keep it up!

  5. Laura Stortz says:

    It’s a neat feeling finding my family’s tools in unexpected places and thinking “hey, that’s my name!”. I’m so proud to carry this name and happy to see it’s being recognized for the right reasons.

  6. Ethan Wallace says:

    I just shared this story with one of the people from the National Museum of Industrial History. This is the kind of location they are always interested in. It’s so rare to find a place like this still in existence.

  7. Walt Donovan says:

    I recently married into the fifth generation of the Stortz family. Any little bit of history that comes from the surviving craftsmen is fascinating to me. They are a fun bunch as well.
    W

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