Discovering My Family’s Place In The Workshop Of The World

 

On a routine trip to the printers in Port Richmond, author Amy Cohen discovers that the business her grandfather founded in 1923, the Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company, is still in operation today. | Photo: Amy Cohen

In 2010, I taught an urban studies course to seniors at Masterman High School. During that year, we welcomed an impressive array of guest speakers to the class. We heard stories and insights from Buzz Bissinger, Sam Katz, John Gallery, Bart Blatstein, and at least a half dozen others. Early on, we noticed that every speaker—whether city planner, urban historian, or real estate developer—at some point used the same four words: “Workshop of the World.” As has been well documented by Hidden City, to live in Philadelphia is to be surrounded by relics of a bygone industrial era. In nearly every corner of the city, empty warehouses, abandoned railyards, and decaying factory buildings can be found.

Two years ago, I went to pick up an order from Fireball Printing in Port Richmond and found myself in an old factory building. Far from abandoned, this one had an odd mix of notably traditional businesses–Metropolitan Flag and Banner, Kinsey & Conway Knitting Mills–and new, creative enterprises–Pterodactyl Creative Project Space and Yay Clay!, a BYOB pottery and arts studio. As I exited this surprisingly bustling workspace, a small sign on a nondescript brick building across the street caught my eye: Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company, a business founded by my grandfather that is still in operation today. I was stunned. To understand my surprise, we’ll need to take a trip back to Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century.

Self-Made Merton

It’s 1901. A lavish carriage pulls up at the entrance to the Bellevue Stratford Hotel on Broad Street. Out steps an elegantly dressed woman followed by her young son. “Come along, Merton,” she calls to the lagging little boy—just as my pregnant great grandmother was walking by.

And that, according to family lore, is how my grandfather, Merton Gilbert Herbach got his first name. The posh name, however, was purely aspirational. “Gillie” Herbach spent his childhood in a Franklin Street row house in North Philadelphia with 10 members of three generations–and one bathroom.

Although the family was not entirely poor, money was always tight. Perhaps this, as well as living through vagaries of early 20th century financial cycles and the Great Depression, made my grandfather acutely aware of quotidian economics.

In 1981, shocked that my 18-year-old sister was being paid a staggering $200 a week at her summer job at a frozen yogurt shop, my then 80-year-old grandfather wrote a sort of financial memoir in an effort to demonstrate to my sister and me how different things were in his youth.

A portrait taken in the early 1900s of Merton “Gillie” Herbach, sisters Cecelia and Claire Herbach, and their mother, Lena Magaziner Herbach. | Image courtesy of Nancy Herbach Nance

Gillie Herbach had his first real job at age 12 as a “pin boy” at a bowling alley, setting up pins for two cents a frame. After his sophomore year at Central High School, he worked at a pawn shop where he earned six dollars for a 60-hour work week. The shop specialized in clothing, a system my grandfather explains as follows in his memoir:

A man bought a suit that maybe cost $15. This was his wedding suit, his Sunday suit, and he probably was buried in it. It was one of his major assets. If things got tough the first thing to hock was the old man’s suit. If the suit was in decent shape and apparently well cared for, the broker would lend a maximum of $6 on it. One of the older kids would bring it on Monday and get her $6. Then on Saturday when the man got paid, she would come in and take it on Saturday night so that he would look respectable on Sunday then back it would come on Monday and so on ad infinitum.

My grandfather was astute enough to realize the sad math of this system—the pawn shop owner gained $23 per customer per year by repeatedly lending the same six dollars at six percent interest (36 cents a week) and charging a 10 cent fee to keep the suit on a hanger, rather than bundled in a little package.

In 1917, high school boys with good grades were allowed to leave school in early May to help out on understaffed farms. My grandfather did farm labor for $30 a month in Chester Country throughout that summer. After returning to a city in the throes of war-time shortages, he and a school friend arranged to have eggs shipped to them each week. They would rent a horse and wagon after school on Friday, pick up the eggs at the West Philadelphia Railroad Station, bring them home for an inspection process known as “candling,” and then make deliveries on Saturday. The business grew quickly. Soon my grandfather was making more money than his father while still a full-time student at Central High.

Impeded by Prejudice and a Rust-Proof Business Plan

After graduating and selling the egg business, Gillie worked as a lab assistant at a chemical firm at 10th and Walnut Streets for 35 cents an hour. He entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1918 when tuition was $220 a year. As a student of chemical engineering, he describes how he and his classmates did some bootlegging once Prohibition began: We could always make a few bucks selling to guys in the Wharton School or college some of our homemade booze at a profit. Never did make much this way. Just an occasional five spot.

Following his freshman year at Penn, Gillie got a job as a “pantry man” in a Wildwood Crest hotel for $10 a week plus room and board. Ever the entrepreneur, his next business venture began when some relatives in the dry goods business bought all the linen napkins from Horn & Hardart when the iconic Philadelphia restaurant switched to paper. My grandad bought a supply of these napkins for 50 cents a dozen. His two sisters helped him pull the red H & H stitching out of the napkins and then he peddled them for 15 cents each to area hoteliers. The business was so successful that he soon left the pantry job.

Left: Gillie Herbach in 1936 on the deck of the Queen Mary sailing to London. Right: a price list from the 1930s of services offered by the Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company. | Images courtesy of Nancy Herbach Nance

His other summer jobs in college included working as a draughtsman for the Baldwin Locomotive Company and as a salesman at his family’s sporting goods store. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in chemical engineering, my grandfather, in spite of his Ivy League education and experience, again was selling sporting goods. His written explanation lacks the resentful tone one might expect: As you probably know, in your last year of college the big firms send representatives to interview the graduates and these interviews are usually set up by the professors who taught you. Now at that time, anti-Semitism was much more common and we got a fine example of it in practice because not one Jewish boy in the class even got an interview.

Thus, shunned by the big firms, my grandfather and a fraternity brother looked for a business they could get into. They saw an advertisement placed by a rustproofing business indicating that, for $5,000 for equipment and supplies, they could launch a business. After borrowing from family and friends, my grandfather and his partner were able to rent a basement in Kensington and on November 1, 1923 the Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company was born. By 1927, the company had 30 employees and business was booming.

Unfortunately, my grandfather’s memoir ends in 1929. I know from my mother that the company survived the Great Depression and then really took off during the Second World War. Growing up, I knew my grandfather had owned a factory somewhere near K & A (Kensington and Allegheny Avenues) and that he had sold the business in the 1970s. If I thought about the company at all, it was as something from the past, one more little enterprise from Philadelphia’s Workshop of the World era.

It’s a little hard to tell from the business office door, but the Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company is humming with orders. | Photo: Amy Cohen

And, yet, as I discovered on my trip to Fireball Printing, some industries never left Philadelphia, and creative and entrepreneurial uses of abandoned industrial structures abound. The name of the street where I had this realization in a very personal way, ironically perhaps, is Amber Street. What I found on this small, out of the way block in Port Richmond is a vivid illustration that Philadelphia’s industrial legacy should not be viewed as set in amber. While some new enterprises are able to get their footing in defunct industrial spaces, other businesses, like my enterprising grandfather’s Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company, have never left. Metal finishing is still a needed service, and the company today is among the largest such facilities on the East Coast. In spite of the company motto, “It’s better to wear away than to rust away,” I’m pretty certain that my grandfather would be proud to know that the company he launched in 1923 is still very much in business.

About the author

Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Recently, she produced Octavius Catto: A Legacy for the Twentieth Century. All films and materials are available at HistoryofPhilly.com. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.



4 Comments


  1. What a delightful story. Thank you.

  2. What a great find. Thank you for telling your story.

  3. So interesting that you are at least 4th generation Philadelphian. This is a great bit of history and really appreciate your contextualizing.
    It is interesting to compare the experience of Jewish engineering students being frozen out of jobs to today’s situation, where hyphenated American engineering students (Korean, CHinese, etc) are snapped up by talent-seeking companies. It was very short-sited of WASP firms not to seek out talent! Think you grandfather would be happy to see that!

  4. Neat story. What a treat to have a memoir like that from your Grandfather.

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