Traveling on West Sedgley Avenue in Strawberry Mansion offers a stark picture of areas in the city still decimated by post-industrial decline. Vacant lots and fenced storage yards dominate a desolate space once packed and humming with manufacturing work sites. Along the corridor several old factory buildings remain in various states of occupancy and decay. The former headquarters of Wirt & Knox Manufacturing Company at Sedgley Avenue and York Street is still standing, but the building is collapsing from within. In its heyday, Wirt & Knox was one of the premier manufactures of firefighting equipment in the United States. The company’s history spans almost a century, and much of the equipment it produced is still in service today. Yet, very little is known about Wirt & Knox, and its reputation has largely faded into memory like so many of Philadelphia’s great manufacturing companies. The only information of any substance on Wirt & Knox is left scattered like breadcrumbs across old trade catalogs, journals, and maps, with the company’s industrial history waiting to be pieced together.
Although the company spent its prime in Philadelphia, the story of Wirt & Knox began in Independence, Missouri when it was a sleepy town of only 3,000 people. It was here that R.D. Wirt & Company was formed in 1881 by Dr. Reuben D. Wirt and G.M Nichol. The original company appears to have engaged in both manufacturing and plumbing contracting. In March 1887, Dr. Wirt was awarded his first patent for a simple garden hose reel. Four months later he was awarded another patent for a complete hose cart. These two patents encompassed a garden hose reel cart constructed of light iron pipe connected by low cost and lightweight pins and rivets. Other carts of the era relied on either coupling collars or welding to construct them. Dr. Wirt’s product was strong and durable, while simultaneously lower cost and lighter weight. The hose cart was a immediate success. Nichol sold his stake in the burgeoning company to H.H. Wait and George Suter. It was reorganized into a stock company and branded the Wirt & Wait Manufacturing Company. However, Wirt & Wait was to be a short-lived enterprise. In 1891, the shares owned by Wait and Suter were purchased by Charles Knox and Dr. John Bryant. The new company chose to focus solely on manufacturing Wirt’s patent hose reel. The firm divested its plumbing department, which was split off into The Wait Plumbing Company, with its new president, H.H. Wait, leaving along with it.
The company reformed once more into the Wirt & Knox Manufacturing Company and its product line soon expanded far beyond the basic hose cart that had brought the manufacturer so much success. After making a hose reel for garden use, Wirt & Knox expanded the design for the firefighting market. Large, industrial hose carts soon became a staple product for Wirt & Knox, which is perhaps what the company is best known for today in the world of firefighting equipment collectors. At the time fire trucks were, in essence, nonexistent. Early gasoline-powered fire trucks were more than a decade away. Major cities still relied on horse-drawn carts or, in some cases, steam engines, to get firefighting apparatuses to a scene. However, small fire departments and extant fire insurance companies that served small towns and rural institutions like state hospitals or prisons could often not afford cutting edge steam engines or stable horses to move their equipment. These fire companies were left to fight fire with hose carts pulled by the firefighters themselves. This is the market in which Wirt & Knox made a name for itself. While not as fast or capable as larger animal or self-propelled fire engines, the carts, known as “spiders,” remained popular with small fire companies well into the 20th century. The carts were often pulled by four men, which allowed companies to haul all the equipment needed to fight a fire. The carts would often come fully outfitted from the factory with hoses, axes, and other implements.
Wirt & Knox cornered the firefighting market with its spider carts. The company also began producing a line of hose racks and reels for fire suppression installed inside buildings. Demand was so great for their products that the company could not keep up with orders and, by 1896, began looking to expand into larger facilities, which it had already done several times within Independence. The town was small and remote, and the company was losing money. Steel for their products had to be shipped long distances from mills in the east. The company’s products had to be shipped just as far back east where the majority of its customers were located. To boot, Independence was very small. Labor, especially skilled labor, was limited. By 1898 Wirt & Knox had successfully relocated their production facility from Missouri to Philadelphia.
The company’s first factory in the city was a narrow six-story factory building at the southwest corner of 4th and Commerce Streets. It was a block away from Independence Hall, and the building is long gone today. However, at the turn of the century it was a crowded commercial and industrial district. By 1907, Wirt & Knox were producing 160 different types and variations of hose carts, reels, racks, and various other firefighting and industrial products like street cleaning carts and bag holders. As the company grew its leadership changed. In 1905, Knox retired and sold his shares to Philadelphians E. C. Wilson and Raymond Krables. Dr. Wirt stayed on as president and the company name, now well established, remained Wirt & Knox. Despite the company’s success and expanded production capability in Philadelphia, the 4th Street factory soon proved inadequate. Once again, the manufacturer struggled to meet growing production demands. Narrow work floors stacked several stories high was not an ideal layout for a modern facility. The crowded location in the heart of the city made plant expansion there virtually impossible. The lack of direct rail access was also a logistical and financial barrier to the company’s continued growth.
In 1913, Wirt & Knox moved into a large factory at the corner of Sedgley Avenue and York Street. The factory was built along the bustling, industrial stretch that once straddled the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks that ran between Sedgley and Glenwood Avenues. The location gave the company seamless access to the raw materials it needed for production. Proximity to the rail line also eased its ability to ship finished products. The factory, a large two-story brick building, was new to Wirt & Knox, but not new in age. It has been built two decades earlier by the Thomas Dallet Company, then a well-regarded manufacturer of masonry tools that had moved to a larger facility elsewhere in the city. The modest brick building offered a large, open floor plan that would serve Wirt & Knox well for the next several decades. When it moved in, the company added a two-story brick addition on the south end at a cost of $4,000. A Sanborn fire insurance map from 1918 shows the factory’s layout as such: the original, two-story building was used for production on the main floor, with the second floor being used to store finished product. To the rear towards the train tracks was a boiler house and print shop. The 1914, half of the addition was used for a paint shop, while the other half was storage for raw materials. To the north of the factory along York Street was a steel outbuilding, which was also used for raw materials storage. Later, the northern end would be expanded further with an addition that almost doubled the plants production floor.
Wirt & Knox finally had a facility capable of meeting its ever-growing demand. While its firefighting spider carts were the original mainstay of the business, that market had slowly dried up as gasoline fire engines became more common. However, by this time Wirt & Knox had established itself as the most recognizable and respected manufacturers in the country of fire hose reels and racks for architectural applications. Its first hose reel for building fire suppression was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office in September of 1900. The design was a simple affair: a rotating steel reel to which a hose could be wrapped around and mounted on two brackets. In October the company submitted another patent for “Wirt’s Hump Rack.” Unlike other designs of the era, this one incorporated a bottom, which was curved up slightly towards the hose i.e. the “hump.” This design served to prevent undue stress on the folded sections of hoses, which in time would damage it and cause potential failure in an emergency. The rack also had rails on both sides so the hose could not fall out sideways, a problem in the designs of many competitor’s hose racks. Wirt’s Hump Rack was a hit, and, in 1904, the company won a contract to outfit all of the buildings in the upcoming St. Louis World’s Fair. The design has proven so practical that today virtually all modern hose racks incorporate this hump feature to prolong hose life. Still, the racks themselves were not perfect. While the industrial-looking reels and racks could be easily mounted to columns or pipes and were great for factory or stairwell use, something a bit more refined was desired for hallways and corridors in commercial and residential buildings. The hoses also trapped in moisture and would rot, especially one that had been used, then wrapped or folded. The solution was a hose rack that kept the hose suspended and slightly spaced between each length.
Wirt & Knox introduced the “Eclipse Rack” in 1907. The design hung the hose on galvanized pins spaced slightly apart from one another, which allowed for airflow that dried the hose and prolonged its rack life. The pins were fashioned to drop if the hose was pulled, allowing it to quickly be brought into service. But it remained attached to the rack, facilitating easy return when the job was done. These features are what set the company’s product apart from it’s competitors. Other designs used either falling pins, which would scatter to the ground, or a series of wire hangers that needed to be looped around the hose and hung from a suspension bar. Wirt & Knox’s system proved itself superior once again. Not only is this pin design still in use in modern hanging hose racks, but one can still find original Wirt & Knox racks in service within many older buildings today.
The company’s product line continued to grow and improve. Within a year it was offering two other hanging rack models: the “Crown” series, which was designed to be a more economically friendly option, and Wirt and Knox’s flagship “Royal” hose rack. These racks could be hung from simple wall mount or off of pipes. In residential and office applications, it was usually found in large metal or glass cabinets that were flush with the wall. It is not uncommon to see Wirt & Knox fire reel cabinets in commercial and residential buildings hallways these days, but the hose and rack have usually been replaced with a fire extinguisher.
Ultimately, it would be fire extinguishers, and Wirt & Knox’s failure to adapt to a changing market, that would be the company’s undoing. For the first half of the 20th century fire hoses in buildings were popular and installed nearly everywhere. Early fire extinguishers left a lot to be desired. The average fire extinguisher of the era could only deliver a few gallons of pressurized water before it needed to be refilled. While suitable for something like a wastebasket fire, they were of little use on anything larger. The first chemical extinguishers began showing up in 1911, when the Pyrene Manufacturing Company began making fire extinguishers filled with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical that is incredibly effective at extinguishing flames and so toxic that it can kill. Safer chemical extinguishers were introduced later, but they remained expensive specialty products. Occupant-use fire hoses remained the the go-to choice for firefighting equipment in most buildings during the years leading up to WWII. But it was not long after the war before landlords and homeowners owners began to prefer the new cheaper and handier extinguishers over the hose systems that required expensive installation and perpetual upkeep. Although Wirt & Knox had produced some soda acid extinguishers in the past, it was caught unprepared to compete in the chemical extinguisher market with companies that had been working on and perfecting their products to meet the demands of military contracts over the past several years.
Wirt & Knox’s failure to enter the fire extinguisher market caused serious trouble for the company, but it was a slow declined rather than folding overnight. Its products were not completely obsolete. Industrial sites continued to utilize hoses for greater firefighting capacity, and, of course, many commercial building owners would continue to maintain existing hose racks and reels, even if they were not installing new ones. Wirt & Knox struggled and their competitors continued to grow as sales of more modern fire equipment soared. The company stayed afloat throughout the 1950s, but eventually could not continue to stand on its own. In 1965, Wirt & Knox was purchased by National Foam Systems, then a West Chester-based producer of fire-suppressing foams developed during WWII. The company was established in 1819 and was the first U.S. producer of fire hoses. At the time, it was also producing a full line of fire equipment like hose reels and nozzles.
The buyout may have been the end of Wirt & Knox as an independent company, but it was not necessarily the end of Wirt & Knox, at least in name. The company continued to operate as a subsidiary and became the Wirt & Knox steel products division of National Foam. But the buyout was the beginning of the end of the company’s story in Philadelphia. In 1967, National Foam announced plans to consolidate all metal working activities to a new 52,000 square foot factory being built in Exton, PA. Wirt & Knox closed its doors in 1968 on Sedgley Avenue for good and, like so many other companies of the era, moved from the city to the suburbs. Hose reels and racks continued to be made under the Wirt & Knox name for another 25 years at the new Exton facility. In the early 1990s the Wirt & Knox brand was terminated and the Exton location was closed. Wirt & Knox came to a quiet end after 100 years as the nation’s premier manufacturer of firefighting equipment.
The company’s old factory in Strawberry Mansion held a series of tenants in the following years. A 1990 directly lists Fred Mcourteis Moving and Storage Inc. as the occupant, presumably using the old factory for a warehouse. A sticker on the front door advertises Baar Rubber Products Company, perhaps another tenant. In the past 20 year the property has been bought and sold several times, falling into greater disrepair with each passing year. WMC Enterprises purchased the factory in 2016. The firm appears to be little more than a real estate holding company, which owns much of the block the factory sits on and several row houses scattered throughout the area.
The decaying building today is a testament to the skill of the laborers who erected in almost 150 years ago and the quality of materials they used. The roof and much of the second floor have largely collapsed and now lie at ground level, as have all the stairwells. But the solid brick walls still stand tall and straight, almost in defiance to the neglect the building has endured. In the places where the roof or upper floor have managed to hold, the floor below is littered with trash and debris. Old appliances left to rot by the last company to use the building are strewn throughout. In one roofless room there are pallets of new roof flashing and material staged, perhaps for an upcoming rehabilitation project or just being stored for use elsewhere. On the second floor landing of a collapsed stairwell hangs a rusty Wirt & Knox fire hose cabinet, the first and final breadcrumb leading to the building’s industrial legacy.
Inside the crumbling factory of Wirt & Knox Manufacturing Company. Photographs by Robert Masciantonio.