History

Ghosts of an Umbrella Empire Still Haunt North Philly

November 20, 2019 | by Robert Masciantonio

Remnants of the Fretz, Gross, & Company factory at 21st Street and Sedgley Avenue. | Photo: Rob Masciantonio

“Philadelphia: Home of the American Umbrella Industry” reads the headline of a 1908 trade journal profile on the city and, at the time, it was. Although the umbrella industry was hardly the cornerstone of Philadelphia’s economy, at the turn of the century more umbrellas were produced here than any other city in the United States, dwarfing even New York both in terms of dollars invested into production and employment. Over 1,300 people were employed across the 24 umbrella factories within Philadelphia. The largest of these, in fact then the largest umbrella factory in the world for a brief moment in time, was one owned and built by Samuel S. Fretz. The story of the company Fretz would build, and the several his son would go on to establish, is an interesting, if eclectic, bit of Philadelphia industrial history.

Place Your Bets on Fretz

Samuel S. Fretz got his start as a dealer in furnishing goods, working at a shop along Germantown Avenue near Diamond Street. Apparently unsatisfied with that alone, he took to manufacturing shirts at his home on the side and selling them at an almost impossibly low cost to local stores and workers, a by-product of the low overhead of his cottage industry. Fretz’s business seemingly grew overnight and soon he was signing a production contract with a local a department store. It was along with this contract that it was suggested to Fretz that he also produce umbrellas. With that, the seeds of his umbrella empire were planted. Before too long Fretz received yet another contract for umbrellas, this time from Gimbels department store. Between these two contracts Fretz soon found himself and his wife engaged full time in the manufacturing of umbrellas and shirts at their home, a space they understandably had outgrown at this point. In 1886, Fretz moved to a dedicated manufacturing space at 5th and Market Streets. Not long after that he moved yet again to a larger building at 4th and Commerce Streets. Today, neither of these two buildings remain. However, if illustrations of the Commerce Street building are correct, this is the same building that would later become the first Philadelphia location of the Wirt & Knox Company, which is an interesting coincidence as both companies would eventually end up neighbors, standing across York Street from one another along Sedgley Avenue.

Umbrella tycoon Samuel S. Fretz and his Commerce Street factory in the late 1800s. | Image: Trunks, Leather Goods, and Umbrellas Vol. XXIII No.2, March 1909

The secret to Fretz’s success was that he operated on razor-thin margins, focusing on maximizing the volume of sales and sucking up business from much larger manufacturing firms that were simply not able to compete with his quality at his prices. At first Fretz was ignored by the large companies, who assumed his business model would prove unsustainable and he would be either forced to raise prices to match theirs or go out of business. But Fretz was unrelenting and, almost unbelievably, profitable. The company used the brand name “Foldwell” for their flagship umbrella line, and Samuel S. Fretz marketed his initials as “S-uperior S-hape and F-inish”. Rather than go out of business as his competition hoped, Fretz raked in cash. By 1890 he was estimated to be worth $500,000–over $14 million in today’s money. However, Fretz was yearning for more and sought to build a fully-integrated umbrella factory, one where he could not only assemble umbrellas, but also manufacture and fabricate all of the parts necessary for the construction in-house, rather than rely on contracting out parts. With this vision he began planing out and building a large new factory at 1015 W. Diamond Street.

In 1902, he reincorporated as the S.S. Fretz Mfg. Company, and the new, purpose-built factory at 1015 West Diamond Street was completed, although it is likely he has already been occupying   part of the plant before it was finished. Designed by architect Peter Kuhn, the factory, standing at nine stories tall and over 140 yards long, was by far the largest in the umbrella industry, complete with a rib plant as well as looms for weaving silk and cloth–everything an umbrella manufacturer could need. The new factory increased Fretz’s production capacity by an astonishing 900 percent, but what at first seemed like an impressive industrial masterstroke soon revealed itself to be grossly over ambitious and would prove to be Fretz’s undoing. Unforeseen growing pains in manufacturing and management plagued the huge new plant. It was a classic case of a company over-expanding itself to the point of unsustainability. In only a couple of years the company almost went into bankruptcy. Fretz narrowly avoiding it, but he was forced to reduce stock value after coming to an agreement with his creditors. However, this was only a temporary reprieve from the inevitable. In 1907, S.S. Fretz, unprofitable and unable to pay its debts yet again, went into receivership.

Fretz’s umbrella factory on Diamond Street circa 1902. | Image: Trunks, Leather Goods, and Umbrellas Vol. XXIII No.2, March 1909

This was not the end for Fretz, but rather a chance for rebirth. He took a step back and his son,  Samuel S. Fretz Jr, along with his son-in-law, Isaiah W. Gross, incorporated together under a new company name, the Fretz, Gross, & Co. This new Fretz venture took to leasing the hardware and manufacturing departments of the former S.S Fretz Company from the company’s receivers in order to go about assembling what could be cobbled together from the existing parts and wholesaling the remaining stock in order to pay off the owed creditors. Their recapitalization was an apparent success. Only a few short years later they purchased a long plot of vacant land at southwest corner of 22nd Street and Sedgley Avenue along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and proceeded to build a new factory there to continue making umbrellas.

The new plant was both more modern and modest than the original, towering Fretz factory, this time, instead, comprising a long single-story building stretching out across the plot. By this time Philadelphia’s hegemony as the top umbrella manufacturing city had passed, but the Fretz-Gross Company seems to have had solid success in manufacturing umbrellas and parasols at this location and continued to do so for many years. In 1918, apparently not content with the umbrella industry alone, the company diversified and the “S.S. Fretz Jr. Company” was formed. On the same location this new entity began producing iron pipe nipples i.e. threaded iron fittings and pipe lengths used for joining iron pipe for plumbing and heating applications. In an early advertisement the company boasted 25,000 new “high-grade nipples” produced each year and assured the customer that its new, well-maintained and inspected machines ensure “freedom from nipple troubles of the commonest type,” with precision in their threading that is “rarely found in ‘second hand’ nipples.” The advertisement seems comical for those unversed in plumbing and piping terminology. But Fretz’s foray into the nipple industry was no joke. It was all business, and business, by all accounts, was good and about to get a whole lot better. By the 1921, the site included the original factory building but also a separate pipe nipple plant, bronzing shop, and a warehouse.

S.S. Fretz Jr. Company’s high grade nipple logo. | Image: Domestic Engineering Volume 95 No. 10, July 1921

In February 1921, Fretz sought to dive deeper into the plumbing industry and partnered with John Moon, a pipe manufacturer and inventor who, in 1911, patented a new process to continuously butt weld steel pipe. Together, along with Raymond Groff and John Moon’s brother, David, they formed the Fretz-Moon Tube Company, which also briefly operated out of the 21st and Sedgley location as well. Prior to Moon’s innovations, most iron pipe was created by rolling a flat sheet of steel, bending it around a mandrel, and then folding it and welding the two edges together to form a single tube. This often produced inconsistencies in the pipe wall thickness, something you can still encounter today when dealing with older plumbing. Moon’s method allowed the entire tube to be heated and welded at once, ensuring uniformity of the pipe wall thickness and improved strength. This process was perfected into a continuous process where the pipe could go through the furnace in a theoretically unending stream, allowing longer, more uniform lengths of pipe and increased productivity. This method became known as the “Fretz-Moon process.”

The Fretz-Gross Company complex in 1921. | Image: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map & Publishing Company

In 1923, the Fretz-Moon Tube Company reorganized, keeping its name, but now with new owners. Fretz and Groff sold their stake to an A.J. Davis and Lewis Campbell. While it continued to operate for a time in Philadelphia, the company soon bought new land across the state in East Butler, Pennsylvania  and set about building a new mill. There the company specialized in smaller diameter pipe and electrical conduit. In 1928, an agent representing the steel cartel in Germany visited the mill and was left dazzled by the efficiency of the process. He reported seeing tube being formed continuously for 38 straight hours with only five men, and that the resulting welded section of pipe even was stronger than the steel it joined. German steel giants like Thyssen enthusiastically purchased overseas patent rights to the process. A few years earlier the domestic Republic Steel, then one of the largest producers in the country, had taken an interest in Fretz-Moon and acquired a 50 percent share of the company in 1927. Before this acquisition Fretz-Moon was the only company using their process in the United States for the production of pipe and tube since they were demanding a domestic license fee on their patent of $9 million, it was their acquisition by Republic that opened the process up eventually to other mills within Republic, and later, other companies. The Fretz-Moon Tube Company continued to be operated essentially as a subsidiary of Republic Steel in East Butler until sometime in the 1970s when it seems to have been shed by Republic and the plant bought out by a smaller operator. Today, the site and buildings are  occupied by other industrial tenants like Marmon/Keystone, a speciality tube, pipe, and metal supplier. Although the Fretz-Moon Tube Company itself has faded into history the “Fretz-Moon Process” it pioneered is today considered one of the most important advancements in pipe manufacturing history and is still widely used for the production of pipe and tube, particularly that of smaller diameter.

The End of an Umbrella Empire

Meanwhile, after Fretz-Moon Company split off in 1923 and moved across the state, the S.S. Fretz Jr. Company and the Fretz-Gross Company continued in their respective endeavors in Philadelphia. But soon they too would go their separate ways. In 1933, the S.S. Fretz Jr. Company merged with the Thomas Devlin Manufacturing Company, a firm that was founded in 1902 in Philadelphia, but had since consolidated to their newer works in Burlington, Ne Jersey. The Thomas Devlin Manufacturing Company similarly specialized in manufacturing goods and fittings for plumbers and steamfitters. Samuel Fretz Jr. once again headed three companies: the Thomas Devlin Company, Fretz-Gross & Coompany, and the S.S. Fretz Jr. Company. In this merger “Devlin” was apparently the larger name with the bigger facility, but Fretz by then had established itself as a respected nipple manufacturer, so it remained something of an independent entity and brand name. In the end, manufacturing was all consolidated at the Thomas Devlin Company’s Burlington Works, which now boasted “a complete line of Devlin fittings and fretz nipples.” This left the Fretz-Gross umbrella company as the sole remaining occupant of the site at 21st and Sedgley.

An advertisement from 1951 for Fretz, Gross & Company TV antennas. | Image: Technician, November 1954

While the Fretz-Moon Company was changing the face of pipe manufacturing across the globe, and the S.S. Fretz Jr. Company had become a respected name in the nipple industry, the Fretz Gross & Company was sticking to its roots and were steadfastly making umbrellas and frames. It continued to produce umbrellas under the leadership of Samuel Fretz Jr. until his death in 1948. His son Robert Fretz took over the company. However, the umbrella business was not what it once was. After World War II there was ever-increasing pressure from imports on the domestic umbrella market from new overseas manufacturers. By 1954, only eight umbrella manufacturers remained in the United States, Fretz-Gross being one of them. But it no longer exclusively manufactured umbrellas. In the face of growing pressure, the company diversified and began production of television antennas. It was a clever move into the growing residential TV market, as the same equipment and materials used to make umbrella frames could easily be employed in the manufacture of antennas. The new venture was enough to keep the company afloat. In the 1960s Fretz still maintained 50 employees at its Sedgley Avenue plant. However, ever-stiffening competition from overseas took its toll, and the Fretz-Gross Company eventually folded, most likely closing its doors sometime in the 1970s. The once-bustling industrial parcel, which spawned three separate Fretz enterprises, fell quiet. However, it was not the end of manufacturing at 2200 West Sedgley Avenue. The details of exactly when Fretz finally closed up shop on the site is elusive, but by 1979 the Accardi Corrugated Box Company was operating out of the main factory complex.

Accardi had been in business making boxes since 1934. When it moved in, Accardi primarily occupied the street-side warehouse and production building bordering Sedgley Avenue. Over the course of its ownership, the two rear-most buildings, the former nipple plant, and the brazing building were demolished, likely taking place in the late 1980s. Accardi occupied the site for somewhere around 30 years manufacturing cardboard packing boxes, with their last appearance on the Philadelphia Industrial Directory in 2007. It appears it was at this time that Accardi ceased to exist as a functional manufacturing company, and the property went through a period of relative quiet and decay. Accardi went back and fourth with the bank, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, and others until the property finally landed in the hands of its current owners, an entity called AGB Sedgley LLC based out of Ambler, Pennsylvania. The current company does not utilize the property for production, but rather uses it for the storage of construction equipment and materials, a common fate for properties along this legacy industrial corridor along Sedgley Avenue.

The Fretz, Gross & Company complex in 1951. | Image: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map & Publishing Company

The street-side view of the site’s perimeter today appears to present a relatively complete industrial complex stretching out along Sedgley Avenue, but, in reality, all that remains is a facade. Only the former two story warehouse on Sedgley Avenue and a sub grade garage along York Street, currently in use as an automotive shop, remain as complete buildings. Neither building is great shape. The warehouse is little more than a shell, with the second floor collapsing into the first and the roof in many places long since giving way to the sky. The track-side factory building and nipple plant/bronzing department that were demolished sometime in the 1980s have been replaced by mountainous piles of broken concrete and stone. The engine and dynamo building, the bronzing building, and the boiler house were left to rot decades ago. Today only their walls remain. The most interesting aspect would be the primary machine shop and factory building that runs the majority of the frontage along Sedgley Avenue. From the street it would appear to be intact, but, in reality, sometime after its sale to AGB Sedgley LLC in 2011 the building was gutted and partially demolished leaving only the walls fronting the streets and a bit of roof which essentially provides a long shed now filled with various construction materials. It is a utilitarian modification, but an interesting one that from the street is virtually undetectable. Sadly, being in the state it is, it’s doubtful that any of the structures on site are much longer for this Earth. They are no architectural gems, but historical and handsome in their own right, with subtle exterior embellishments typical of early 20th century industrial buildings.


Inside the ruins of the old Samuel S. Fretz factory complex at 21st Street and Sedgley Avenue. Photographs by Rob Masciantonio.

A pile of bricks sits at the far end of the property in what once was the main factory building and office area.

What would have been the main entrance to the Fretz, Gross & Company umbrella factory.

A view from a large earth mound in what would have been the center of the main factory building.

A sign from the Acardi Box Company era warns of danger.

The former warehouse is the most complete building remaining from the Fretz, Gross & Company factory site.

A general view of the warehouse’s poor condition.

The small bit of roof that remains on the factory now forms a long shed for building material.

Time clocks from the Accardi Box Company era.

A conveyor belt in the former warehouse.

Most of the explosed iron work on door lintle features ornate washers shaped like flowers.

What remains of the former dynamo room.

Simple, but effective means of securing a door to the street.

In the plant old stamps for Accardi Box Company’s cardboard box operation remain.

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About the Author

Robert Masciantonio Robert Masciantonio attended Shippensburg University where he received his BA in Political Science and History. A proud native of Delaware County, Masciantonio carries a lifelong fascination with Philadelphia's deep, layered past. He has an strong interest in photography and architecture, with an emphasis on industry and institutions.

7 Comments:

  1. William S. Coleman lll says:

    Great historical lesson on the manufacturing past of Philadelphia.

    I knew those areas well.
    As a student at Romance Catholic High in 1969 to 1973my friends and I would frequent those locations.

    This lesson could be a business class blue print for the next generation of growth.

    My hope is that a mesuem could be created to celebrate the workers who worked there to make these many products.

    William S. Coleman lll
    Project Developer
    General Motors Employees Mesuem and Visitors Center for
    Framingham, Massachusetts.

    508 826 1307
    Billcoleman333@gmail.com.

  2. Anthony C. says:

    Great piece. Fascinating account of the Fretz legacy… Really brings to life what is otherwise an abandoned building to most people.

  3. Dan Padova says:

    Thank you for posting this informative story. There are so many sites in the city that most of us have no clue about, as to their beginnings.

  4. Trudy says:

    So interesting history of an industrial era.

  5. Cheryl Mikwenda says:

    It was very interesting I was born and raised in Philadelphia but never knew about any of this. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Carolyn Hernandez says:

    wow..really cool to read. having family in this area all my life I am very familiar with this building. Although I never knew what business operated out of it. I walked past this building as a teenager going to and coming from school everyday. Small note: this is actually 22nd and Sedgley.We also hung out at the Connie Mack rec center right up the street from this old factory..so very familiar with this building. thanks so much for the history.

  7. George McNeely says:

    Great article. Am struck by the energy and resourcefulness of the various family members in identifying new markets, forming new companies, etc.

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