April 19th, 2010

Tales of Kensington in Transition

By Ian Charlton

Stetson factory complexAerial view of Stetson Hat manufacturing complex, circa 1940. Photograph of painting.

Hi all, my name is Ian Charlton. A couple of weeks ago, I started my internship working on the PhilaPlace project –exciting stuff. I’ll be focusing mainly on the Kensington/Fishtown area for the next six months.  The first major essays on the horizon involve Stetson Hats and the Old Kensington Redevelopment Corporation. In a way, Stetson Hats was the epitome of industrialism in Kensington, spanning over 100 years as a major employer in the community. At its peak, it employed 5,000 Kensington residents; its hats, donned by famous Western movie stars like Tom Mix, were wildly popular in the United States and abroad. It is the perfect example of Philadelphia, and specifically Kensington, as “Workshop of the World.” Yet it is also interesting in another sense: at a time when much of the country’s labor force was unionizing in groups like the American Federation of Labor, John B. Stetson maintained a system of relationships with his workers that has been described as benevolent feudalism– to the chagrin of the AFL. Both his paternalistic methods and workers’ responses to them will be interesting topics for study.

Tate proc cropThe story of Old Kensington Redevelopment Corporation seems like the next logical step to me in doing a history of Kensington. While Stetson Hats embodied industrial Kensington, OKRC provides a lens with which to view the transition to post-industrial Kensington. Growing out of the “Area E” group of Philadelphia’s Antipoverty Action Committee, the entity that implemented Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in Philadelphia, OKRC officially began attempting to rehabilitate the neighborhood only a few years prior to the closing of Stetson Hats. In fact, before it closed, a high-ranking member of Stetson sat on the OKRC board.  The fact that these rehabilitation attempts occurred during a period of intense racial animosity is especially interesting, given the racial alliances on which the group was formed and on which it depended. Moreover, the city’s changing power structure is significant for this story: women who ran neighborhood associations like OKRC began to replace male ward leaders who had traditionally mediated between city hall and the neighborhoods.  Given that OKRC has been defunct since the mid- 1990s, it would also be interesting to view its successes and failures from the vantage point of the present, since sections of Northern Liberties and Fishtown have recently seen successful revitalization efforts.

Finally, these stories have broader implications for the identities of the people who lived and worked in Kensington over the past 150 years.  Did the majority of Stetson’s workers see themselves as Kensington residents who happened to work at a factory there, or as members of a parish that happened to be in Kensington, or rather as members of the Stetson family, as John B. Stetson would have wanted, living in a “city within a city” – that is, the Stetson community within Kensington. Also, since place plays such a vital role in the construction of identity, what does this mean for residents of Kensington in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond, who spent so much of their time in what were racially contested spaces?

stetson cavalry hatsWorkers making Stetson cavalry hats, 1918.

Miss Anne with hats“Miss Anne Alexander, employee of Stetson Hat Co., 5th & Montgomery, wearing the famous 10 gallon Stetson hat & holding two of the new spring style hat for 1941.”

hat stylesStetson Hat Styles, Winter 1873-4

demolition UADemolition of Stetson building, 1979. Courtesy Temple University Urban Archives.

See more images of Steston Hats on PhilaPlace.org

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