Sellers and Company
Once upon a time (I haven't started a story with those words yet!), there was an iron works on the two blocks south of the current Mint building, run by a family that had connections to artists Charles Wilson Peale and Thomas Eakins, writer Mark Twain, and the father of scientific industrial management. The connection to art, photography, and movies was previously discussed here. This article will look at the factories and give more detail on a family that had more art and science leadership roles than any other family in Philadelphia.
Lithograph from 1868 book looking east toward the Sellers factory complex.
17th Street is in the foreground. Hamilton Street bisects the image. The narrow building along the rail tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue on the right is the Asa Whitney Wheel Works.
The low slung building on far left with the multiple chimneys was the blacksmith shop for the Norris Locomotive Works, which abandoned the site in 1866. The pair of white buildings on the left in this image was also part of the Norris Works before acquisition by Sellers. The Sellers also owned 3/4 of the block between 15th and 16th and Hamilton and Buttonwood, occupied by the one-story white building on the northeast corner of Hamilton and 16th seen here.
The erecting shop is in the lower right corner of the complex.
Detail of 1888 map here showing the William Sellers Iron Works occupying the two blocks south of what is now the Mint Building at the Community College of Philadelphia. Borders of the Sellers Company are Buttonwood Street to the north, the railroad running at ground level on Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, 16th Street to the east, and 17th Street to the west.
Sellers built huge machines to make other huge machines. These two images are from the 1895 catalog here.
You can view a 7-minute video from 1919 here showing a smaller version of the steam hammer in action at the Midvale Steel Company. Watching the video will also make you appreciate your current job, no matter how bad you think it is.
The Sellers Iron Works factory floor around 1890.
Sellers had a huge share of the national shafting market. The photo shows the drive belts connected to the iron shafting along the ceiling. The wheels on the shafting were powered by a powerful steam engine. The centralized steam engines would eventually be replaced by individual electric motors at each machine.
You can visit a small-scale version of such shafting at the nearby Carpenters Museum, as discussed here.
William Sellers is best known internationally for presenting a paper at the Franklin Institute in 1864, advocating for a standardization of the screw thread design to make them all compatible no matter the manufacturer. This plan was adopted in the United States, but not until 1901 in Europe. England, being England, stuck with the Whitworth standard developed in England. This changed after the war in North Africa in 1942. Desert sand wore out the bolts and nuts on British tanks, and the United States was a major Allied military parts supplier. American nuts did not fit British bolts, and the disabled tanks stayed disabled. For the rest of the war, American factories began running parallel assembly lines, one for turning out engines and weapons compatible with the Sellers standard and one compatible with the Whitworth standard. In 1948, Britain finally adopted the Sellers, or US, standard.
Plaque on the first floor of the Franklin Institute, next to the elevators.
The Sellers family had hundreds of patents.
This 2019 photo shows a model of a Sellers Oscillating Engine made for patent acquisition. The model is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC. Early patent applications for machinery required submission of a physical model.
Coleman and William Sellers had tinkered with engines, and even locomotives, early in their careers.
Steam generated in boilers was used to move pistons, and the up and down motion of pistons was converted into circular motion for use in locomotives and factories. The higher the pressure of the steam in the boiler, the better the efficiency. Water had to be forced into the boiler to replace the steam released, and this Sellers autoinjector, based on one built in 1887, controlled the water input.
This 2019 photo shows the Sellers product on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC. The first floor of this museum has many examples of American inventions arising from our neighborhood.
Sellers was a national player.
In 1869 Sellers took out this full-page ad in the Union Pacific 64-page commemorative book marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Union Pacific had completed the eastern half of the railroad.
Sellers Iron Works made locomotive turntables and sold them throughout the world. This 1895 photo looking east shows the turntable on the surface railroad at Hamilton and 20th Streets. This line would be lowered in 1898 and the turntable moved one block west.
By 2021 this relocated site will be covered by the new construction of 2100 Hamilton Condominiums.
William Sellers was the only person who testified in City Council in opposition to the cut.
The Sellers family has deep roots in Philadelphia. Samuel Sellers and his brother bought 100 acres in what is now Darby in 1682, having arrived from England with William Penn. The family purchased 75 more acres and in 1757 John Sellers, grandson of Samuel, erected a flour mill on a dam they built across Mill Creek, now called Cobb's Creek. This mill was in operation until 1927, and the flour from the mill was sold under the brand name King Midas Flour.
By 1897, a great-grandson, William Sellers, had acquired the 200 year-old homestead. He himself had worked in machine shops in Wilmington, Delaware, and Providence, Rhode Island, prior to establishing his own machine shop in Philadelphia in 1848. By 1897 he, having been joined by his cousin Coleman Sellers, owned one of the largest machine and shafting shops in the country. Both William and Coleman were influential at the Franklin Institute, as discussed here, and through the Franklin Institute standardized the machining of screw threads. For more on the Sellers family, see the Wikipedia entry here.
Eventually the Millbourne estate would become the tiny (45 acre) borough of Millbourne in Delaware County, just across Cobb's Creek from Philadelphia. The Millbourne SEPTA Station on the Market-Frankford Line is the penultimate stop on the line going west.
Portion of 1687 map with blue arrow showing Samuel Sellers' land on Mill Creek, now Cobbs Creek.
The redesigned mill of John Sellers III appears on this float from the 1887 Civic and Industrial Display of Philadelphia. In 1816 Sellers entered into a licensing agreement with Oliver Evans to automate the mill. Image from 24-page commemorative booklet here.
Millbourne, part of the Sellers estate in Darby, owned in 1897 by William Sellers.
He divided it for two tenants and he himself lived at 1819 Vine Street, seen below.
Darby has many remnants of the various Sellers family subdivisions, and some history of the Sellers there is discussed in an 1897 book here.
Photo from 1900 of the home of William Sellers at 1819 Vine Street on fashionable Logan Square. This site is now occupied by the old family court building.
Coleman Sellers lived at 17th and Mount Vernon Streets in the northeast corner house that still stands.
In 1873 Mark Twain wrote his first novel, and his only novel with a coauthor, his Hartford, Connecticut neighbor Charles Warner. Twain coined the term "Gilded Age" in the book with that same title. Despite the promise of prosperity via industrialization, Twain took a dim view of the materialism, land speculation, and corruption that accompanied it. One character in the story was Eschol Sellers, a flamboyant but genial con man who was always diving into risky ventures. Twain adapted the book into one of his few successful plays, titled Colonel Sellers.
After the publication of the first edition of the book, the brother of Coleman Sellers, George Escol Sellers, took exception to the portrayal of such a character bearing his name. He sued Twain for libel, so that the next editions had the names Beriah Sellers (until a real Beriah Sellers also sued), and then Mulberry Sellers. Twain enjoyed tweaking his adversaries, so of course the name Mulberry Sellers may have had some connections to George Escol Sellers' birth in Mulberry Court, Philadelphia (near 7th and Market). For hard-core Twain fans, see more here.
Photo showing Mark Twain on the right and the actor John T. Raymond portraying Colonel Sellers in the play based on Twain's book The Gilded Age.
In 1873 William Sellers took over a much larger steel plant in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. This plant made much of the steel placed in bridges and also ramped up to make munitions in the world wars. It was there in the 1880's that Frederick Winslow Taylor pulled out his stopwatch and began studying the motions of men and machines with the goal of improving efficiency. There were as yet few unions, and one way the workers gained control, so management thought, was to work themselves and the machines at the slowest pace that would avoid punishment. In 1911 Taylor put his ideas together in a book, The Principles of Scientific Management, and his ideas of time-and -motion-studies, best practices, and "working smarter not harder," still plague our management lingo today.
Aside: another scientific management pioneer in the near-neighborhood was Charles Day (1879-1931). He worked in mechanical and civil engineering and joined with James Dodge in 1901 to form Dodge and Day, specializing in engineering and management. They were joined by John Zimmerman in 1907. When Dodge withdrew as partner in 1911, the firm became Day and Zimmerman, incorporated in 1916, expanded to 150 locations worldwide, and is now headquartered at 1500 Hamilton Street.
Hexamer insurance map from 1879 of the Midvale Steel Works, where Taylor developed the field of industrial engineering.
The plant itself would ultimately be acquired by Heppenstall Steel Company of Pittsburgh in 1956; be torn down in the early 1980's; and two decades later become today's SEPTA bus depot and maintenance yard. You can view here a 1919 eleven-minute silent video of the Midvale plant that has post-apocalypse written all over it.
Panorama of the Midvale plant in 1927.
The Budd plant was adjoining and the water tower with "Budd" spelled out can be seen in bottom left.
Bigger spaces allowed construction of bigger machines at Midvale.
There is a human figure in the lower right of this image from 1905.
In 1943 the Sellers company was sold to Consolidated Machine Tools for $1.1 million, the equivalent of $16 million today. The buildings in our neighborhood served briefly as warehouses before being demolished for parking by 1965.
There are a few remnants of the prior industrial might in our neighborhood. The Callowhill Cut is the most obvious. There is also the rail siding under the Tivoli as well as the siding ramps up to the granary and the former Knickerbocker Ice Company at the 2100 Hamilton building site (soon to be obscured). The most singular in my opinion is the bridge to nowhere across the cut, between 16th and 17th Streets, that in years past allowed rail access directly into the Sellers factory.
Sketch of the William Sellers & Company Iron Works in 1888.
The train on the right can be seen chugging west on Pennsylvania Avenue, which would not be submerged into the Callowhill Cut until 1898. 17th Street is in the foreground, with north to the left. The pedestrian bridge over Hamilton Street connects the buildings. I believe some imagination was used in this sketch, as the erecting shop in the southwest corner of the factory complex was always a squat structure with a hip roof and cupola, as seen in the sketch from 1868, as well as the photos from 1899 and 1955.
A view in 1897 west on Hamilton Street from around 15th Street.
The Sellers pedestrian bridge over Hamilton Street can be seen in the distance.
All the manufacturing plants had to keep functioning while the tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue were being submerged. Temporary tracks were placed along Hamilton Street parallel to Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Sellers plant from the southeast in 1899.
The access bridge into the plant is on a diagonal over the Callowhill Cut.
The abandoned Asa Whitney & Sons Car Wheel Works, having gone bankrupt in 1891, is on the left. The wooden granary is at back center-left.
Photo from 1955 looking north on 17th at the neglected former erecting shop of the Sellers complex.
Lonely bridge into the former supplier of steel for bridges
Surface of the bridge in April 2020
Doesn't look good for locomotive travel!
The underside of the Sellers bridge in 2020.
The wood is decaying, but the steel I-beams are in great shape for a 120-year-old bridge. The bridges over the Cut on the numbered streets in the neighborhood, first built in 1898 like the Sellers bridge, were all replaced in the 1950's and 1960's.
Looking from the southwest across 17th Street today.
The southern half of the Sellers complex is now a surface parking lot on Community College of Philadelphia's campus. The parking garage on the right is the site of Asa Whitney's Wheel Works.
One final remnant of the Sellers' Family within the city proper
After the Civil War Coleman Sellers moved from the northeast corner of 18th and Mount Vernon Streets one mile away to 3301 Baring Street in West Philadelphia. Other Sellers family members lived on this street as well, including his sister across the street, on whose house the Bed and breakfast that now occupies it has placed a historical marker. For more on this block, and Twain's abuse of Escol Sellers, see outside link here.
authored by Joe Walsh, October 2020