- Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis. by Domenic Vitiello
In Engineering Philadelphia, Domenic Vitiello uses a history of the Sellers family to show how national and international business networks emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and to link these networks to the creation of industrial cities in the nineteenth century and their deterioration in the twentieth. The Sellers story, according to Vitiello, reveals overlapping sets of “social, technological, business, and institutional networks, which, [End Page 272] understood together, afford an appropriately complex and dynamic portrait of the ways in which people planned and implemented urban economic development” (p. 4). These networks, created by industrialists, mechanics, and engineers, underpinned the organization of metropolitan space in the United States.
While this book is thoroughly an industrial history, built on research conducted in archives including the American Philosophical Society, the Hagley Library, and the Franklin Institute, Vitiello also positions his book as a contribution to urban planning and political science. By tracing the connections among manufacturers, politicians, educational institutions, social organizations, and real estate developers, the book shows how business and political alliances, what political scientists have called the “growth machine,” placed value on certain spaces and influenced the geographic development of industrial cities (p. 7). By doing so, it pushes planning history from a focus on the twentieth century into the nineteenth century and links questions of physical design to the development of industrial economies (p. 4).
Vitiello advances these arguments by layering different networks that were important to the Sellers’s enterprises on top of each other. Each chapter deals with a different set of business or technological relationships. For example, early-American educational institutions such as the American Philosophical Society linked scientists, manufacturers, and merchants, creating a web of relationships that structured the region’s economies (pp. 19, 45). Transportation systems facilitated the migration of mechanics, who exchanged technological knowledge and skills and formed the intellectual basis for the manufacturing infrastructures of cities like Philadelphia and Cincinnati (p. 55). The machine-shop culture developed by William Sellers in his machine-tool firm and other Philadelphians such as locomotive builder Matthias Baldwin and metal fabricators Merrick & Towne contributed to a larger strategy of standardization and rationality that played a role in the spatial organization of U.S. cities. The application of scientific ideals to social problems led to environmental planning, public health reforms, and the restructuring of urban and suburban space to reflect those ideals (pp. 157, 166, 191). In these ways, Vitiello employs the long story of the Sellers family to describe the development of Philadelphia’s business and industrial organizations and to connect these organizations to Philadelphia’s growth and decline as an industrial center.
The author uses the nineteenth-century city beautiful movement to explain Philadelphia’s twentieth-century deindustrialization. He argues that deindustrialization occurred in part because of disinvestment in the institutional complex that underpinned industrial production. This is an important point, and Vitiello does a nice job connecting the development of Fairmount Park and efforts to beautify Philadelphia’s streets in the nineteenth century to its loss of heavy industry in the twentieth century (p. [End Page 273] 195). This sort of insightful long-range analysis makes Engineering Philadelphia relevant to historians and planners and shows how historical studies can benefit those currently working in planning or politics.
Vitiello’s marvelously researched and well-written book did not leave me with any serious criticisms, but it did prompt two questions. First, in this book industrialization is defined in terms of production. Some of the analysis of industrial organizations, networks, and especially real estate development would change using a definition of industrialization that included consumption. Because the Sellers family worked more prominently on the production side, the choice to study this family’s activities directs the analysis away from consumption. I wonder if the conclusions about industrial networks and Philadelphia’s development would change if, for example, John Wanamaker’s (of the department store) networks were analyzed. Second, how did the industrial networks, so critical to Philadelphia...