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What was life like in 1920's Philadelphia?

Author: Kimberly Salesky


The introduction of the automobile, suffragettes seeing their hard work pay off for American women everywhere, a recovering economy post-pandemic--life in 1920 feels lightyears apart from 2020, but both have some commonalities. Last year seemed like a 1920s upgrade--we’ve seen the electric car’s rise in popularity, the first female Vice President was elected to office, and our citizens and economy weathered the COVID-19 pandemic. Both 1920 and 2020 also elevated our strength and togetherness as Philadelphians. And while we feel many parallels with 1920, it was indeed a very different time.


From Yarns to Upholstery:

Setting the Stage for Philadelphia’s Textile Industry

The manufacturing boom was in full flux—and textiles in particular were all the rage in 1920 Philadelphia. The city boasted the widest range of textile products that no other city in the U.S. could rival at the time. The Kensington, Germantown, Frankford and Manayunk sections of the city were churning out the largest array of textiles in the nation—laces, socks, carpets, blankets, rope, men’s suits, women’s dresses, silk stockings, upholstery, tapestries, braids, bindings, ribbons, coverlets, knit fabric and sweaters, surgical fabrics, military cloths and trimmings, draperies as well as a wide variety of yarns. By the start of the 1900s, Philadelphia was home to 700 different textile companies that employed 60,000 of the city’s citizens. And many of these companies had a workshop-like structure—for example, a carpet maker would get its yarn from one company, have that yarn dyed by another company, then purchase patterned textiles from somewhere else and finally had cards punched by another company to control the weaving process. Real estate for textile plants was in high demand, and our founders Benjamin Lanard and Jacob Axilbund had their fingers on the pulse of this formidable manufacturing sector as leasing specialists to these hundreds of companies.


Loft buildings throughout Philadelphia like this one at 12th and Callowhill housed the earliest clients of our firm. 

Sleek and Ornate

The Art Deco Movement of Boom of the ‘20s

Many major U.S. cities fell in love with the Art Deco architecture trend, in which the Greater Philadelphia region was an epicenter for this French moderne-style composition, and many of these grand structures still stand today. The most iconic building type stemming from the Art Deco boom of the ‘20s is the skyscraper. Much of The first Art Deco skyscrapers to adorn the Philly skyline were the YMCA Armed Forced Building on 15th and Arch Streets in Center City. This building still stands today but is currently The Metropolitan apartment building. The Art Deco movement gave Philadelpha other noteworthy structures, such as what’s known as the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Perelman Building, which was originally The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance headquarters for the Zantzinger, Borie & Medary firm. The U.S. Post Office of Market and 13th Streets is another relic of this architectural phenomenon; its limestone-clad structure still runs like a well-oil machine almost 100 years later. Other Art Deco-style buildings to join the Greater Philadelphia Region were:

  • Ritter and Shay’s Market Street National Bank (1319 Market Street)

  • Tilden, Register & Pepper’s Sun Oil Building (1608-1510 Walnut Street)

  • Architects Building (121 S. 17th Street)


Market Street National Bank  Built 1931.  Colliers Second Office Location

Art Deco architecture wasn’t just limited to skyscrapers, civic, office and industrial buildings, but also transportation depots. A famous example that still is a Philadelphia commuting staple is 30th Street Station. While its exterior is comprised of Beaux Arts style, its interior exudes Art Deco architecture.


 All of these great structures past and present would not be in our city’s history if not for some of the ingenious architects behind the craft:

  • Louis Jallade

  • Paul Phillippe

  • Gabriel Roth

  • Harry Sternfeld

  • Rankin & Kellogg

  • Tilden, Register & Pepper

  • Ralph Bencker

  • Harold Lee

  • Graham, Anderson, Probst & White

The look and feel of 1920s Philadelphia is still very much with us in 2021 and beyond. Many corporate and civic buildings still reflect the grandeur of the Art Deco movement but many small-scale restaurant and retail establishments—in particular in Center City—still carry its legacy. Take a look around your next venture around the city to experience the worlds of the 20th and 21st century architecture coming together.

Today, architectural engineers have made many advancements in structures, making them stronger and more durable to weather our busy and growing industries. Textile manufacturers may be few and far between in these ‘20s, but the demand for 3PL has skyrocketed. Whether it was a garment factory in 1920 or a distribution facility in 2020, Colliers always has your needs in mind and just like the architecture and industries, we change with the times, but are still standing strong.




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Watch our blog grow over Colliers centennial celebration year


Kimberly Salesky   3/1/2021


Elizabeth Brand   6/1/2021


Elizabeth Brand   9/14/2021

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