Wish You Were Here!
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 3 - Summer 2009
"Am spending a few days in this beautiful little city," wrote Harry to a Miss Clara Waterman of Angola, New York, on April 5, 1909. He penned his message on the reverse of a penny postcard bearing an image entitled "View from the foot of Main Street, Showing Dam, Phoenixville, Pa."
A century ago, at the time of Harry's visit, the Chester County community was enjoying its heyday as an important industrial and manufacturing center. Its industries through the years included sprawling iron and steel mills, underwear and hosiery factories, match factory, boiler works, brick factory, and silk and textile mills. The community takes its name from the Phoenix Iron Works, in operation from the late eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. In 1825, the company successfully generated steam by burning anthracite to heat water. Incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Company in 1855 (renamed the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company in 1949 and the Phoenix Steel Corporation in 1955), the firm manufactured, in the early 1860s, the Phoenix Column, which allowed builders to erect massive structures without the usual heavy load-bearing walls, eventually leading to the creation of the skyscraper. The company's subsidiary, the Phoenix Bridge Company, manufactured low-cost, standardized iron bridges that could be ordered from a catalogue and erected quickly on location.
In addition to the heavy industries of the late nineteenth century, the firm of Griffen, Smith and Hill delighted Victorian era homemakers with its distinctive line of earthenware pottery, Etruscan Majolica, which is eagerly sought by collectors today. The manufacturer used steam engines to press and mold the popular tableware and employed many local women to paint the brilliantly colored compotes, sugar and creamer sets, oyster plates, sardine boxes, pitchers, jugs, vases, and centerpieces it turned out.
Like many prosperous cities and towns in the United States, Phoenixville benefited from its proximity to waterways. It is situated on the Schuylkill River and bisected by the swiftly flowing French Creek, which was harnessed for water power. The Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads linked Phoenixville with the anthracite region to the north and Philadelphia in the southeast. PHMC's annual theme for 2009, "Energy: Innovation and Impact," celebrates communities like Phoenixville which relied on water, coal, and steam for power. In 1986, the U.S. Department of the Interior added the Phoenixville Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places. The largest historic district in Chester County, it was recognized "as the location of an important nineteenth-century iron and steel company, as the commercial center of northern Chester County, and as a locally outstanding collection of architecture." Phoenixville also possesses the largest collection of mid-nineteenth-century worker housing in the county, including the greatest number of company-built and company-owned houses.
Phoenixville has played a role in twentieth-century popular culture. Parts of the community, as well as the 1903 Colonial Theatre, were featured in The Blob, a 1958 science fiction film that has since become a cult classic. The movie introduced actor Steve McQueen, who made his debut performance. Recognized today as the quintessential 1950s American horror film, The Blob has inspired Phoenixville's Blobfest, a weekend festival that includes screenings of the movie at the Colonial Theatre, costume contest, façade and window contest, entertainment, and short film and screen-writing competitions. The tenth annual Blobfest will be held from Friday through Sunday, July 10–12 .
Information about the Phoenixville Historic District was obtained from the National Register nomination completed by Jane L. S. Davidson, a Chester County preservationist, and William A. Sisson of PHMC.
In addition to proving true the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, Wish You Were Here! also demonstrates the importance of ephemera, such as the penny postcard. Wish You Were Here! illustrates, too, the significance of one or two lines scribbled on the back of postcards—in some cases more than a century ago—that remain revealing and insightful to this day. Images illustrating this feature are drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, of the Pennsylvania State Archives.