Starting in the mid-19th century and lasting for over one hundred years, Philadelphia’s garment sector boomed. The city was home to the so-called Big Six—the Milwaukee-founded Gimbels, the Pittsburgh-based Frank & Seder, and the Philly-based Wannamaker’s, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers and Snellenburg’s. Of the four chains founded in Philadelphia, Snellenburg’s is perhaps least familiar. This is because it has been defunct for longer than its local counterparts. According to Wikipedia, however, there was a brief time in the mid 1800s when Snellenburg’s was the largest clothing manufacturer in the world. According to Arrigale & Keel’s 2012 text, Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail, the company began with humble storefront at 318 South St in 1869. Rapid growth, though, would require expansion into a new space at 5th & South. The photo below, provided by PhilaPlace.org and credited to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, shows Snellenburg’s flagship department store as it appeared upon its construction in 1882.
From its new location, N. Snellenburg & Co. would contribute to the evolution of such modern consumer expectations as one stop shopping and colorfully disorienting advertising signage. Snellenburg’s also used giveaways like this 1885 children’s coloring book, taken from the Arrigale & Keels text, in order to generate business.
Coloring book cover
The department store offered customers the chance to purchase garments made directly on-site. Snellenburg’s stated mission was “to sell merchandise at absolutely the lowest prices” but “never to sacrifice quality for cheapness.” For roughly 30 years, their building would occupy an island of land bound by South, 5th & Passyunk. As shown in the image here below, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas, the three streets converge to form an odd triangle in the midst of otherwise quadrilateral plots.
The triangle in 1910
As its expansion continued, Snellenburg’s would come to occupy a number of buildings in the city and suburbs. Most notable among these was the 1901 acquisition of its even more imposing new headquarters at 11th & Market, a building whose significance we will address in a future post. The South Philly location was left at first as a satellite facility before eventually becoming a turnstile for various retailers over the next several decades. It is shown here below in a Department of Records Photo from 1930, with no occupant immediately apparent.
In 1930, it's the building on the right
Today, the triangular plot of land is actually divided into buildings that don’t particularly hint at the grandness of Snellenburg’s. The Adidas Originals store at 436 South bears all the markings of the structure that remained in 1930. Jutting out awkwardly behind the shoe store is J. Brite Dry Cleaning, which does a great job pressing our suits but seems to bear few visible indicators of its history.
What remains of the building, viewed from South Street
J Brite cleaners, viewed from Bainbridge St.
Today, 318 South Street, Snellenburg’s original location, is a footwear purveyor, Benjamin Lovell Shoes.