At the time of its closure in 2012, John Wilde & Brother, Inc. in Manayunk, Pennsylvania had the distinction of being the oldest continually operating yarn mill in the United States. When Thomas and John Wilde founded their carpet yarn business under the name John Wilde and Brother, Inc. (I can find no mention of why Thomas wasn’t named or what his opinion of that was), Manayunk was home to dozens of dye houses and textile mills. The area had transitioned from cotton production to wool during the Civil War primarily to manufacture wool blankets for the Union Army, and the Wilde brothers were familiar with textile production from their jobs in an English mill in the 1850s. They began their business in rented space in 1880, and when construction was completed on their first stone mill building in 1884 they moved their operations there. Records indicate their endeavor was met with success, employing mostly English and Irish immigrants. There were 800 textile operations in the greater Philadelphia area, over 300 of which were dedicated to carpet yarn; by 1910 it would constitute 35% of the city’s workforce.
John Wilde & Brother remained family owned and operated, adding a second mill building in 1932. The company’s prosperity was directly at odds with the rest of the textile industries in the area. Unionization and labor turbulence led to the closure or relocation of many of the textile mills in the 1930s, but Wilde remained small enough that it dodged many of these difficulties. Between 1935 and 1940 their workforce tripled but in the 1950s business began slowing down. Synthetic fibers like nylon swiftly overtook wool in carpet production and competition from imports became more of a factor. While Wilde remained primarily in the business of carpet fiber, they were forced to diversify to niche markets among craftspeople. Stockings, dolls, and handmade Navajo rugs were some of the products created using the specialty wool from Wilde. The factory’s production capacity was 750,000 pounds of wool yearly, but demand was waning and actual output to meet demand was much less.
When John Wilde & Brother, Inc. finally closed, it was a quiet affair with little mention despite its significance. It was quickly snapped up by a developer who planned to turn the old mill buildings into apartments, and much of the following media discussion centered around the impact on local traffic and parking. The former mill was successfully converted to condos that look essentially the same from the outside and are decorated with a mural celebrating the building’s history.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Dec 29, 2020 History