Whatever the challenge, whatever the time, the Quartermaster has come together to meet the evolving demands of a changing world.
In the 1920’s the Quartermaster was turning out items such as coats, overcoats and breeches, and had assumed full textile functions from the Schuylkill Arsenal site (now being used as a Quartermaster School) - that included uniforms for soldiers, nurses, chaplains and firefighters and items like flags, tableware, buttons, service medals, blankets and bed sheets. Tents were also produced there from 1922-38.
As the roaring twenties tumbled into financial panic, Philadelphia’s diverse array of industries helped it weather the difficult years of the Great Depression, the largest industry of which was textiles. At the time, Philadelphia produced more textiles than any other U.S. city; and the textile industry employed more than 35 percent of the city's workers.
While many across the U.S. were out of work, the 1930’s saw the depot humming with activity as the Quartermaster again played an integral part in a full-scale national program – this one designed to lift the nation from economic despair. The Quartermaster manufactured all work wear for the 600,000 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) filling work relief jobs under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Locally, 40,000 Philadelphians were employed under the CCC program.
Period sources of this era highlight the substantial role of the Quartermaster with references like: “100 acres of Hellzapoppin!”, “the largest purchaser of textiles and textile products in the world”, the “Housewife Department”, and “the world’s largest clothing store.”
Origins at the Arsenal
At the beginning of the 19th century, the federal and state governments of the revolutionary era were leaving Philadelphia and the city was transitioning to one of the first U.S. industrial centers. The Quartermaster of today has its origins around this time with the Army’s construction of the Schuylkill Arsenal at Grays Ferry Avenue and Washington Avenue (yes, you can still see its stone wall there today) to warehouse military arms, gun powder, clothing and equipment. It was the third federal facility in the young nation.
In 1803 Captain Meriwether Lewis provisioned an unprecedented journey out of the Schuylkill Arsenal – one that would set his place in history as one of America’s most famed pioneers. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) set out across the Grays Ferry Bridge in Conestoga wagons with 3,500 pounds of supplies loaded and became the first expedition to cross the western portion of the United States. Reaching the Pacific, the team had mapped and established their presence for America’s legal claim to the land - and defined the course of our country’s westward expansion.
By 1818, the Schuylkill Arsenal’s responsibilities had shifted to a specialization in textiles, performing tasks like garment cutting and tent inspection, as well as the acquisition, storage and distribution of military clothing, footwear and personal equipment.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), more than 10,000 seamstresses and tailors were brought on to make the clothing, blankets, tents and bedding needed for Union troops.
By the 1880s, immigration from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Italy started rivaling immigration from Western Europe in Philadelphia. Philadelphia's Italian population grew from around 300 in 1870 to around 18,000 in 1900, with the majority settling in South Philadelphia.
The first two decades of the 1900s saw the development of 480 homes that make up the distinct neighboring community of Girard Estates – its eclectic mix of architectural styles pose a marked difference from the Philly row and the close-knit community housed many within the Quartermaster workforce.
Doughboys and the Depot
That growing workforce was tapped into as America entered the fray of World War I in 1918, mobilizing and equipping two million servicemen in the span of less than a year. It was with this pivotal historic event that the modern American Army was born.
Outfitting the “doughboys” of the Great War created an enormous demand for uniforms and gear that caused the Army to lease an additional 61 acres, then a celery farm belonging to the Girard Estate and City of Philadelphia, at the corner of 20th Street and Oregon Avenue near the Schuylkill Arsenal. The new facility was called the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot - the modern-day site of the Quartermaster.
By the close of WWI all operations had moved to the larger site – a new depot to store army supplies prior to worldwide distribution.
Aiding the Allies
In the 1940’s Philadelphia was quick to mobilize with the United States’ involvement in World War II, with 183,850 local residents serving in the armed forces. At the same time, the Quartermaster became a critical center of operations during WWII facilitating $5 billion dollars in contracts for military garments and equipment.
It was in this era that the iconic Art Deco buildings (11 in total) designed by prominent local architecture firm the Ballinger Company were installed. When construction ended in 1942 the complex had its own police and fire protection, streets and traffic control. The Quartermaster maintained a fleet of trucks and had its own railroad system, complete with a roundhouse for the four locomotives which operated over 3.5 miles of track. This not only created a comprehensive and insular world in terms of function and daily activity, but also presented the stylistically unified architectural design and plan that the Quartermaster enjoys today.
The newly expanded Quartermaster was built to win - proudly supplying uniforms for the 8 million enlisted men and women serving worldwide and storing over 500 million articles for distribution such as shoes, coats, socks, gloves, hats, blankets, belts, mosquito nets and sleeping bags. The Allies’ ability to out-provision its enemies was a contributing factor to the ultimate success of the war effort.
With so many men serving in the military, labor shortages caused businesses and industries (and the Quartermaster) to hire women, African Americans and workers from outside the city for the first time.
The Quartermaster’s workforce of 1,000 to 4,000 between wars ballooned to 15,000 from 1941-45 and to 8,728 by the time the Nazis were eradicated and the war in the Pacific came to an end.
The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 15, 1945 stated that Philadelphia’s citizens celebrated the end of World War II “with the wildest, noisiest, most joyous celebration this old city has ever seen.”
South Philadelphia Staple
By 1950, 3,438 employees were manufacturing winter field jackets, women’s clothing, comforters and parachutes to support the Korean War effort and it was around this time the Quartermaster’s mission expanded to advanced textile testing and the supply of food, medicines and medical supplies. Pilot’s coveralls, jungle fatigues and dress uniforms were produced on-site during the protracted Vietnam war years of 1955-1975. Quartermaster was also the manufacturer of the official Presidential flag.
New public spaces of the South Philadelphia district below Oregon hosted popular teen dances, and became an identifiable part of South Philadelphia's pop culture scene during the 1950s and 1960s with popular disc jockeys like Jerry Blavat and Dick Clark of American Bandstand garnering attention. In the late 1960s and 1970s the nearby South Philadelphia Sports Complex began to develop to what we are familiar with today. The Spectrum opened in 1967 and Veterans Stadium “the Vet” opened in 1971 and hosted two World Series (1980 and 1983). In 1983, Julius Irving led the Sixers to a sweep of the NBA finals. On Broad Street and beyond, thousands of long-suffering fans poured into the streets and celebrated (unknowing of the 25-year drought ahead!). More than 4,000 people were employed annually throughout this time at the Quartermaster – a South Philadelphia mainstay and major employer.
One Era Ends - and Another Begins
In later years, the Quartermaster was the sole provider of clothing during the first two months of the Gulf War, producing the iconic desert camouflage of that era. Quartermaster also supported relief efforts in Haiti, Somalia Bosnia and Rwanda throughout the 1990’s.
The clothing factory at the Quartermaster officially closed in 1994 after operations were transferred to Northeast Philadelphia. The demolition of five of the Quartermaster’s large original World War I warehouses in 1999 left the footprint of the Quartermaster as we know it today.
The Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
The Quartermaster campus was purchased by Sky Management in 2001, and a bold redevelopment plan is taking shape 100 years from its birth at the existing location of 21st and Oregon.