The American Viscose Company in Marcus Hook
Best known as the company that developed "artificial silk," later known as "rayon," the American Viscose Company began construction of its Marcus Hook operation in 1912. Patented by English chemists in 1894, rayon was used extensively for both commercial and military applications. The term "viscose" refers to the organic liquid used to make rayon, which is viscous, or much thicker than water. The Marcus Hook factory was the first North American operation of Viscose.
The American Viscose Company hired the prominent Philadelphia architectural firm of Ballinger & Perrot to design not only their factory, but also the nearby village and other employee amenities. The large brick building across the street from the plaza was originally designed as the dining hall and recreation center for employees (see drawing below). It was later expanded to become the company's administration building, though the remnants of the original design can still be identified in the building's center portion.
The company expanded significantly to supply fabric for military products such as parachutes during World War II. In the 1950s, production shifted at the factory from rayon to cellophane. Though the factory ceased operations in 1977, many original company buildings, including the village, remain intact today.
(Inscription below the drawing in the center) Above: The American Viscose Company complex originally consisted of the factory (lower left corner), employee dining hall/recreation building (bottom center), and the sprawling industrial village. A half-circle shaped public plaza was provided on 10th Street between the dining hall and the village.
(Inscription in the lower right) Right: This postcard, mailed in 1925, shows the American Viscose Co. Factory complex.
It was very common for manufacturers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to construct housing for their workers close to factories. While in most cases these residents were plain brick rowhouses, Ballinger & Perrot wanted to design an "industrial village" for Viscose employees that was self-sustaining, inexpensive and attractive. The result, commonly known as "Viscose Village", was inspired by English factory villages. The 20-acre site originally contained 215 dwellings, two boarding houses and a village store. The community was built complete with paved roads, sewers, back yards and landscaping, setting it apart from ordinary factory housing. As individual home ownership became the norm, the company sold the residences to private owners starting in 1949. Above: Ballinger & Perrot's rendering of the completed village. Below left: Village housing under construction, ca. 1912 Below Right: A completed row of houses consisting of six units. Postcard courtesy of the Keith Lockhart Collection. All other images courtesy of the Ballinger & Perrot Collection, Athenmum of Philadelphia.