The Economy of Germantown

The Economy of Germantown: How Did People Get By?

by Susan Bockius

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It is a challenge to the 21st Century mind to imagine the circumstances that greeted early immigrants to Pennsylvania. As we try, let us turn to eyewitness Francis Daniel Pastorius, the founder of Germantown, who in his journal called Pennsylvania “a howling wilderness.” In his manuscript papers, he tells us that upon arrival:

“Philadelphia consisted of 3 or 4 little cottages, all the residue being only woods, underwoods, timber and trees, among which I several times have lost myself in traveling no farther than from the water side [where was his cave] to the house.”

Thousands of acres of untouched land, and a supply of undeveloped resources greeted Penn’s initial Dutch and German settlers. They built huts the first winter to shelter and sustain their families until a village and its vital services could develop, expanding to log homes as time allowed. (Penn had specified in his land grant that the allotments had to be occupied, and homes built within two years.)

The settlers needed lumber from the timber that surrounded them. They needed food, which was at least a growing season away. Was there a gristmill to help make grain into meal and flour?   A man might hunt for meat for his family’s table; game was plentiful. But an important by-product was leather for shoes, saddles, and harnesses, and for this they needed a tannery. Surely these provident folks brought basic tools. But they would need a blacksmith to repair what broke, to make new or specialized tools, and for the nails, locks, and structural elements required for mills and homes. Barter could handle many transactions, and did. But there were occasions that demanded cash. How would this be earned?

Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds, we have testament that the economy was established and functioning well by the mid-1700’s. Peter Kalm reported in his Travels in North America, the English Version of 1770 that on Main Street, Germantown, by 1748 “most of the inhabitants are tradesmen and make almost everything in such quantity and perfection that in a short time this province will want very little from England.” We will look at the gradual development from arrival until 1790, from 33 people to 3,000, as waves of settlers built a rich network of exchange and lives secure from want.

Of special assistance in this effort has been the work of historian, author, and president of the Germantown Historical Society from 1981-1989, Stephanie Grauman Wolf. A social historian, Wolf has mined the copious data in Germantown’s church records and histories, deeds and tax records, family wills and estate inventories, letters and diaries, for information on the 18th Century. In her capable hands, these resources not only illuminate the daily lives of ordinary people in Germantown, but allow a careful estimation of social trends and cultural climate not previously possible.


On October 25, 1683, the Krefelders drew lots for land in the lower part of Germantown and spent the first winter clearing land and developing roads. Some began log homes on their property. No picture of a Germantown log house survives, but among “Pictures of Old Germantown from 1715 to 1820” published in 1895, we find Pastorius’ log house “reimagined,” purportedly his residence after the cave and before his gentleman’s home. Note the well-dressed man smoking a pipe on the bench at the entrance—Pastorius himself, we presume.



In 1687 the 5700 acre German Township was divided into four regions along the Great Road (later Main Street, finally Germantown Avenue): Germantown in the south with nearly half the acreage, followed by Cresheim, Sommerhausen and Crefeld traveling north. (See map) These were further divided into 131 parcels. Each parcel had frontage on the Great Road of at least 125 feet, and extended deeply on either side to the neighboring townships of Roxborough, Springfield and Bristol.   In 1689, a second drawing of lots was held, land patents were issued, and the borough was organized and chartered by Penn.

In Germantown, a lot was combined with adjacent side lands to equal 50 acres, half lots were 25 acres, and all were offered for sale. Owners were obliged to build their dwelling and outbuildings on the Great Road portion of their properties. Building dwellings on lands further afield required community and Court consent. This tended in the early decades to keep the parcels consolidated.   Some purchasers bought more than one lot; some were bought in common. After all were purchased, the lots were renumbered and owners noted. The renumbered lots were the basis for the map of later record (1766), illustrated here with amendments by J. P. Garber, (published in History of Old Germantown by Keyser et al.)

There is more to be deduced from the layout of Germantown, and Wolf assists in these larger conclusions. This layout did not follow the plan Penn had established for townships, which granted 500 acres per family, clustered in ten units. Ten houses were gathered into a village with each family’s field lying across the highway. The basic lot size of fifty acres in Germantown, one-tenth what Penn laid out for a township family unit, meant that Germantown land division was insufficient for prosperity in farming.

The Germantown pattern, “a single street village.” with houses strung along a main road and long narrow fields stretching out behind, was Pastorius’ idea and medieval in origin. Wolf says the Pastorius plan was later called an “urban village,” In her book of the same name, she illustrates how Germantown uniquely fulfilled the type.

That both Penn and Pastorius were urban dwellers may have conditioned them to mercantile goals in planning for Germantown.   Penn saw the possibilities of production as greater than merely sending raw materials to the homeland for manufacture; his Krefelders would grow flax and weave cloth for export. He also recommended wine as a product to consider, and the grape is included in the early seal of Germanopolis (see figure).

From the website Translation:  Wine, Flax and the Art of Weaving Believed to be a 1691 version

From the website
Translation: Wine, Flax and the Art of Weaving
Believed to be a 1691 version

Pastorius and the Krefelders were prepared from the outset to make the settlement a weaving center: settlers brought their looms and a supply of finished cloth to sell. In the first year, Pastorius established a store in Philadelphia as an outlet for the town’s weaving.

Germantown would come to exploit its location between the outlying farms and the port city of Philadelphia. Here was a market for bartering farm products for finished goods in the Germantown general stores.   Local middlemen shipped farm products to Philadelphia, and from there abroad in a cash exchange. Germantown craftsmen manufactured items needed by both town and farm: coopers made barrels for home use and to contain products in transit; wheelwrights crafted both farm wagons and city carriages.

The immigrants who flocked to Philadelphia were not peasants in a traditional sense; that is, attached to the same land over generations of continuous habitation. These Dutch and German settlers were mobile in their homelands. The Palatine Germans had endured some two centuries of war and religious oppression, as discussed in this series in “Why Germans Came to Philadelphia.” Re-settlement was part of the chaos they endured.

Many of the Krefelders had been Mennonites before they were Quakers. It was a tenant of the pacifist Mennonite faith to leave political oppression rather than to oppose it. Mennonites moved from oppression in Holland to Krefeld, Germany around the turn of the 17th Century.

Wolf deduces that established patterns of mobility among the immigrants allowed the Germantown settlers to treat their land as a fungible asset quite early. Settlers tended not to preserve original land purchases for family inheritance. As a consequence, in the 1730’s and 40’s many land parcels were offered for sale in diminishing sizes. Land at the center of Germantown was far more valuable, and owners divided it into smaller and smaller lots.



By 1684, Pastorius tells us that there were 42 people in 12 houses in the town. By 1689, there were 44 families—the original Krefelders amended by immigrants from Kriegsheim (later Cresheim).   Their settlement was focused in the area between what are now Wister Street and Washington Lane.

The log house, pictured earlier and described in Article 11 of this series, “New Sweden On The Delaware,” was an expedient form of early shelter, not even requiring the hewing of boards. An anonymous pamphlet from 1684 for new settlers to Pennsylvania outlined a simple log house for “ordinary beginners.” It would be 30 feet long and 18 feet wide, with one partition near the middle and another to divide one end into two smaller rooms. “These houses,” prospective settlers were assured, “usually last ten years.” The pictured “Pastorius log cabin” fits the simplicity of the described “beginner houses.” Note the wooden chimney, which would have been lined with clay for fireproofing. Until glass was available, windows had wooden shutters. The roof would have been wooden shingles. When the log house was later replaced, the original house might become an agricultural building, a shop, or a rented dwelling.

From Keyser we learn:

All the original houses had what is called a pent roof, or rain shed, projecting over the door and windows of the first floor, and a small porch in front of the door with a seat on either side, where the residents would sit taking the air, smoking or gossiping when the weather permitted.

This traditional small porch, brought by the Dutch weavers from their homeland, provided the first social life of the little community as people strolled the neighborhood and stopped to chat with those on their porches.

The natural building material beyond logs was the local Wissahickon schist–abundant, relatively easy to work, and sparkling with mica. The next generation dwelling would have been two-stories, in stone, with windows and glass panes. Wolf’s statistical analysis tells us that by 1798, Germantown’s housing stock was 83.5 percent stone, 12 percent frame. Sixty percent of the buildings were two-story; 38 percent were one-story. Of houses having outbuildings (51 percent), the commonest outbuilding was the kitchen at 38 percent. The floor space would have been between 300 and 600 square feet for 50 percent of the houses, barely the size of a studio apartment today.

Interested readers will find a living example of these descriptions in the Homestead building at Rittenhouse Town, the site of the oldest paper mill in North America (1690). The dwelling (right in the picture below) is a two-story Wissahickon schist residence with an attic loft. The older portion of the Homestead (left side; built 1707) replaced an earlier log home. It contains a cooking hearth integrated into the living space on what was then an exterior wall. The 1725 addition (right side) greatly expanded the living area. A separate cookhouse (left in the picture) was added in 1725 as well. The building is restored to its original form, including exposed stone and trim color; note also the wood-shingled roof.   A visit brings a sense of immediacy to descriptions of the lives of our ancient neighbors. Do stop by.


A future article will continue investigation of the early economy with a discussion of trades and commerce in 18th Century Germantown.



Carson, Cary; Norman F. Barka; William M. Kelso; Garry Wheeler Stone; and Dell Upton. “Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies.” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 16, No. 2/3, (Summer – Autumn, 1981), pp. 135-196. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc. Retrieved 1/22/2015 from

Keyser, Naaman. “Old Historic Germantown,” an address to the Pennsylvania German Society, Lancaster PA, 1906.

Keyser, Naaman; C. Henry Kain; John Palmer Garber; Horace F. McCann.   History of Old Germantown. Horace F. McCann, Publisher, Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1907.

Lloyd, Mark Frazier and Sandra Macenzie Lloyd, “Three Hundred Years of Germantown History: an Exhibition Celebrating the Tercentenary of This Community,”  Germantown Crier: Germantown 1983 Tercentenary, Germantown Historical Society, Volume 35, Number 1, Winter 1982-83: 7

Penn, William. “A Further Account of the Province of Pennsylvania and Its Improvements for the Satisfaction of Those That are Adventurous and Inclined to Be So (1685),” PMHB, 9 (1885), pp 62081

Pennypacker, The Honorable Samuel Whitaker. The Settlement of Germantown, Pennsylvania and the Beginning of German Immigration to North America. 1899.

Rittenhouse Town:

Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. Urban Village, Princeton University Press, 1976.



© Susan Bockius, 2015. West Mt. Airy Neighbors holds exclusive first publication rights in this article. Readers may copy the Work for educational, not-for-profit purposes If author and publisher are acknowledged in the re-use.