“It is almost impossible to imagine our world without aluminum. Almost everywhere you look you see items made of this silver-white metal — from the pots in the kitchen to the airplanes flying overhead. Although aluminium is the most abundant metal on earth, no one had ever seen it until 1825.” — The Golden Book Of Chemistry Experiments, Robert Brent, pg 65
There may be many thoughts that pop up into your head when you think of Northeast Philly. Eagle's banners, row homes, and the various parishes may be first and foremost. For others, it may be the names of neighborhoods: Frankford, Tacony, Kensington, Juniata, and Fishtown. However, this section of the city played a huge part in history many likely don't know about.
Its residents helped create one of the most iconic structures in the United States. They personally shaped the Washington Monument. When the nation called for something truly special, Philadelphians delivered something rare and precious for the iconic obelisk.
As you can guess from the quote above, the item provided by Philly was aluminum. In fact, it was once so difficult to produce, it was considered as precious as gold. For instance, Napoleon III of France had dinnerware specially designed of the metal to show off his power. Gold and silver were reserved for second class dignitaries.
This is one of those hidden tales of Philadelphia.
It's also a reminder of how we tend to forget the wonder of things which sit in front of us our entire lives. Those abandoned factories being rehabbed into condos by developers were once filled with manufacturing plants that built our nation. Also, that aluminum can holding something as simple as soda was once a wonder of the world.
A Ceremonial Capstone And Lightning Rod
As Harry Kyriakodis notes in his article for Hidden City, a corner stone was laid for the Washington Monument in 1833, but work really didn't begin until the 1880's. As construction was finishing, a capstone was needed for the top of the obelisk. This was to act as a lightning rod for the tall structure, and an eye-catching top piece.
A German-born chemist named William Frishmuth was eventually consulted. He'd been a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and worked for the War Department during the Civil War. Specifically, his foundry located on Amber and Rush Streets worked with aluminum. Due to his political connections and skill with metal, he was an obvious choice for the Army Corp of Engineers to contact.
Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey reached out to Frishmuth looking for a cap. Casey's original plan was copper or bronze, but Frishmuth recommended aluminum. It would blend in well with the stone, wouldn't stain over time, and could be polished. Although the pyramid would only be 9 inches tall, no one had ever created a solid block of aluminum like this.
According to George J. Binczewski at the Journal of the Minerals, Casey agreed to a price of $75. Frishmuth also noted he could make another pyramid made of bronze if the aluminum wasn't up to par. In correspondence between the two Casey also mentioned if the aluminum creation exceeded the quote, he'd be willing to pony up a bit more cash.
Kyriakodis explains Frishmuth went to work at his foundry, not far from Kensington. With much difficulty he created a masterpiece. It was such a sensation, Frishmuth had the pyramid displayed at Tiffany’s jewelry store in NYC before being sent to the future monument.
It was the first aluminum casting of this size ever to be created. However, the achievement came with a price.
A Bit Over The Quoted Price
Binczewski notes that after Lt. Col.Casey was amazed by the fantastic aluminum pyramid, he was equally floored by the bill. Frishmuth's final invoice totaled $256.10, which Casey got down to $220. It doesn't sound like much in today's money, but remember this was the 1880's.
In 1884 aluminum was $16 per pound. To put that into perspective, the average worker on the monument would earn $1 per ten hour working day — the same cost as one ounce of the metal. So, the final cost of the cap ended up being $220 or the equivalent of 2,200 hours of labor.
Binczewski explains the cost was likely justified. Modern polishing techniques weren't known in this time. Frishmuth would have to cast and recast the pyramid until it was perfect. Any blemish would standout like a sore thumb on the shiny surface. So, the final product which marched out of the Philadelphia foundry was truly a technological marvel in its day.
Philly's Part In National History
“It was decided: First, that the projectile should be a shell made of aluminum with a diameter of 108 inches and a thickness of twelve inches to its walls; and should weigh 19,250 pounds. Second, that the gun should be a Columbiad cast in iron, 900 feet long, and run perpendicularly into the earth. Third, that the charge should contain 400,000 pounds of gun-cotton, which, giving out six billions of litres of gas in rear of the projectile, would easily carry it toward the orb of night.” — Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon,
In Andrey Drozdov's article, Aluminium: The Thirteenth Element, he explains the general public first became publicly aware of aluminum in an 1885 expo in Paris. They referred to the metal as “silver from clay” and 16 million people would come to see it. One of those was Jules Verne who'd create his craft sent to the moon out of the material in his famous book.
So, the aluminum you crush and throw out without a thought was once precious beyond measure. Likewise, the abandoned factories you pass throughout Northeast Philly once were called upon to create fantastic pyramids to cap a monument dedicated to our first President.
As Kyriakodis notes, these factories may be gone, but one of their products sits at the highest peak in Washington DC. So, think about this as you drive through the Northeast. The old, abandoned buildings you pass may not look noteworthy. But each have their history, and one on Amber and Rush Streets created a national treasure.