The Disston Saw Works


Disston Saw Works was a utopia of the working class. It all began as one company in the mid-1800s, a very successful saw business owned by British immigrant Henry Disston. Disston came to America towards the end of the Industrial Revolution when factory life had been established as a result of an increase in machinery. This was a prime time in history for Disston to start his company. His handsaw business soon became successful and reputable for its high-quality handsaws, even on an international level (which were made from scratch unlike most saw companies at the time). After the growth of his business, Henry decided to move shop from urban Philadelphia to the small and isolated Tacony section of Philadelphia. During this time, he also expanded his business to manufacture many other tools and steel products. In 1872, Henry had laid the foundations in Tacony for what became known as a company town stretching over 400 acres.

Overlap of Government and Economics, With a Dash of Human Rights

Company towns were actually quite common in America in the 19th century, at one point housing 3% of the population. They were communities isolated from urban areas that completely revolved around a central monopolizing company. The company, in this case the Disston Saw Works, had complete ownership of all business, infrastructure, housing, and shops in the town. The Disston family acted as not only the workplace, but also the ruling government and surrounding economy, blending many acting societal forces into one.

The Disston family controlled and regulated economic life, owning all of the businesses in town and barring certain businesses completely, for example “dirty” ones such as tanneries and any business not owned by Disston. All of these businesses bore an emblem on its front of a keystone (the nickname of Pennsylvania) with a “D” in the center, showing Disston’s economic control of the town. Under Henry Disston’s governance, workers for these businesses were paid somewhat low wages but had a short hour workday, were trained at a special trade school, and received good benefits (for example, in the case of illness). Sometimes families were even given paid days off for leisure activities. All workers had a right to a decent living.

Henry Disston did not use his power to be a ruthless leader; rather, he was somewhat of a paternal figure for his 2,500 workers. He wanted them to live in the utmost convenience with all they needed to survive comfortably. His main reasoning was that if he treated workers fairly, it would increase work performance. This mutualistic relationship led to the construction of many public works buildings such as movie theaters, libraries, and music halls, which Disston personally financed the construction and maintenance of. Disston also made sure that each and every one of his workers had a place to stay, building thousands of homes and financially assisting buyers whenever necessary.

One of the only restricting governing rules imposed on working citizens by Disston was that they were not allowed to form a union. This was a common fear of employers at the time, as a union put rules into the workers’ hands rather than the employers’. Since the economy and the government were so overlapped in the Disston Saw Works, a union would have been double the threat to the leader of a company town like Henry Disston.

Gender Roles

In respect to gender, women were active participants of working life. They were not restricted to the home, but like the men were educated in schools and participated in small tasks in the factory work. Everybody who lived in Disston Saw Works was able to work for the company in order to maintain their stay. All were dependent on the workplace.


The workforce of Disston Saw Works in Tacony lived in a very well-regulated society that echoed a clear utopian vision. Prevailing ethical uprightness was encouraged in order to promote better workers. For example, there was no alcohol allowed. If workers were liable to be drunks, it may have affected their work performance the next morning or even over a long period of time depending on severity. Disston saw ethics as reaching into the workplace, and therefore did what he could to set a high moral standard.


Surprisingly for a factory town, Disston was environmentally conscious and ecologically friendly. In an 1886 visit by the Pennsylvania Secretary of Internal Affairs, the water was reported as pure because the town had its own water supply (a drastic contrast from dirty, unhealthy and crowded urban life), and the air was fresh and clean.


Another important factor of the Disston Saw Works was the religious tolerance established by Disston. Land was made available for several churches of different backgrounds, with no unifying community religion. Not only did this ensure peace and open-mindedness among citizens, but it also meant a greater workforce. Less workers would have chose to live on the acres opened up by Disston if they did not want to conform to a ruling religion.

The entire community certainly benefited from a mutualistic relationship between hard worker and benevolent boss, a utopia not as often recreated in today’s workforce.

All Good Things Come to an End

A few things contributed to the downfall of the Disston Saw Works. After Henry Disston’s death, there were issues with keeping the business in the family in future generations. There was less regulation of economy: other businesses that were not Disston-owned were allowed to populate the town, decentralizing the Disston monopoly. In addition, the prevalence of the automobile meant that workers no longer had to live close to their workplace, and many moved away. After providing the steel for tanks in the WWII effort, Disston Saw Works was sold out of the family in 1955. However, the company remains to this day, keeping the name by calling itself Disston Precision.

An interesting example of a modern day company town.

My presentation

Henry Disston. The way this picture was drawn reflects his image to the public- a benevolent and kind paternal figure.
Music Hall architectural structure built in Disston.
A layout of Disston Saw Works. Shows factories by the waterfront and the houses beyond.
Inside one of the factories, where women were permitted to work.
The emblem on all Disston-owned buildings.

2 thoughts on “The Disston Saw Works

  1. What I found most interesting about this community is how benevolent Henry Disston seemed to be. When I think of company towns, I normally think of corporations creating housing units for their workers not to help them, but for their own use. Having a community of labor dependent on you for their income and housing right at your disposal seems like a great incentive for a company to create this type of town. But for Disston, it was more to ensure that the workers and their families were properly housed, fed, and educated. In order to increase productivity, he increased their happiness rather than their utility. This is also why it was probably successful throughout Disston’s life. What I also find interesting is that the failure of the community was not due to inherent flaws in the system. But instead, a disintegration within the company following Disston’s death and the availability of automobiles making commutes more feasible. This is telling as to the quality of the society Disston created.

  2. I agree with Laila that Henry Disston was a great leader because he cared about his people and it showed through his actions. I thought it was really great that he tried to take care of the people who worked for him and I can understand how this can really feel like a utopian society. Henry tried to make sure his workers were happy and that was the reason why his society was successful. He was passionate about helping the people. Unfortunately when his time came, others who inherited his business were not as passionate and the whole thing fell apart. It is really sort of sad actually.

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