Joseph Ripka was born in 1788 in Silesia and was trained as a weaver. To avoid conscription into the army, he went to Vienna, Switzerland, and Spain and then, in 1816, to Philadelphia. He initially found work as an independent weaver but soon rented space, acquired looms, and hired workers. His firm is listed in the 1820 census with capitalization of $3,500 and 13 employees.
In 1823, Ripka married Kate Geiger of Germantown, Pennsylvania. They had five sons and four daughters. In 1828, he rented mill space in the Manayunk section of western Philadelphia and by 1831 had built the water-powered Mill No. 1. He also owned a factory in northeastern Philadelphia. These properties and their machinery were worth at least $100,000. By 1834, he employed more than 300 workers, a large percentage of whom were women and children. He reduced wages at every opportunity and required thirteen-hour work days. In 1835, he erected Mill No. 2 at Manayunk, with 600 power looms.
In 1838, John Rosencrantz married Caroline Ripka and took over management of one of her father’s mills. The 1840s through the mid-1850s were peak years for the Ripka works. It had become one of the largest textile companies in the nation, with more than 1,000 workers in various locations around Philadelphia. The mills were affected by labor unrest, strikes, and, in 1848, the partial burning of one of the factories.
In 1850, Ripka’s textile works were capitalized at $490,000, and he was listed in the census as having $200,000 in real property, three servants, and a coachman. In 1852, he and his family moved into a new mansion. As his sons came of age, he placed them, and other family members, in charge of his mills. The factories’ increasing dependence on a single product line—fabric for making “pantiloons”—and growing percentage of sales in the Southern states, however, would bring hard times during in the economic downturn of 1857 and subsequent onset of the Civil War.
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