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Behind the Doors of a South Philly Row House

the doors of south philly row houses
Row Houses, South Philadelphia

I’ve lived on the 9th-10th Street corridor from Lombard to Ritner Streets since the mid 1980’s and for me South Philly is home. From Department Store ready windows, well-kept stoops and nicely appointed exteriors, these houses are home to the residents who create the neighborhood fiber that welcome each wave of immigrants.

Historically this area began as several small Native American townships, including Moyamensing and SouthWark. Further Native American influence is seen in the names Passyunk and Schuylkill. The area grew as wave after wave of laborers, immigrants and refugees arrived looking for industrial and dock work, creating a vibrant cultural mix of old world ways and new world traditions that exist to this day.

In the late 19th early 20th centuries, Philadelphia was known as the “workshop of the world,” producing luxury goods for the likes of John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier Department stores. Many skilled craftsmen and women immigrated to Philadelphia in search of a better life and South Philly absorbed this wave into the mix. Many of them performed their craft in the home where they first roomed to pay their landlord. This resulted in fascinating finds in working class homes. I’ve lived in 2 and on my tours of many houses for sale, I’ve seen marble window-sills, stained glass windows, even hand-painted wall paper, found in my own humble home.

The Fleischer Art Memorial founded in 1898 had a mission to bring art to the masses and the creative community lives on today with many artists and crafts people living and working in the area at home or in converted studio space. I for one have worked in both my South Philly homes and outside studios in the area. Over my years in South Philly I have pursued millenery, paper-making, fine art, textile design, knitting and currently shoe making in these spaces – all behind closed doors.

In 2016 I launched my hand-made to order shoe-making business, RoxAnneLava. In 2017, I did some customer research and created a series of prototypes and participated in local fairs. I needed a system that would carry and display my product easily.

I settled on a vintage suitcase listed on eBay, a vintage Belber Neolite travel suitcase priced at only $10.50. It looked to be in very good condition, but as I generally do with eBay, I wanted to research the brand before I hit “Buy It Now”.

Belber is a heritage American leather good company founded in Philadelphia in 1891. School age brothers Aaron and Henry Belber (ages 14 and 17) immigrants from Romania via Hamburg and Glasgow pulled together $200 and started making luggage in their South Philadelphia basement. They worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week handcrafting luggage – behind closed doors.

The brothers, joined by their two other brothers, opened their first factory in Philadelphia in 1903. Using lightweight fabrics, quality leather and hardware and the first of many of their patented state of the art locking mechanisms, they produced stylish and elegant luggage and travel accessories at an affordable price. “As Modern As Tomorrow” was their slogan!

Innovators in marketing and advertising, Belber created a market for their products using inspirational and aspirational advertising in magazines and newspapers. They were one of the first Brands to pursue product tie-ins with celebrities and films.

A group of entrepreneurs acquired the brand in 2013 and launched their first new collection in 2016. It’s not a bad history for some teenage immigrants starting in a basement in South Philly – behind closed doors.

RoxAnneLava shoes on display
Vintage Belber Suitcase – featuring RoxAnneLava Shoes

I bought the suitcase. I use it for display. I like to think that just maybe the Belber brothers started their business in MY basement! Even if they didn’t, their suitcase and story are a constant inspiration to me as I build my brand and business.

Behind so many “closed” doors, there is innovation, creativity and new products being born – that’s Philadelphia!