Industrious Philly elves are cranking out the ‘Jawnaments’ [photos + video]


As the clock ticks down to Christmas, high-schoolers in West Philadelphia are busy producing their own spin on holiday décor they call “jawnaments.”

If you’re not from Philadelphia, you might not be familiar with the term “jawn.”  

“It’s a person a place or a thing. It’s a noun,” explained Workshop School Senior Jahtae Williams. “A jawn is anything you want it to be.”

The word is often used in place of “thing,” as in “hand me that jawn” or “the whole jawn came down” — a well-known quotation obtained for this 2014 story in the Philadelphia Daily News.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Last year, just before Thanksgiving, a freshman named Michael Best had the idea to turn that unique Philly slang word into a Christmas ornament.

The “jawnament” was born, and the enterprise took off. 

The colorful, wood-cut ornaments were a hit with local media and shoppers at craft sales. Eventually, the students had to cancel some orders because they couldn’t make them fast enough.

This year, they’re upping their game with a new website for online orders — thanks to the school’s computer club — and a bigger team of workers.  

About 15 students work to the constant hum of a laser cutter that turns plywood into “jawns” and a host of other holiday shapes, such as snowflakes, stars and reindeer. The ornaments are spray-painted or stained and sold for $4 and $5 each along with a simple paper-clip hook.

The Workshop School specializes in project-based learning, but this endeavor is part of a special after-school program called Workshop Industries where the stakes are higher: the students get a cut of the profits.

“One of the biggest motivators is that they realize it’s making a lot of money and it’s a really good source of revenue for them and for the school,” said program director Bevan Weissman. 

So far, jawnament sales have grossed about $7,000 this year — three times more than they brought in last year.  However the group is still calculating the cost of supplies and shipping, so it doesn’t know the net profit yet. Half the earnings will go to the school and the other half will be divvied up among the students. 

With that kind of money on the line, Weissman said there’s more pressure on his students to work through challenges successfully. He’s only there to supervise.

“I want to be as hands-off as possible, so it’s my goal for them to just really take total ownership of it,” he said.

Miracle Townes, a sophomore, is the team manager. Townes is soft-spoken, but firm when she has to be. She wants to be a CEO someday, but it’s not easy being in charge of her friends.

“When I come here, basically I really treat it like this is like my real job,” she said. “They’re friends, but they’re also like employees, so it’s kind of hard because I have to be very precise on things.”

Townes has to tell her team exactly what she needs. Otherwise, orders could go unfilled and they could all lose money.

Her teammates seem to understand that, although it’s not easy for them to take direction from a peer. 

“We just learn to work with each other,” said Candace Mitchell, who is also a sophomore. 

There are other lessons to learn, such as how to nail a sales pitch or how to to keep their cool while waiting in long lines at the post office or how to choose between keeping costs down and getting orders out by Christmas. 

And of course, from time to time,  customers complain they haven’t received their order or their “jawnament” didn’t look like the picture online. 

“All things you take for granted when you order from Amazon, these are the things they have to think through,” Weissman said.

The biggest challenge, students said, is deciding how to split the profits. Michael Best, now a sophomore, said that process was pretty tense last year.

“It did cause fights. We had lots of arguments,” he said. “People would say like, ‘they did the most and they really didn’t do the most.'”

When the team squabbles over pay, that’s when Weissman steps back in to help to offer a teacher’s perspective on which students worked the hardest. 

Best, who took home $250 last year, says sure, the money is good. But he also loves the idea of his jawnaments hanging on Christmas trees all over Philadelphia and as far away as California and Washington State.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal