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Letter from Philadelphia

Empire of Glass

An unusual industrial history emerges from some of the city’s hippest neighborhoods

March/April 2017

Letter From Philadelphia Excavation


Thomas W. Dyott arrived in Philadelphia from England some time around 1803 with little besides a formula for bootblack and a few shillings in his pocket—and ambitious dreams in his head. He probably lacked the credentials for it, but that didn’t stop him from setting up shop as an apothecary—the nineteenth-century equivalent of a pharmacist—at the corner of Race and Second Streets, referring to himself as “Dr. Dyott,” and assuming all the airs that went with the honorific. “He was into hyperbole for sure,” says Ingrid Wuebber, a historian with the Cultural Resources Department of the engineering firm AECOM. “And he had to have been well-spoken because people believed him and sought his advice.” It wasn’t long before Dyott put his stamp on both the pharmaceutical trade and Philadelphia history. Though he is less well remembered today, he stands alongside William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, Rocky Balboa, and the 2008 Phillies—the real, apocryphal, fictitious, and heroic characters of the city’s history.


Letter From Philadelphia Dyottville PressFrom his shop, Dyott formulated and produced a range of patent medicines, and eventually set up a distribution network across the United States. Wherever his pharmaceuticals were sold, he advertised. “He was an early ad man,” says Wuebber, who has studied what few records there are of Dyott’s life and found newspaper ads for a variety of his products. “He was an innovator and he saw [business] in an integrated way. His distribution and networking played out beyond pharmaceuticals.” Indeed, Dyott soon added glass manufacturing to his portfolio, which eliminated the need to purchase medicine bottles. Beginning around the turn of the nineteenth century, the area of present-day Kensington-Fishtown, today one of Philadelphia’s hippest neighborhoods, became a center for the glass industry. It was there that Dyott established an empire of glass, which he called Dyottville.


For about a decade, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has been engaged in a massive redevelopment of I-95 along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, including a three-mile stretch directly north of Center City through the neighborhoods of Kensington-Fishtown, Port Richmond, and Northern Liberties. The project came with a multiyear cultural resource effort, led by PennDOT project manager Elaine Elbich and archaeologist Catherine Spohn, along with AECOM archaeologists George Cress and Douglas Mooney. “Digging I-95,” the umbrella name adopted for the excavations, findings, pop-up exhibitions, website, and more, has yielded around a million artifacts that span nearly 6,000 years of human activity, from prehistory through the Industrial Revolution to World War I. In particular, the excavations have uncovered rich nineteenth-century deposits, with an especially massive quantity of early American glass from the Dyottville Glass Works and neighborhoods nearby where many glass factory workers lived.


“The focus on Philly has always been on downtown, but what we’ve found [in these neighborhoods] are extraordinary histories,” says Mooney, who has worked on downtown digs such as the President’s House in Independence National Historical Park. “This area is better preserved, even though there has been more than 300 years of development.”