Sidebar 15: The New England Glassworks - David Starbuck

In 1608 Jamestown, Virginia, became the first site of glassmaking in the New World, and thus the manufacture of glass became England's first industry in the American colonies. This prompted a National Park Service team, led by J.C. Harrington, to excavate the Jamestown glasshouse in 1948. Others later excavated several other glassmaking sites. However, one of the most precocious, and short-lived, of the early glass factories clung to the side of a mountain in Temple, New Hampshire, far from good roads and markets. This was the New England Glassworks, in production from only 1780-1782, during which time it became the first glass factory in the newly formed United States. This isolated but forward-looking manufactory made the first crown window glass in America, as well as multipurpose bottles and vessels for use in chemistry. To make crown glass, the worker blew and whirled the molten glass on his rod into a disk, from which the panes were then cut.

In 1975, Boston University hired me to lead four years of excavations at the New England Glassworks, together with co-directors James Wiseman and Frederick Gorman. In one of the largest industrial excavations at a rural factory, we exposed most of the main glasshouse, several workers' cabins, dumps, and specialized industrial features such as ovens and kilns. The factory's remoteness had helped to ensure its lack of contamination from later activity at the site, and its very brief period of use helped give us a very exact look at just two years in the life of a significant early American industry.

Thousands of fragments of glass, clay crucibles, and the waste from glass making known as “cullet” provided samples that we analyzed to determine the precise chemical formulas for the factory's products. Our excavations into the remains of the rough workers' cabins also gave us everyday artifacts that suggest the glassblowers and their apprentices lived rather spartan lives. While glassmaking efforts here met with some success, and the large quantities of glass waste reveal much product experimentation, the distance from markets and the difficulty in obtaining a skilled work force no doubt doomed the enterprise from the beginning. In a way that was most fortunate because two hundred years later we, the archaeologists, were delighted to discover what an amazingly pristine industrial site this is.