Thomas W. Dyott, Snake Oil, Soda Water and the Perennially Seductive Philadelphia Bottle

View of the Glass works of T. W. Dyott at Kensington on the Delaware nr Philada., Lithograph by Kennedy & Lucas after William L. Breton, 1831. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Everyone in America, it seemed, wanted to wrap their fingers around a bottle. What poured from the bottle didn’t seem to matter all that much, so long as it made the consumers feel good about themselves.  It might be shoe polish, patent medicine or whiskey—something, anything, that was cheap to make and marketable by whatever claims it took to sell. When it came down to it, the bottle’s contents were almost secondary to a steady, affordable supply of pocket-sized, glass containers. Without bottles, manufacturers and merchants had no reason to create demand and no way to satisfy the desires of clambering consumers.

“The Times.” By H. R. Robinson after E. W. Clay, 1837. Detail. (The Library of Congress)

Thomas W. Dyott understood this dilemma, and overcame it. He called himself a doctor, which Dyott was not, but he was an operator, an entrepreneur and an ambitious visionary. As a poor, young arrival from England, Dyott polished shoes and mixed his own bootblack after hours. He sold as much as he could make and soon realized that while polish might put food on the table, cures would get him food and the table. Dyott added “M.D.” to his name and marketed and sold elixirs including “Vegetable Nervous Cordial,” “Infallible Toothache Drops,” and “Stomachic Bitters.” Before long, Dyott’s drug store at 2nd and Race Street had become the headquarters for the largest patent medicine businessman in the United States, with sales agents pounding the pavement in a dozen states.

As long as Dyott depended on others for a steady supply of bottles, his success was at their mercy. So he bought and breathed new life into the old Kensington Glass Works, located where a creek called Gunner’s Run flowed into the Delaware River. Dyott ramped up production to 8,000 pounds of glass each and every day. He undercut everyone else’s prices; he made and supplied quality bottles for his own ventures as well as those of his competition.

By the 1830s, the 400-acre Glass Works of T. W. Dyott grew into a company town for his labor force of up to 400, about half of whom were apprentices, some as young as six. Dyott demanded work, but he provided housing, healthcare, education, recreation, religion and rules. Dyottville had a farm to sustain his workforce and he guaranteed employment all year around. His factory made bottles in clear and tinted glass featuring images in relief of everything from the American flag to cornucopia, to everyone among the powerful, rich and famous: Washington, Franklin, Swedish singer Jenny Lind and, on occasion, Dyott himself.

As he grew richer, Dyott became known for excess and extravagance. And when he launched a private bank—The Manual Labor Bank–Dyott brought to bear his skill as a marketer and manipulator. He “induced a great many people, principally of the middling interest and poorer classes, to deposit their earnings” and issued paper money with presidential portraits, his own signature, and the assurance each note was “secured in trust.”

But when even the best banks collapsed during the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed, so did Dyott’s Manual Labor Bank and his grand version of the American dream. In the celebrity trial that followed, the commonwealth charged Dyott with “defrauding the community” and “fraudulent insolvency.” Sixty-eight witnesses testified against him and the 70-year-old was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary. The factory closed and Dyottville became a ghost town.

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The old Dyott Glass Works at the Aramingo Canal in 1898.

In the 1840s, a fad for plain and flavored mineral waters spurred new and an even greater demand for bottles. Another immigrant entrepreneur, Eugene Roussel, took over Dyott’s shuttered factory. (Roussel soon diversified from perfumes to soda water, and soon distributed more than 15,000 bottles of his soda water, every day.) Meanwhile, investors widened Gunner’s Run into the Aramingo Canal to support Kensington’s burgeoning industrial landscape, which produced everything: paint, pottery, rope, stoves, wagons and ships. By the end of the 19th century, Dyott’s factory, by then acknowledged as the city’s oldest glass house, was still producing bottles.

In the 20th century, I-95 came through the Dyott site, which both obliterated its past above ground but left behind opportunities for some interesting industrial archeology. A recent dig reported no bottles, but even more important finds among the foundations that will help sketch in the larger story.

Where are the Dyott bottles today?

It turns out that they continue to have a life of their own. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds a few, as do some collectors. Folks liked to wrap their fingers around Dyott’s bottles then, and, as it turns out, they still do. In 2010, a Dyott bottle nicknamed the ‘Firecracker Flask’ set a world record at auction, selling for more than $100,000.

After all these years, Dyott bottles still have a way of making their owners feel special.

2 replies on “Thomas W. Dyott, Snake Oil, Soda Water and the Perennially Seductive Philadelphia Bottle”

Thank you for letting me know where my bottles came from. They were my grandmother’s and my Mom didn’t remember where she got them just that she always remembered them. My grandmother passed away at 102 about ten years ago so these bottles were something she had a long time.

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