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The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 2000

Note:::
 The American history of the Johann Reinhart Laubach family began on 16 September 1738, with
     the arrival in Philadelphia, PA of Johann Reinhart Laubach and his son, Johann Christian, and family
     on the ship Queen Elizabeth from Budingen, Hessen, Germany.

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Beneath us, the city's past
Before the new federal prison was built on Arch Street, archaeologists sifted through layers of artifacts. They uncovered rich details from the daily lives of our Quaker and colonial predecessors.

By Faye Flam

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Five years ago, a team of archaeologists used backhoes and jackhammers and plenty of their own muscle to dig down into the past of Seventh and Arch Streets, a requirement of building a new $68 million prison.

As the 12-story Federal Detention Center gets set to open a month from today, Joe Dent and his colleagues have issued their report on the layers of history they found in the dirt below - bustling Victorian factories; homes of rich Quakers who wore powdered wigs and buckled shoes; colonial artisans who created distinctive pottery, raised horses and brewed beer.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson would have had a view of people walking on this block from his upstairs room at the Graff House at Seventh and Market, where he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Historical records show the names and dates of past inhabitants. But the intricate details of life are recorded in their discards - pipes, old coins, pottery shards, glasses, toys, shoe buckles, bone toothbrushes, buttons and wig curlers.

In 1995 and 1996, Dent and his crew of 17 peeled back the asphalt of what was then an 11,365 square foot vacant lot between parking areas, removing 8 to 10 feet of dirt that had been used as fill.

What lay beneath was a different era, a time when Arch was officially called Mulberry Street, and small factories turned out the essential goods of the day. The brick foundations of those old factories were first built as homes for early-19th- century city dwellers. And amid those foundations were 25 circular brick shafts from old wells and outhouses - "necessaries," as they were called.

Little did the early residents know that they were leaving time capsules in their toilets, where it was customary to dispose of everything from broken dishes and oil lamps to unwanted children's toys.

Such archaeological richness wouldn't come from digging up just any Philadelphia block, said Dent, a professor of archaeology at American University in Washington. The artifacts were preserved as the result of two bits of luck.

The nearby Lit Brothers Department Store bought the site in 1925 and destroyed the old factories over a period of years, but never developed the lots. Had they expanded their store here, they probably would have laid a deep foundation that would have destroyed what was left underneath, said Dent.

And because the new prison was a federal project, the law required that someone evaluate any cultural resources, said Dent. Louis Berger & Associates of East Orange, N.J., an environmental engineering firm, organized the dig.

Dent said the Justice Department asked that no publicity surround the operation, but throngs of curious workers from the massive box known as the Federal Reserve Bank, as well as the Federal Building and Federal Courthouse, jostled to watch the archaeologists work. People constantly asked for tours, he said, and others peered from balconies with binoculars.

 Development on this corner goes back as far as 1690, when historical records show that John Brooks built the first house here. Back then, Dent said, "It was outer suburbia."

 In 1766, a developer named Isaac Zane bought the Brooks house and the land and, probably speculating on the growth of the city, divided the block into 11 lots, which soon became houses for a potter, a carriage maker, a distiller, a carpenter and other artisans.

It was a time of opportunity, said Dent, when people realized "the dream of property ownership and the hope, no doubt, to share in the riches of the first great American city."

And while they were later considered a step below society's upper strata, artisans in colonial Philadelphia had tremendous respect, Dent said.

At the time, Southeastern Pennsylvania was famous for its "Pennsylvania redware" - a utilitarian form of earthen pottery that German settlers made from iron-rich red clay.

The archaeologists found bits of this redware among other artifacts in a part of the dig that had once served as a trash dump. Pottery was mixed with layers of tobacco pipes and bottles that Dent believes held liquor served at a nearby tavern.

The crew also discovered the skeleton of a horse that someone had buried in the backyard. "We have no concept of what it must have been like in terms of disposing of trash," said Dent.

 With the beginning of the 19th century, the early shops and houses were torn down to make room for new residences. Roomy brick houses of wealthy Quakers were built along Arch Street, while Seventh had smaller rowhouses for the less well-off. Some of the city's poorest people crowded into tenements along a back alley.

"The class structure had crystallized," said Dent, and this block was a true microcosm of its various levels.

Many of the bits and pieces of ordinary life probably came from the household of Charles Clayton, a coachmaker, who lived in one of the larger houses with his wife, three children, and five young men who served as apprentices. Buried in what had been the family outhouse, Dent's team found discarded marbles and slate pencils, pieces of a hand-painted tea set and miniature cooking vessels that may have belonged to the Clayton children.

There were engraved glasses, kerosene lamps, beads, glass thimbles and wine decanters, a bone-handled knife and toothbrushes, a pewter teaspoon, combs and clay wig-curlers.

Another telling detail: While city ordinances restricted the depth of the holes used for outhouses to keep them safely above the water table, the Claytons' privy was illegally deep.

"Instead of spending money to build a new privy, they just said, 'Oh, forget it,' and used an old well," said Dent. "They were cheap. It's nothing new."

 Historical records show that after the Civil War, those houses were retooled as small businesses - an engraver, a cigar maker, a shoe factory, an artificial flower factory, a military trimmings shop, a wigmaker and barber.

  Everything came down when the Lit Brothers bought the site in 1925 and demolished the buildings over the next three decades. What followed were parking lots, an auto center and a place for passport photos.

Dent, who presented his work last month at the annual meeting of the American Archaeological Society, noted that the next chapter in the history of this plot of land will be characterized by prisoners looking out on the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other symbols of the freedom they have lost.

But history shows that things turn over every 50 years or so, he said, and so perhaps future archaeologists will be excavating the remains of an early 21st century prison.
 
 

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Faye Flam's e-mail address is fflam@phillynews.com

© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.