Highlights from the Collection: Tools of the Trade

Archaeologists in Alexandria have excavated sites associated with a number of businesses. These include shoemakers from 1815 and the 1860s; a comb maker from 1816; six earthenware and stoneware potters from 1792 through 1877; glass factories from the turn of the 20th century; an early 19th century cabinetmaker; early 19th century silver, copper and tin smiths; a 19th century doctor's office; an apothecary shop dating from 1805 to 1933; and a sugar refinery in operation from 1804 to 1828.

Page updated on Aug 11, 2020 at 2:18 PM

Tools of the Trade

These tools of the trade were used at a sugar refining pottery (1804-1828), the Old Dominion Glass Factory (1901-1925), and silversmith John Adam (1823-27).

Sugar Refining Pottery

Syrup jar rim, marked J. MILLER/ALEX Sugar mold tip

Earthenware syrup jar and sugar mold fragments from the site of the Moore McLean Sugar Factory. The complete jar was found at a nearby property, where sugar refining pottery had been used to fill in a cellar hole. Photos by Gavin Ashworth, Ceramics in America.

Syrup jar

Over 10,000 fragments of sugar molds were found at the site of the Moore McLean Sugar House, at the corner of Cameron and North Columbus Streets, which operated from 1804 until 1828. The complete jar was found close to the sugar house, in a cellar hole that was completely filled with broken sugar refining pottery after the sugar house closed.

The molds are of smooth unglazed earthenware, with a hard sandy fabric. In the refining process, the pointy molds were set atop heavy-rimmed syrup jars. The jars had a glazed interior so that they could hold liquid. A few jar fragments were found with the impressed mark of Alexandria potter James Miller.

Brown sugar was brought up from the West Indies to be refined in Alexandria. The refiners first boiled the sugar with lime water to help remove molasses and other impurities. They added egg white, bulls’ blood or charcoal to the vat as a clarifying agent. This produced a scum, which rose to the surface and was removed. The liquid sugar was filtered and transferred to a copper cistern for evaporation, boiled until the right viscosity, and then transferred to a cooler where it was stirred and agitated until it began to crystallize. The cone-shaped earthenware molds were soaked in water and their holes plugged with twists of paper, and they were filled with the sugar. After the sugar began to harden, the paper plugs are removed and the molds were placed on top of the syrup jars in a heated drying room on the upper floor of the sugar house. A white clay slip (a liquid mixture of white clay and water) was poured on top of the sugar in the molds. As the clay dried, water from the clay percolated very slowly through the sugar, without dissolving it. Molasses separated from the sugar and dripped into the syrup jar. After the sugar dried, the mold was tapped to release the cone-shaped sugar loaf. The sugar loaf was then re-processed to produce a finer sugar, or wrapped in blue paper for sale.

Tools from the Old Dominion Glass factory Glass-making tools and glass wasters

Shears, gauge and glass wasters from the Old Dominion Glass Factory.

Four Alexandria glass houses operated in Alexandria at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. A large factory by Alexandria standards, Old Dominion Glass Company employed 250 people – black and white – in 1920. The company, which operated from 1901 to 1925, manufactured beer, soda, food, and medicine bottles. During holidays and between orders, the employees turned out novelty items, such as glass canes and pig-shaped bottles.

In a brief rescue excavation before a hotel was built at on the site, glass working tools such as shears, tongs, a blow pipe, gauges and pieces of glass molds were recovered. Many examples of wasters – misshapen bottles and pieces of decorative glass canes – were also found, including beer bottles from the nearby Portner’s Brewery. Many of the bottles were marked "OD" on their bases.  

Crucibles from a Silversmith Three crucibles used at the Alexandria workshop of silversmith John Adam 

Crucible used at the Alexandria workshop of silversmith John Adam. Earthenware with black sand and lead inclusions. 1 ¾” H. Possibly German, ca. 1823-1827. Catalogue number AX95 3KSW-6 C-1. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy Ceramics in America.

These crucibles were used by Alexandria silversmith John Adam, to melt metal ore. They were found on a property occupied from 1823 to 1848 by Alexandria silversmith John Adam, along with debris from an 1827 fire. China merchant Robert H. Miller, whose shop stood across the street from the silversmith’s workshop, advertised crucibles at least seven times between 1822 and 1847. Crucibles are a specialized industrial product used for heating metals. Miller’s advertisements specified “black lead and sand crucibles”. The gritty sand temple is visible in the clay of the John Adam crucibles, and the heaviness of the vessels attests to some lead content.