To be seen in a neat Sitting Room, at 141 Broadway: the wonderful mechanisms of fancy glass blower John Tilley. This early American broadside, ca. 1820, enumerates the delights New Yorkers could observe if they paid the 25-cent admission fee to Tilley’s glassmaking and scientific exhibition.
John Tilley, originally from London, was the first known itinerant glassworker to bring his exhibition to the United States.1 Eighteenth-century Americans, influenced by their Puritan backgrounds, often shunned traveling entertainers and educators of any sort, some going so far as to outlaw circuses, traveling menageries, and acting troupes. Once those restrictions were lifted, Tilley and others found success touring cities along the East Coast.
Tilley may have been the first glassworker to demonstrate in New York City, but he certainly wasn’t the last to make the city, and specifically Broadway, his home. Later artisans such as Lawrence Finn, W. Belzoni Davidson, and the Woodroffe brothers set up exhibitions in rented rooms and at museums including Barnum’s American Museum at the intersection of Broadway and Ann Street. Like it is today, the street was a center for entertainment.
Even in 1820, New York City (then confined to Manhattan) was bustling. The city’s population had grown to more than 123,000 people, close to 30,000 more than just a decade before.2 William Cobbett, a British farmer, journalist, and politician who lived on a Long Island farm from 1817 until 1819, described the city as resembling “an English town, in point of manners and customs, much more than any other place that I have seen in America.”3 He comments on the low prices and high quality of everything from the food to the household furnishings available to residents.
On women’s fashions, he states, “The most gay promenades in and about London, and even the boxes of our licenced and degraded theatres, are, in point of female dresses, perfect beggary compared with the every day exhibition in the ‘Broad way’ of New York; where the very look of every creature you meet gives evidence of the existence of no taxation without representation.” Based on Cobbet’s description, it is easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed women and men patronizing Tilley’s exhibition.
Like many 19th-century itinerant glassworkers, John Tilley offered his audience a range of enticing entertainments. These included “Spinning and Reeling Hot Glass round a Wheel, with the astonishing velocity of a Mile in less than two minutes” and “Blowing Glass to different degrees of thinness and forming it into various Articles, such as Writing Pens, Smelling Bottles, &c. &c.”
In addition, Tilley explained scientific properties and principles using glass models such as a Cartesian diver and a “Hydro Pneumatic Fountain.” One curious demonstration involved Tilley blowing a “small Globe,” which he said would form “nearly” a vacuum and would fall to the floor “with apparent great weight.”
While John Tilley’s exhibition was “to be seen for a few Days only,” records of his shows and innovations are still available more than two centuries later.
A version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on December 19, 2016.
- He demonstrated in the United States as early as August 20, 1819.
- Campbell Gibson, “Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places In The United States: 1790 to 1990.” United States Census Bureau. June 1998, accessed 13 May 2019.
- Read more of Cobbett’s thoughts on New York City in “Advice on Settling in New York in 1820,” Shannon Selin, September 2017, accessed 17 May 2019.