The historic treasures featured in this exhibit—once items of everyday use—illuminate daily life in Philadelphia as a new nation was being born.
By 1787, when the Framers drafted and signed the U.S. Constitution, Philadelphia had emerged as a cultured city of 43,000—the second largest English-speaking city in the world after London. As the port city rebuilt its shattered economy after the Revolutionary War, it would return to its prominence as a thriving manufacturing center with plentiful jobs and booming trade. Where the Center now stands, a complex neighborhood of people from varied economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, including a vibrant free African-American community, occupied the block. Professionals, immigrants, and laborers lived and worked here—leaving behind objects that help tell their stories.
Uncovering the Past
The artifacts featured in this exhibit were excavated during the construction of the National Constitution Center from 2000 to 2003. Archeologists found nearly one million artifacts—everyday objects that illustrate daily life in Philadelphia during the late 1700s. They occupied trash deposits, privy pits, and wells for over 200 years before being discovered. Click on each of the following artifacts to learn more!
With the emergence of consumer culture and growing trade, various housewares were available. Philadelphians purchased a mixture of locally made goods and generally more expensive imports. While wealthy households could afford more imported items and matching sets of dishes, inexpensive dishware might still be used in the kitchen and by servants.
While Philadelphians in the 1700s would not measure up to our standards of personal hygiene, they still cared about their appearance—often dressing up outfits with personal adornments. Head lice were always a concern, especially for those who wore wigs. Since baths were few and far between, early Americans used perfume to mask odors.
Work & Commerce
In the neighborhood where the Constitution Center now stands, just a few blocks from Independence Hall, people practiced a variety of trades. Many even worked where they lived. The residents earned their livings as doctors, merchants, laborers, and teachers. Other workers contributed to the city by constructing buildings and manufacturing goods such as shoes or buttons.
Today’s concept of childhood did not exist in the 1700s. Objects that look like toys usually served an instructive purpose. Smaller versions of adult items, such as thimbles and dishes, would prepare little girls for adult responsibilities. However, children still found time for fun, often playing with homemade toys.
Between work, school, and tending to the household, not much time was left for fun—particularly for working people. Tavern amusements, including smoking pipes, gambling, and drinking alcohol, served as favorite pastimes for men. Women often gathered at each other’s homes to visit while mending clothing or practicing needlework.
From Trash to Treasure
The artifacts in this exhibit occupied trash deposits, privy pits, and wells for over 200 years before archeologists uncovered them. Today, these everyday objects illuminate the past—highlighting life in Philadelphia during the nation’s founding. What would your trash say about you in 200 years?
This exhibit was developed by the National Constitution Center for its main exhibition gallery. All artifacts are courtesy of Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia, PA.
Some of these artifacts have been digitally scanned; the 3D models can be accessed here.