Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Renewed Laboratory Exhibit

The Friends of Joseph Priestley House have installed a renewed laboratory exhibit at Priestley House.

An upgrade to the appearance of the laboratory at Priestley House was described by former site administrator Andrea Bashore.  Plans for a renewed lab exhibit were based on the Bashore report, previous archeological reports and the 1800 Sambourne architectural drawing of Priestley House. The project was inspired by the vision of former Board President, Margaret Kashner.

Platform in Priestley lab prior to renewed exhibit

At the beginning the lab consisted of a public viewing platform and an open archeological area.

The lab has been newly outfitted with two representative furnaces with chimneys, a fume hood spanning the width of the lab, reproduction glassware and new ceramic retorts. The exhibit is set as though Priestley was at work investigating carbon monoxide in his Northumberland laboratory.



Design of the exhibit was researched by Mary Ellen Bowden, of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The installation was created by Susquehanna University’s Erik K. Viker and built during the spring semester by his theater design students.

Design of renewed exhibit
by Erik Viker,
Susquehanna University Theater Arts Department

Architectural historian John Bowie visited the site as a consultant. Reproduction glassware pieces selected for the exhibit are those modeled on glassware known to have been used by Joseph Priestley in Northumberland. The original laboratory glassware is now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. The glassware for the exhibit were taken from a collection of reproductions commissioned in 1974 the American Chemical Society and later given to Priestley House.

The Friends commissioned ceramicist Thelma McCarthy of Philadelphia, to create two ceramic retorts similar to retorts built by Josiah Wedgewood for Priestley and others. The dimensions for McCarthy’s retort are based on an original Wedgewood retort from the Museum of Scotland. Ceramic retorts were used in laboratories in the 18th century because they could withstand higher temperature than existing glassware of the time.

Shelf on hood displaying reproduction glassware



Panoramic view of renewed exhibit








The renewed lab exhibit allows the public to pass beneath the hood to view the remnants of the original two story hood in Priestley lab.

The exhibit was installed without intruding on historic elements of the building. Funding for the project came from a combination of private, corporate, professional and academic entities, invested for many years by the Friends of Joseph Priestley House.

Reproduction glassware on show once more in new display cases.

Reproduction chemical glassware, much of it packed away for decades while Joseph Priestley House Museum’s laboratory exhibit was re-envisioned is back on display.  The new display is the culmination of a long and fruitful collaboration between Priestley House and the American Chemical Society (ACS), which has treasured the Priestley site since 1874, when a group of chemists gathered there to celebrate the anniversary of Priestley’s oxygen experiment.   

Many pieces of the original glassware Priestley commissioned for his laboratory work were donated in 1883 by the Priestley family in Northumberland to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but rarely displayed. Other 18th century Priestley pieces are owned by major universities such as, Columbia, Dartmouth, Dickinson, Harvard and Penn State. In 1975, planning for the on the 100th anniversary of the ACS the following year, the chemists’ group worked with those institutions and glass manufacturers such as Corning Glass Works, Kimble division of Owens-Illinois and Wilmad Glass Co to create authentic replicas that could be displayed in Priestley’s American laboratory.  Many of the reproduction pieces were hand made by industry craftsmen who added imperfections to resemble those in the originals.  After being exhibited in the ACS offices in Washington, DC the reproductions were presented to the PA Historical and Museum Commission in 1976 in ceremonies at Priestley House and Bucknell University.

To display and protect the replicas, the Friends’ group commissioned two cases with sliding glass locking doors built by cabinet maker Michael Kryzytski of Fine Furniture and Cabinetry, Lewisburg. Selecting pieces for the inaugural display was the work of Cindy Inkrote, former director of Northumberland County Historical Society and chemistry professors Donald Mencer of Wilkes University and Genieve Henry of Susquehanna University.  Lab equipment found during the archeological excavations in and near Priestley’s lab will be displayed as well as other apparatus in the museum’s collection on a rotating basis.

The reproduction glassware was stored safely in the museum’s attic for many years, while the laboratory space underwent extensive archaeological study which required excavation of its modern cement floor and the location of brick supports for Priestley’s two chemical furnaces. A new exhibit recreating the look of the furnaces was funded and installed, by the Friends in 2011. The installation of the exhibit of reproduction glassware in the lab at Priestley House continues the laboratory reinterpretation project of the Friends group.

Preproductions of Priestley’s glassware in new display cases in the lab at Priestley House


Archaeological reports on the Priestley House

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