Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

"General view looking west." Jack E. Boucher (1973). Historic American Engineering Record - Sparks Shot Tower

Sparks Shot Tower
, 1808
129-131 Carpenter Street, Philadelphia PA 19147

John Mayer, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Sparks Shot Tower is the oldest standing industrial feature in South Philadelphia and is purported to be the oldest shot tower in America. The tower was built to fill a need for lead shot created by the 1807 Embargo Act, which cut off the supply of foreign goods. 1

In 1808, John Bishop, Thomas Sparks and James Clement expanded their plumbing partnership and built the shot tower to begin manufacturing lead shot for sporting purposes. During the war of 1812, at the request of the federal government, they began to supply munitions for the military. With this shift in production, John Bishop, a member of the Society of Friends, sold his interest in the business to Thomas Sparks.

The tower remained in the Sparks family until 1904, when the United Lead Company of Pennsylvania bought it. It continued in production until 1913, when it passed to the city of Philadelphia. It is now managed by the Philadelphia Recreation Department.

The tower is entirely of brick construction and originally stood 150 feet high. It is 30 feet in diameter at the base and tapers to 15 feet at the top. Support buildings included a main building for finishing the shot, storehouses, a barrel shop, and office buildings. The tower, with its twentieth-century roof, is the only nineteenth-century survivor on the site.

The process of manufacturing shot changed little during the 100 or more years of the tower's operations. Molten lead was poured through screens at the top of the tower; the coarseness of the screen determined the size of the shot. As the pellets of hot lead fell, they cooled and hardened into pellets and finally cooled in vats of water at the base of the tower. The shot then was screened, polished, sorted, and packed in the main building.

1  George Morgan, The History of the City of Philadelphia, the City of Firsts, (Philadelphia, 1926).
2  Philadelphia Historical Commission, Sparks Shot Tower folder, miscellaneous notes.  See also Stephen N. Winslow, Biographies of Successful Philadelphia Merchants, (Philadelphia, 1864) pp. 141-143.
3  Hexamer General Survey, #1491 (1880) "Philadelphia Shot Tower, Thomas W. Sparks."

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Details from Hexamer General Survey, #1491 (1880) "Philadelphia Shot Tower, Thomas W. Sparks."
Descriptions therein include:
Founded July 4th, 1808.
Tower height 150 feet.
Tower walls 30" - 27" - 21" - 18" - 18" - 13" - 13"
Machinery: 17 cylinders for sizing shot. 2 rumblers for cleaning shot. 4 polishers (3 iron and 1 wooden) for polishing shot. 3 sets of screening tables (french plate glass). 1 steam engine [10-12 horse power]. 1 steam boiler. 1 steam pump.

Update May 2007 (by Joel Spivak):
No change.

See also:

"THOMAS SPARKS, late President, was born in the old district of Southwark, Philadelphia county, Pennsylvania, April 19th, 1817, and was educated at Nazareth Hall, the celebrated Moravian Boarding School. In 1838, his uncle, Thomas, took him into his business of manufacturing shot, the latter having for thirty years previous been engaged in this vocation, and being then sole proprietor of Sparks' Shot Tower, a prominent landmark near the Delaware in the southern part of the city. He continued with his relative until his [uncle's] death, and in 1855 succeeded to the business. The establishment has been in active operation for nearly two-thirds of a century, and has manufactured vast quantities of war material, especially during the War of the Rebellion, when large orders for conical bullets were received and filled. Mr. Sparks died October 8th, 1874." —Charles Robson, Manufactories & Manufacturers of Pennsylvania (Galaxy, 1875), p. 155.

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Note "the tall ship houses and dry dock of the Navy Yard, and the waterfront warehouses and docks" shown in one of "Four Panoramas of Philadelphia, 1870", taken from atop the Spark's Shot Tower, reprinted from the Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia in the book by Robert F. Looney, "Old Philadelphia in Early Photographs, 1839-1914" (Dover, 1976), pp. 6-13.