Last month we talked about building a good probe and how to use that probe to locate, and date, old outhouse pits. When you are dating a pit using the method of 'reading stove ash residue,' we learned how the white creamy wood ash is most often your oldest pit. In most cases, wood ash dates your pit before 1890 or even 1880. By the late 1880's, many homes, especially in the city, had updated to coal-burning furnaces.
To the old-time bottle collectors, only the pre-1900 hand finished bottles are worth considering, but we are starting to see that change. By the year 1900, the Automatic Bottle Machine (A.B.M.) was invented. After that, the glass blower and his assistants did not have anything to do with the bottle making process.
Bottles blown in a mold will have a seam line on the bottle. If this seam extends up the side of the bottle and just over the shoulder, the bottle is from 1860's to 1870's. If the seam runs half way up the neck, it is a late 1870's to 1880's. If the seam runs up but stops at the bottle's lip, it is 1880's to late 1890's. If the seam runs all the way up and over the top lip, it is a machine made bottle.
No longer are all machine made bottles considered undesirable. Many soda, beer, and dairy bottles from the 1900's are sought after by collectors. I sold a A.B.M. half pint dairy bottle on e-Bay for $375.00!
Another way to date bottles is by the mouth or lip of the bottle. One of the first bottles I dug was an extremely rare umbrella ink and it had three big things going for it! It had a sheared top, which dated it to 1840 or before. This type of lip was formed by cutting or snipping the glass free of the blow pipe with a special pair of shears. This pocess left the neck and lip with a stovepipe look.
There are two
features on this beautiful old ink bottle.
One is a pontil scar on the bottom. That is
where the glass blower attached a glass
rod to the bottom of the bottle to be used
as a handle. He used it to hold the hot
bottle while he sheared the lip. When he
was finished, the rod was broken away
from the finished bottle leaving what we
call a pontil scar on the bottom. The third
desirable feature was the bottle's rich dark
olive green color. It was caused by using
sand that contained high iron content
when making the batch of glass.With this
type of bottle this color is very rare.
I went back and read part 1 and II of this series, and I realized I went from finding and dating the privy to dating the bottle finds. That means that I skipped over the most important part --digging the pit.
Once the privy is located, many times you can probe just beneath the top soil at a sharp angle, then push the probe towards each wall of the original hole. When your probe hits the undug wall, you will feel it. Once you have determined where each wall is located, you know which sod to remove. Here is where you get right to work! I bring in a 10-feet square plastic tarp and, after carefully cutting the sod in one-foot squares, I place them on the tarp in the same order that they came out of the ground.
Once the sod is removed, I slide that tarp out of the way and place another tarp in its place to pile dirt on. Usually, I will put a tarp on both sides of the pit so that I won't have to do a lot of twisting as I change positions while digging. The best place to start digging is in the center of the pit. Occasionally you will find bottles there, but most often they rolled off into the corners.
Of course, you know what was piled up in the center--- right? We dug 4 pits in Decatur and I was taking a break with my digging partner. The lot was right next door to a grocery store so I grabbed us a couple sodas and some candy bars. As we stood on the dirt pile and looked over the dig site, my friend fumbled his candy bar as he was removing the wrapper and it fell into the freshly dug soil. He picked up the candy bar, brushed it off, then said "It's just dirt," then ate it!
He is right you know-- it is just dirt. Some people freak out when you tell them what you are doing, but it is just dirt. I do wear gloves and carry antibiotic ointment when I go. I also bring water for drinking and water for washing. It is best to have at least three or more tamps. Also, it is a good idea to bring along some 5- gallon pails to haul bottles and dirt in. If you find lots of bottles, you will need to import dirt to make up for the space the bottles took. I also like to use a small probe to gently feel around with when I am in the hole. Other handy tools are a hand-held garden claw to dig the corners out with and a saw to cut roots with.
Another thing to bring is newspaper to wrap the fragile bottles in. If you are digging in winter, you want to wrap the bottles before they even leave the hole and have someone place them into an insulated cooler. When they come out of the warmer ground into the freezing air, they have been known to shatter! As I said in part I of this series, don't give up too early. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that, "There was only one bottle in that pit --- a $3,000 bottle!"
After you finish your dig, fill your hole, and if this is your first dig, you will likely be very whipped by now!
Don't be tempted to cut corners! After you start filling the hole, jump in from time to time and stomp around, compacting the soil. If you don't, you will have what looks like too much dirt when you are finished--- but you won't, Especially if you removed several bottles. In that case, you need to add dirt.
I make it a practice to never start a pit that I cannot finish in a day. I have friends who can dig 3 or more in a day, but you can never know how long one will take. It depends on the depth of the pit and how many bottles are present. Also, tree roots can slow things up big time.
Some of the toughest pits that I have dug have been the most rewarding. With a wood saw, tree roots can be mastered. I like the Stanley Short Cut saw because it is fast and easy. One time I dug out an iron-framed treadle sewing machine! What a pain that was! Another pain was an old bicycle frame! I had a digging buddy who did a pit in Plainwell that many privy diggers would have passed up on because it was a 1900's house. My friend found two Michigan licence plates from the first year they were made out of porcelain-covered metal. They were in perfect condition with not one chip! He sold them and he got hundreds for them!
I asked my good friend, Mark Churchill, what were the most bottles he had ever removed from one pit and he told me 200! Now that pit required a lot of fill dirt to be brought in! Usually you will find bottles, but also watch for marbles, doll parts, clay pipes, bone handled brushes, coins & tokens.
In a 1974 issue of Treasure World Magazine, there was an interesting story. It was called The $250,000 Privy! It was the story of a Chicago man who so hated his wife and he knew he had stomach cancer. The man was named Felix Conley and he was a successful cattle buyer and shipper. He dug a new privy and worked with his Chicago bank to convert his cash on hand into gold coins. When the new pit was dug, he scattered the coins on the floor of the new hole, then capped it with concrete. Then the outhouse was moved into place. He only told his doctor and the doctor agreed to recover the money after the wife had died.
When 22 years had passed, the doctor fell ill. Before he died he told his son. The old lady lived to be 92, outliving them all! What the writer doesn't say is ----who told him?
A major development company in Philadelphia purchased several complete city blocks in a old crumbling part of town. The local bottle club wanted permission to dig as many of the privies as possible, to save as much of the town's history as they could. Permission was finally granted. However, the window of opportunity that they were granted was very small indeed and the task was overwhelming! That is when they decided to contact other clubs in surrounding states and recruit as many diggers as possible. One of my friends who went told me this story, but I cannot recall who it was.
I believe that they had a month or less to dig. Also, the Kalamazoo diggers could only go down towards the tail end of all the digging. They learned that most of the privy pits were about 6-feet deep, which is normal. In one corner of one of the pits they dug, and near the bottom, they found in a fetal position, a large adult human skeleton! As I recall the building on the lot was once a hotel. Clearly they had discovered an ancient murder! I guess you could call this one a cold case.