Dick wrote: " I recently received a newsletter from this club and enjoyed it a great deal. Bottle digging is something we usually don't see a lot about within these pages, but it's certainly a big past time for many. Old bottle recovery is very much akin to metal detecting."
Dick is absolutely right; we don't see much about antique bottles like we used to. Back in the 60's and 70's, every treasure hunting magazine had an article or two about antique bottles.
Ernie Lawson and Jack Short are the two guys who got me started in the bottle collecting hobby and you couldn't ask for two nicer guys. And, as a member of the Kalamazoo Antique Bottle Club, I can tell you that they are a nice bunch of folks. However, there are some maverick diggers out there who are a different breed of cat.
You can easily be dealing with lots of money in the pursuit of antique bottles. One of our club members dug a Kalamazoo bitters bottle about one year ago that was the rare 'Best Bitter's in America..' This product was bottled by the B. Dessenberg Wholesale Grocer. Their shop was located near the Y.W.C.A. in downtown Kalamazoo. The last time I heard of one of these selling was in 2005 and it topped $17,000.00!
Another friend in the bottle club just sold his collection of Michigan medicine bottles and that sale was just for just under six figures! Still another friend recently sold a rare mineral water bottle from Otsego, Michigan, and I was told it fetched around $15,000.00! With this kind of money at stake, the tension can sometimes run high if you get caught up with untrustworthy diggers.
If you have never been cleaning out the corners of a 1835's privy and had a $1,000 ink bottle roll out into your hand, you don't know what great treasure hunting fun this is!
With all that money at stake, many bottle diggers are very secretive. Trust me when I say, 'they will not be happy with my willingness to share any information.' You cannot imagine what I had to go through to learn this stuff! Some of the other diggers watched me doing things wrong for a long long time and finally helped me out of pity! On many subjects related to digging, cleaning and collecting bottles they will share some information, but usually not all the information.
In this issue, I will cover bottle probes. A good probe is useful for cache hunting as well as bottle hunting; it can work to be your ground-penetrating eyeballs.
My probe is a 5/16-inch diameter spring-steel rod that is 5 feet long. To determine the best height for you: with the probe tip resting on the ground, the 'T' handle should reach the center of your chest. Having a probe that is too long is hard on the shoulders, a rod that is too short is a back killer.
I have the end or probing tip ground to a dull point and, 1-1/2 inches up from the tip, I wrapped a bead of weld 2 times around the shaft. This bead of weld makes the probe's hole slightly larger than the probe's shaft, so there is less friction, making it easier to probe.
The handle should be about 14 inches long and made of hollow pipe about 1-1/4 O.D. You should drill through the pipe and weld the rod at the top and the bottom of the pipe. If you use solid stock for your handle, it won't help you feel your targets identity. Everything will feel alike. With the hollow handle, the probe comes alive by resonating a sound and feel for each type of target. I can tell if I am hitting a stone or a chimney brick, and I can tell glass from clay pottery. That is not because of some great talent or special sensitivity that I have; it is because of practice and because my probe is made right.
One of the secrets that I learned the hard way is that you don't probe to feel the bottles! No, no, no! You are not feeling for glass, you are feeling for a hole that was once dug and since filled in. I cannot speak for places other than Michigan, but here, if someone filled in a hole that they dug, even if it was 200 years ago, that spot will feel totally different than the un-dug, undisturbed soil.
Here in the Kalamazoo River Valley, the 10 to 12 inch topsoil feels the same where ever you go. Under the top soil, you will run into 2 to 3 feet of sandy, gravelly soil, and just beyond that you find clay, which really slows the probe down. Undisturbed soil will have that feeling of different layers. An old outhouse pit will be like a 4' X 4' X 6' plug in the earth that is all top soil! Privy sizes vary. I have dug some that were only 4' deep and heard of others that were 20' feet deep. When you reach what you believe to be the bottom of a shallow pit, you'd better probe the floor because it may be a dirt cap or false floor. On special occasions, the family may have wanted a clean pit with that freshly dug charm, for perhaps a wedding or funeral.
We dug a privy once where we got to what looked like the bottom and found evidence of other bottle diggers. When you get to the bottom of an 1800's pit and you find modern candy bar wrappers, cigarette butts and pop cans, someone beat you to the old bottles. But in this case, they didn't have the experience of my digging buddy. He found another 5 feet of privy under that clay cap and it was loaded with great, old, hand- finished bottles!
Sometimes when you probe into a old pit and you get through the topsoil, it feels like the probe came out the other side of the world! Not always, but sometimes it feels like you just probed into space!
I remember when the detecting club had a cookout and privy dig at Bob and Marie Burd's house in the oldest part of Plainwell. I put my probe just through the top soil and released it. That probe slowly started sinking by itself! As it sank, it wiggled and wobbled, until it went all the way down to the handle! That bead of weld serves another purpose when probing for outhouse pits. If the old homestead is from the mid-eighteen hundreds, there are likely going to be 3, 4, or even 5 more pits and, chances are, they are all very close to each other. Depending on the size of the family, they usually dug a new pit every eight to ten years. They didn't like moving that little building very far. If the parents stayed at the home until they were elderly, the last pit would have been dug closer to the house and often times contained more medicine bottles.
Once you find a pit, you clean the top of the weld with a rag and than push the probe all the way into the pit as far as possible. When you reverse direction, to pull the probe out, you will have a sample on the top side of the weld of what's in the bottom of that pit.
The old-timers saved their winter stove ash to make soap with and to sweeten the smell of the outhouse in the heat of summer. If you get a gray gritty material, that is coal ash and, if this is an 1860's home, this is one of the newest pits.
If you are near town and you come up with a white gritty material, you have limestone. Between jobs of cleaning out the wealthy man's brick lined outhouse pit, the local honey dipper would ride his buckboard through town with a load of crushed powdered limestone. For a couple cents he would sweeten his customer's pit with two shovel loads of limestone. Of course, this was for when company was coming over.
If your sample is a white material that is smooth and creamy, this is wood ash, which means you have an old pit! This says, 'dig here first!'
You can usually follow the family history by what you find. In the first pit, you may find bits and pieces of items necessary for a young couple: woman's personal hygiene items, perfume bottles, soda and perhaps beer bottles, and I have found the glass ends of breast pumps.
In the next pit, you may find toys and toy parts used by small children. Many bottle diggers throw these back in the pit when they refill the hole . . . not very smart. I sold a German bisque doll head with opening and closing eyes for $350.00 on e-Bay. Doll arms, legs, and bodies from the 1800's are in big demand by doll collectors and restorers. My $350.00 doll head is an important part of a whole doll which, when complete, is worth nearly $1,500.00.
As the family ages, you start to see more medicine bottles enter into the unfolding story. We dug a pit in Plainwell where the first pit contained a large quantity of whiskey bottles, then the next pit contained a great deal of magnesia bottles! One of my friends dug a pit in Kalamazoo where they found 6 or more of the large, rare, William Radam's Microbe Killer bottles. This bottle reads, "GERM, BACTERIA, OR FUNGUS DESTROYER, CURES ALL DISEASES!"
The image on the bottle shows a strong healthy man with a club beating the skeleton of death. I managed to get one of these bottles and it is a rare variant where the word Fungus is misspelled 'Lungus'. Ernie and Jack told me that this product was once found with sealed contents and it was sent in for scientific analysis. The finding was amazing! It was 99.99% water with the tiny trace of citric acid. With this many bottles of a product that boasted 'a cure for all diseases' one has to wonder what this poor soul was suffering from in the 1880's.
One time when using my probe I was looking for two coffee cans filled with silver coins. I felt sure I would know what they would feel like, even if the tin had rusted away, leaving just a 40 pound clump of coins . . . but I was still learning. I got a real strong signal from a large target with my metal detector, so I probed and I probed, but I could not feel anything. It was so puzzling because this was such a good loud and strong hit. I had to know what it was, so I started digging. At a depth of about two feet, I found a thin aluminum pie tin with about a dozen probe holes through it. Had I trusted my probe I would have saved time and effort of digging.
(To be continued)