Some Other Privy Treasures
Determine the Age of a Bottle
My Exploring Partner
Grow Ginseng!American Ginseng often sells for
This page is a "how to" on privy digging. It is designed with the beginner in mind but veteran bottle digger can find some good info here too. This page is also geared toward ghost town bottle diggers of Pennsylvania. This is due to the fact that I have not dug bottles in any other state or in any city.
Privies are full of broken glass, jagged rusty metal, large stones and can cave-in at any moment. I would advise you to wear leather gloves, goggles, and a hard hat if you are digging deep. When digging don't pry on roots or anything else in the hole. Try to cut roots or any other obstruction. I have picked a lot of dirt out of my eyes because I was prying and a root broke loose catapulting privy dirt in my eyes. Don't tunnel. It is hard not to tunnel when you run into a layer of bottles but tunneling can get your head smashed or buried in a cave in. Always take a partner with you. It is smart to have someone to look out for potential cave-ins or pull you out of a cave in.
For starters, all you need is a round nosed shovel. If you want to find more holes and break less bottles you will need a few more tools.
Probe- a spring steel rod from 4 to 6 feet long with a "T" handle. Probes are used for finding privies. Ounce you are have located a likely spot, insert the probe into the ground to feel for resistance, glass, leather, iron, ashes, or bricks. You may want to practice with the probe to get the feel how various materials feel and sound when touched by the probe. You can dig a hole, fill it with ashes and dirt mixed in with some glass, bottles, (new ones of course) and maybe some bricks, stones, and leather. Probe it and get used to how different materials sound and feel. Don't slam the probe into the ground like a nut. Insert the probe with some force but not enough to plow through a five thousand dollar historical flask.
Cultivator- A long handled tool with four or five bent steel prongs on the end. It is used to scrape away hard packed dirt and has less chance of breaking bottles than a shovel does.
Trowel- Used to remove a bottle from packed dirt or debris. Used more like a surgical instrument for removing a bottle from a tight area.
Sifting Screen- This one is a hobby by itself. As dirt is thrown from the privy it is screened to remove fine ashes and dirt. When the small debris are through the screen the remains are checked for coins, jewelry, small bottles, doll parts, marbles, buttons, you name it! For years I thought sifting was a waste of time. One day I was board and decided to build a simple screen and give it a try. I was amazed. I found a barber dime, a watch fob, and a few marbles and buttons in no time at all. Since then, me, my brother and our digging buddy went sifting for a few hours one day and found a few more coins, a ring, a gold broach, and some really neat buttons, one a union civil war button. We now plan to go back and re-dig some of the holes we filled in just to sift!
A few other things you may want to bring are: a backpack and rags or newspapers to wrap and carry your finds, an rope tied to a bucket for hauling water from the privy, and a first aid kit with an eye wash bottle.
Knowing what types of trees and plants were planted in your area in the 1800s will help you locate sites. Here in Pennsylvania you will commonly find apple trees and barberry bushes scattered around old foundations. You may also find lilac, osage orange trees, cherry trees, and sometimes daffodils and easter lilies. You also want to look for old trees and hedges planted in a row. Just because their are apple trees and some old barberry bushes does not mean there was definitely an old structure there. They are just mean there is a chance that there was something there. Some definite signs include stone walls, old glass and porcelain fragments, ashes, broken bricks scattered about, and the two big, 100% likely hood of a dwelling are; a cut stone foundation, or a large gaping hole in the ground with glass, broken bottles, boots, and smashed plates that some other bottle digger who found the shitter a few years before you left open.
This part is best done in the spring while the ground is still soft, wet, and the weeds are packed down from winter snows. The privy could be anywhere in the back of the foundation usually no further away than fifty yards from the rear of the foundation. Good places to search are near large old trees and shrubs bordering a road or the back of the lot. When you see a indentation in the ground, probe it. You will probably probe quite a few suspected holes before you locate the privy. Ounce you do find a spot that you feel is an old out house. Dig a small test hole in the center of the suspected area. Try to go down about three feet or so. If you are finding that there is glass, ashes, and porcelain you may have a privy. If the dirt you are digging up is clay mixed with top soil and no glass or ashes you may still have a privy but you are digging in dirt that was used to fill the privy. Ounce you have your test hole dug and you are still finding glass or ashes open the hole up start digging seriously. There is a good chance you have a privy. If you are not finding ashes or glass and the dirt looks mixed probe the bottom of the hole. If you feel glass or ashes keep digging and probing until you are sure that you have a privy or not. If you hit hard yellow clay you probably don't have a privy but try to probe it anyway. If it is an old out house you will find that the deeper you go the darker the soil gets. You will also notice a wooden form surrounding the sides of the privy. This form was built by the original privy digger to stop the sides from collapsing. Remove the boards and check behind them for bottles as well. When the form was built ashes where sometimes thrown in behind the form to make it more sturdy and in with those ashes were the bottles. Older privies (early 1800s) will be stone lined instead of wood. Now that you have located the first privy of the site, it will be easier finding the rest. When privies where dug they were usually dug near one and other. If was is more than one house in the area privies where commonly dug in a row. When you find the second privy pace off the distance of the first hole you dug and the new hole. Then walk that paced distance to your next suspected area, walking in line of your first two privies. This method should place you in the general area of the next privy. You will find some holes that are shallow without any type of form. These are what we call junk holes. They are good to dig and sift and they do have bottles but not as many as out houses. Privies come in all shapes and sizes some small and some huge. Like Forest Gump's mama says "Ya never know what your gonna get".
Cleaning can be several different ways but regardless how you do it you have to be very careful. Cleaning with acid is not recommended. I have used muriatic acid on occasion to remove rust deposits and stubborn stains inside of the bottle but with a little more work and patience you can accomplish the same results. I have used a buffing wheel to remove stains on common bottles of little value but this method isn't recommended either. Buffing will lighten embossing and can leave the surface if the bottle with a hazy appearance. Buffers will also heat the bottle which could cause the bottle to crack. Bottles can be soaked in bleach and water overnight to help remove dirt and stains. You can use denture cleaning tablets to clean the inside of the bottle. Simply break the tablets into pieces and place them into the bottle with water and soak. A bottle brush which can be purchased at your super market is great for removing dirt from the inside of bottles too. For hard to reach places inside bottles I have always used heavy gauge COPPER wire cut into small pieces. Here all you have to do is cut the copper wire into small pieces put them into the bottle with some warm not hot, warm water and shake the bottle. The wire you use must be copper! Any metal harder than copper will scratch the bottle. I have heard of people using sand instead of copper wire to remove inner stains as well. A scrubbing pad works good to remove stains on the bottles surface. When cleaning just remember to be careful.
There are a few features of a bottle that will give you a good idea of its age. A pontil is a round glass scar on the bottom of the bottle. Bottles with pontils were made before 1866. The seam line will tell you the age of a bottle as well. A general rule about seam lines is the lower they are the older the bottle. With some experience you will be able to tell the approximate age of a bottle in a glance. Older bottles were crude. The embossing on them looks rough and can be difficult to read. Older bottles have more imperfections. They will often have many bubbles, uneven surfaces and bent necks.