|By Doug Graves
There are many ways to add to a collection; but one of the most interesting may be going out and digging it up.
Pottery and bottle enthusiasts have engaged in the activity of digging for their treasures; but bottle lovers seem to do the most digging.
“Anyone can find rare bottles at flea markets, yard sales, antique shops or even bottle shows, but why pay for them when you can find them at no cost with a little research and some manual labor,” said Mike Binkley, who has been at this search-and-find practice for nearly two decades. “Privy digging is the most inexpensive and gratifying way to find old bottles and you might even find other artifacts from a time period from the past.”
Prior to the 1920, almost every house would have had a privy, or outhouse. Because there was no trash collection, many things such as empty bottles, broken dishes and worn out shoes were thrown down the privy. When the outhouse became full, the homeowner would dig a new one.
Binkley, of Delaware, Ohio, was among those who attended The Central Ohio Antique Bottle Club’s 50th Annual Show & Sale held in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 9.
“I love attending these shows and meeting other collectors and sellers, and I’ve crossed paths with several privy hunters like myself here at this Columbus show,” Binkley said.
According to Binkley, researching a potential area is the first move. He suggests going to a local library, which will provide information such as plot maps and insurance maps. City directories can offer information as well, such as who the person was and where they settled.
“In Indiana and Ohio there are family farms honored as Century Farms,” Binkley said. “There are even farms that have been in the same family for 150 and 200 years and these states provide records of who these families are and in which county they reside in.
“I’ve had success in heading to houses that were built between the 1800s and 1880s as these are good years for old glass.”
Binkley admonishes to always gain permission from the landowner before digging. And as a little enticement, perhaps offer to share some of the find with the landowner.
“I tell people I meet that bottle enthusiasts like myself who dig into a privy are just like those with metal detectors looking for coins,” Binkley said. “And just like those with metal detectors, I’ve come up with old marbles, ivory toothbrushes, an old pistol, porcelain dolls and much more. Privies were the spot the people discarded just about anything and atop the list are old medicine bottles, bitters bottles, milk bottles and others.”
“Contrary to what many believe, there is no bad smell, germs or bacterial to worry about,” Binkley said. “Mother Nature has turned all the biological contents back into pure earth compost.”
Upon gaining permission to dig on one’s property, the real work begins. Bottle hunters like Binkley look for slight depressions in the ground where the pit has sunk over the years. It was customary, he says, that homeowners dug new holes after 10 to 15 years as many privies has wood-lined pits. Others were lined with stone and oftentimes brick.
“The probe is the main tool in privy digging,” Binkley said. “We make our probes out of spring steel. You begin by slowly sticking the probe in a likely spot. If it goes down easily without much effort it may be a privy.”
Binkley says most privies measured 3 ½ by 3 ½ feet, and were roughly 5 feet deep. They also included a cap, a six-inch layer of clay, ash or sand. The purpose of the cap was to stop the smell of the pit.
Once approaching a four foot depth, hand spades and other small hand tools take the place of shovels.
“Now the fun begins,” Binkley said. “Digging from this point on has to be slow or you’ll be breaking glass. Once the bottom is felt it’s time to fill the hole back in. Keep in mind to keep the owner happy with a clean fill and to make sure it’s level. We even take the time to plant new grass seed as a way of thanking the owner.”
Mike Schaff, of West Lafayette, Ind., has a vintage bottle collection numbering around 1,000 bottles. Half, he says, came by way of the privy, or outhouse. He also has luck in his search when knowing where dump sites were located.
“Most cities and towns started having dump sites in the 1870s and were getting more popular by the 1890s,” Schaff said. “The dump was usually within a mile from the city or town. If you can locate the original dump site you’ll likely find the oldest bottles. Many times they were located at the end of a field, just inside a wooded area, or ravine.
“But my best finds come from old farm homesteads as they often had a fruit cellar. Under an old farmhouse porch is another good spot. Many old barns had a ramp made out of dirt to enter the barn. I’ve dug old bottles on the sides of these ramps.”
Both men attest to have excavated many valuable whiskey bottles, old flasks and bitters bottles through their efforts. Binkley unearthed a deep olive Horse flask, dated 1830-1844, with an open pontil scar. The day of this show he sold it for $550.
Other unearthed treasures from Binkley include an early (1820-1840) Columbia-Eagle B pint flask, which he sold for $450; several E.J.F. Brands, olive green gin bottles (circa 1865), appraised at $150 apiece; a pair of Pontiled Hunter/Fisherman Calabash flasks (circa 1845-1850), asking price of $125 per bottle; and a trio of large quart Schnapps in a limey olive green bottle (circa 1870), valued at $90 per bottle.
“Of course, I’ve mostly run across medicine bottles from the late 1800s, ink bottles, poison bottles, food jars, bitters bottles and soda bottles of all shapes, sizes and colors,” Binkley said.
Schaaf’s collection is filled with mostly medicine bottles, taken from many agriculture privies in western New York, like a 7-inch Lyon’s/Kathairon pontiled hair bottle from 1850, with distinct embossing on all four sides (sold that day for $150); a Smith Green Mountain Renovator bottle of deep root beer amber hue, an 8 ¾ inch bottle with a hand tooled double collar (valued at $85); and several 5 ¼-inch Kaesbey & Mattison Co, Chemists of Ambler, Pa., bottles of medium sapphire blue, valued at $25 apiece.
Schaff suggests anyone wanting to venture into privy digging first go to www.bottlebooks.com and purchase a copy of the book The Secrets of Privy Digging by John Odell.