Privy to history

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Rick Weiner holds a flask pulled from a privy hole. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.

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Rick Weiner is a digger. He started digging bottles at the age of 15, when his grandmother got him hooked by having him help her dig for store stock in a 1920s milk bottle dump. She was co-owner of the Barn Store, an antique store in the Pocono Mountains. These days he hails from Allentown, Pa., and he’s always on the lookout for new mining opportunities. Though he digs primarily in the Lehigh Valley area, he occasionally sets his shovel elsewhere. “When you dig in different places,” he says, “you find different bottles.”

His primary choice of digging sites has changed since the early digs with his grandmother. Now, he prefers to excavate old outhouse pits that were in use from the 1850s to the turn of the 20th century. Anything after 1900 is “too new” for his collecting interest. In his opinion, the coolest bottles are from before 1903, which was when the automatic bottle machine came into service and pushed hand-made bottles out of production.

It’s finding these old 19th century bottles that makes his collecting world go round; he says, “The more good stuff you find, the more you want to dig and find better stuff.”

When he’s lining up digs, he finds houses that were built from the 1850s-1870s and asks the homeowners’ permission to dig. After getting permission, he checks the property lines and starts to look for the privy sites. It may be as simple as looking for a depression where the ground has settled unevenly, or it may take careful and patient probing to find the sites. He says sometimes when you’re probing and can’t find the pit perimeter, you just have to rest, clear your mind, and try again.

Patience pays off. On one digging occasion, they found 14 privies in three yards, which kept them busy digging for two years.

Rick and his privy-digging buddy Paul Seidel have been digging old privy pits together for the past five years. If they have pits available, they dig year round, regardless of what the thermometer reads, because they are passionate about their hobby. Rick says it’s a strange hobby, but it’s addicting. He would encourage others to dig privies too.

When asked about what advice he would give newcomers, he had several important points to make.

The first thing you want to do is be safe. Dig with a buddy; if you’re digging anything deeper than about 4 feet, dig with someone. And you have to dig all the way out to the perimeter of the pit to avoid cave-ins.

“You have to find the walls and then dig straight down and evenly. Once you get to the use zone, you have to dig with smaller tools and more carefully,” he says.

Weiner goes on to say that when you’re finished with the dig, you fill the pit back in; you always want to leave the place looking “110 percent better than when you started.” Homeowners will let their neighbors know if you’ve made a mess or if you’ve helped them out tidying up their yard, leading to either another pit to dig or a door shut in your face when you ask for permission.

In his digs, he has found everything from 1850s druggist bottles to the quack medicine bottles so popular in the 1800s to poison and eight-sided soda bottles. Of course he’s found items other than bottles as well. After all, anything that was carried along on the trip to the outhouse was potential privy fodder. Recently he even found an old, odd-looking gutta-percha hernia truss. Not a bottle, but interesting just the same.

When asked what his most exciting find was, he replied, “They’re all exciting, really.” But one that ranks near the top is a rare 1850s puce eagle flask. In that particular privy, they found 15 flasks, but 14 of them were broken. Fortunately, the survivor was upside-down, allowing it to withstand the pressure of the settling ground without breaking.

rare puce eagle flaskRare Dyottville Puce Eagle Flask, 1850.
Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.

Another exciting dig was from an 1850s pit that held 35 iron pontil cobalt beer and soda bottles. It was a really memorable dig because they suspected the site was from the 1890s, which was a bit late to yield anything “really good,” but it turned out to be from the ’50s and perhaps the find of a lifetime.

His latest prize may be his most rare and valuable find to date. It is an 1890s embossed Dr. Moore’s Physical Purity Venereal Antiseptic bottle. He’s never even seen another one like it.

It’s not for sale, though; “I keep all my good stuff,” he says. And it’s almost all good stuff.

Rick says, “We also love the history that goes along with the bottles; without history there would be no bottle digging.”

Anything that has fallen into the privy through the ages is a prospective “find” for a privy digger. As Rick says, “Outhouses are where you find the good stuff!”

Rick has had several articles published in Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine. He has also recorded his most memorable digs and posted many of his most memorable finds on his Web site, www.19thcenturybottlediggers.com.

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More Images:

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1850 Setiz & Bros. Eastern Pa. bottle dug from a privy hole. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.
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As the hole is dug, walls should remain straight up and down. The holes are always refilled when digging is done. Photos courtesy Rick Weiner.
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Once the use zone is reached, smaller tools are used to remove the dirt from around buried objects. Paul Seidel digging out a pearl 1870s china teapot. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.
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Rare Dr. Moore's Physical Purity Venereal Antiseptic bottle. The word "venereal" didn't appear very often on products. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.
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Perhaps the find of a lifetime: 35 cobalt, iron pontil bottles found in one pit. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.
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A load of "good stuff" from an 1870s pit. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.
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Old hernia clip made from gutta percha found in a privy dig. Photo courtesy Rick Weiner.

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