Bottle Digging 101
( How we do it )
I wrote this section to help people who are interested in finding and digging 19th century outhouse pit's, aka privy's.Also for the home owners and folks that are just curious about how we go about this strange but wonderful hobby,digging for historic glass. Here it is from start to finish.......
Getting permissions is at the top of our list.Without the home owners consent there would be no privy digging, unless you had a friend or a family member with a house that was built in the 19th century. Permissions are a must,never dig anywhere with out it.
You have to be like a vacuum cleaner sales man of sorts,and sell your hobby to the home owner. Tell them about your self , how much you love bottle collecting and the (history) behind the glass you find.If the answer is NO then just move on. (you have to take the no's with the yeses) in this hobby. Pick your self up and go to the next door or lot or where ever you think a privy might be.
Before we actually knock on doors we do the research on the places we want to dig. We date the homes and go from there.If the house was built in the 1850's 60's 70's or 80's its a go,they are good years for old glass. It is time to knock on doors!
Once we get a permission it is time to probe the yard for potential spots where a privy was first dug and used over 100 years ago. We look for slight depressions in the ground where the pit has sunk over the years.The homes that we probe are mostly located in small towns or city's. We search the (property lines) first. Most outhouses were dug on the property lines. In city's and towns with row homes, after 10 or 15 years they dug new holes and just moved the outhouse building onto the new hole. Sometimes there is no dip or sunken spot in the yard. That does not mean there isn't a privy it means that the "sunken" spot was filled in really well over the years. In this case we have to spend more time probing. We also look into the next yard and see if there are any visible sinking spots there and just line them up with the yard we are in. Most times when the row homes were built they dug the privy/s right away and put them right next to each other in the yards. But this is not always the case sometimes they are put in places you would never think of like right outside the backdoor or along side the house. They key to finding privy's is probe probe probe!
Some privy's were lined with wood in the 19th century,the wood rotted after many years of use, and then it was time to dig a new hole and repeat the process. This was done every 10 to 15 years.
In our area we have mostly wood lined pits.Other towns & city's are prevalent to stone liners and brick liners. Stone and brick lined privy's can be used for many years because they are built to last UN like wood that rots.
The probe is the main tool in privy digging.We make our probes out of spring steel from the trunks of large cars. ( At the end of this page check out instructions on how to make a probe) for you diggers.
To start the probing process, we slowly stick the probe in a likely spot.If it goes down fairly easy with out much effort,it may be a privy.The tip will have no clay and a lot of (ash) on it.If you probe the ground around that spot , you should feel it grab and it should be hard to pull out, also there will be a lot of clay on the tip,and no ash.If you probe enough, you will get the feel of what a privy feels like and what is not a privy.It is not rocket science it just takes practice like anything else. (look for the ashy crunchy feel)
Stone and brick lined privy's are much easier to locate.Since there have (solid) walls all around, all you have to do is probe the sides and find the wall,then dig in the center.
Now that the privy is found it is time for the test hole. Cut a nice sized square out of the grass,making what looks like a piece of sod. Turn it up side down and look through the dirt.see if there are signs of foreign material like coal,brick,broken glass etc.Most of the time there are no signs right away, but if you dig down a bit you should start to see signs of (life) what I mean by life are things that a person put there in the 1800's when they were filling in the privy.
When you decide that it is a privy, it is time to start taking out more fill. By this time you should be seeing ash,coal,bones,rusted metal and nails etc not necessarily in that order. The stuff in the pit will look a lot different than (regular ground) even a novice can see this.
We use 55 gallon drums to put the fill from the privy hole in.Most people use big plastic tarps.The barrels are lot lot easier and there is no fill put on the ground. the next step is to concentrate on getting to the "use layer or trash layer" as some call it.The trash layer is where most of the bottles will be.But sometimes you will find bottles in the caps. A cap is a layer of clay,ash,sand or what ever was handy to use at the time.The caps purpose was to stop the smell or give the privy a little more use time. Remember they used the outhouse just as much as we use our toilets,they had to keep the smell down as best they could.
Once we get to the use layer, it is time to put away shovels and brake out the small hand tools.Scrapers,trowels etc.By this time all of the main fill and caps are removed from the pit.Now the fun begins!
The digging from this point is very slow,it has to be or you will be braking glass! to get a bottle out you have to dig all around it and get in loose.Then pop it out.This process goes on until the bottom of the privy is felt. The bottom is UN mistakable,it is rock hard clay with stone or shale in it.The bottom of privy's will vary from state to state I am describing what it is like in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding area.
Once the bottom is felt and all the bottles and use layer are removed.It is time to fill the privy hole back in.It is a lot of work but we love our hobby,so that makes all the hard work worth it.The filling in is an easier process then the dig it self,it goes a lot faster.
When the pit is all filled in,we come back once a week to check and see if the fill settled,and it will settle a little. We will then bring some top soil a rake and some grass seed to top it off."ALWAYS KEEP THE HOME OWNER HAPPY" what ever it takes. You reap what you sow in this hobby and that equals more places to dig.
That is how we locate,dig and fill in a privy.
Any questions drop me an email
To make your own probe you will need ----
1. Some spring steel from a large car. (sedan) go to a junk yard.
2.A piece of hollow pipe about 8 inches to a foot long. (a handle)
3.A ball Bering or a dremel tool bit. for the tip.They are very hard.thats what we use)
4. A hand drill to drill through the center of the 8 inch pipe.
5. access to a wielding machine.
6. A bench vise.
8. A small propane torch.
First you need to heat up the spring steel. Put it in a vise and bend it when it is hot to make it straight. When it comes from the junk yard it is in the shape the manufacturer made it so it must be straighten.
Then you drill a hole in the pipe which will be the handle. The hole must (NOT) go through the pipe. Then you put the straightened out rod onto the hole and weld it tight. Next you weld the ball bearing on to the end of the spring steel rod. The ball must be just a little wider then the diameter of the spring steel. This makes it easy to push into the ground.
There you have it. That is how we make probes. Or you can go the other route and buy a good probe. This guy makes some good quality probes.---------------> Click the link below