ANOTHER "GREAT BOTTLE DIGGING STORY" FROM THE PAGES OF
ANTIQUE BOTTLE AND GLASS COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
THE MAGAZINE OF THE ANTIQUE BOTTLE COLLECTING HOBBY
antique bottles Ringing in the New Year . . .
in Privy Heaven
ebay by Andy Goldfrank with Dan Magee & Scott Jordan nasa
It was January 1998 and for the last few weeks the bottle gods had not smiled upon Dan, Scott and me the digging boys. We had spent the Christmas Holiday digging ash dumps, cisterns, and privies in various parts of New York, including Poughkeepsie, Ossining, Pleasantville, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island, with little success. During those weeks we excavated hundreds of bottles and artifacts but only a few worth mentioning: half a dozen pontiled, blackglass whiskies and ports from the 1840s-50s; a pontiled, gasoline-colored, umbrella ink; and a graphically detailed, eagle-claw, kaolin clay smoking pipe. Little did we know what the bottle gods had in store for us.
Andy and Scott in the hole moments after Andy uncovered his first whole historical flask.
The tales of the digging boys began in the summer of 1996, when Scott and I started digging together in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Westchester County. During our first privy dig in Manhattan, behind an 1840s brick rowhouse on a sweaty August morning, I recovered a mint amethyst Mrs. S.A. Allens World Hair Restorer. Holding the bottle up to the sunlight, I told Scott that while this was an exciting and beautiful discovery my ultimate dream was to find a whole Knickerbocker Sodawater (a ten-sided, iron-pontiled, cobalt soda from New York) and a historical or figural flask. During my previous fourteen years of digging country outhouses, I had discovered many pieces of my dream bottles but never one intact. There was no doubt in our minds that summer day that, soon enough, I would uncover these dream bottles but dozens of privies and hundreds of pontiled bottles later, I still only had fragments.
In the fall of 1997 Scott and Dan had located on Staten Island a bulldozed, double-width lot adjacent to an early 19th century building. The sole remaining structure, a ramshackle building that had seen better days over a century ago, originally had been part of a row of 1830s clapboard-covered, timber-framed, gambrel-roofed houses. The owner, who now ran a business out of the street-level floor and rents the two upper stories, granted us permission to search for the cisterns and privies on his property.
The first time on the site, Dan and Scott dug an eight-foot deep cistern in the right portion of the empty lot about 20 feet from the back lot line. The brick-lined cistern contained 18 bottles from the late 1880s to the turn of the century including a couple of Staten Island blob-top mineral waters with fancy embossing. The site had been bulldozed recently which made probing virtually impossible. So Dan and Scott dug test holes along the back lot line where they uncovered small pockets of ash and artifacts that dated back to the first quarter of the 19th century. Scott even scooped out an aqua pontiled blueing at the end of the day not a significant find but they hoped it was an indication of what lay hidden beneath the surface. They knew that there had to be an early privy, either stone or wood-lined, but that first trip failed to uncover any outhouses.
This lone bottle, however, prompted Scott, Dan and me to return to the site for a second visit. In the back left corner of the empty lot, a large mound of yellow clay had been dumped over the property line from the creation of a backyard pool next door. We decided to tackle this mound. A probe could not penetrate the clay, therefore, to get to softer soil we chopped at the clay with a mattock and pick. A couple of hours later, we hit ash along with shards of lusterware; and minutes later, we saw decaying planks all indications of a wood-liner from the 1840s. The only problem with this privy, or rather what remained, was that it was only a foot wide. A second privy from the 1890s had been constructed within the older outhouse. As we examined the hole from the side there was bright wood ash for a foot and then another wood plank, which defined the newer privy that contained darker coal ash.
The privy hole. The outhouse was full of material from top to bottom. Unsifted material was dumped by bucket into a pile towards the rear of the picture, sifted material in the left front pile a large pieces of artifacts as handed up in the right front corner.
We figured that we might as well dig the privy out to see if there were older bottles remaining at the bottom that were not removed when the 1890s outhouse was built. Then we noticed a bit of plastic and tire rubber the outhouse had been hit by bottle diggers sometime in the 1970s. Strangely, the folks who dug the newer privy did not explore the one-foot portion that was left from the 1840s privy: It was evident that they had stopped at the rotten planks that defined the first privy and had not dug into the sides. Our practice is to probe and dig into the sides of every outhouse we uncover to locate neighboring privies and to see if bottles were left behind the walls during construction.
Frustrated upon realizing that we had located a previously dug pit, Dan and Scott went behind the standing structure while I filled in our holes. We had avoided the yard behind the building because it was filled with piles of wood, old billboard signs, cement block, brick wall rubble and the usual mounds of disgusting, urban backyard trash. After an hour of moving debris, we started in the back left corner and hacked through the roots of a 40-foot tree. Two feet down we found undisturbed ash. To our dismay, the workers who built the outhouse had followed the construction pattern of the lot next door. We discovered an 1890s wood-lined outhouse (4 x 8 x 5) built within an 1830s-40s wood-liner (5 x 5 x 6). At least this privy was not hit previously by bottle diggers. As two of the digging boys worked the hole, the other one started moving more backyard debris and digging test holes. The right corner did not seem to produce anything but yellow clay, so we focused on excavating the overlapping privies. Our site theory was that the older privy had been used and dipped repeatedly until it fell apart and then a newer one was constructed in the same spot. At the bottom of the 1890s outhouse the last foot of the early wood-liner survived. This was loaded with broken pottery including slip-decorated redware, transfer ware and pearlware shards but, like lots of early outhouses we dig, there were only a few pieces of shattered blackglass case gins and ales, and cylindrical flint-glass vials. As the sun set that second day, we knew that we would be back to dig at least the cistern.
Scott holding a brown and red-glazed ovoid jug with handle, behind piles of bottles and pieces of glass bottles and pottery artifacts.
Scott and I spent the next week on the phone talking about his and Dans digging efforts in Brooklyn (their best find of the week was a pontiled, gasoline-colored umbrella ink in the midst of thirty or so bottles from three unproductive stone-lined privies). We also discussed the possibilities for the Staten Island site and wondered where the privies containing the bottles from the 1850s to the 1880s were located; we were not going to assume that the two overlapping wood-liners were all that the backlot had in store for us. Finally we decided that the sole remaining spot to search was between the tree (to the right of the double privy) and the test hole (on the right side of the backyard) along the back lot line.
That Friday as I traveled into New York City to stay at my girlfriends, I could not help but wonder if this expedition would be as fruitless as the many others over the holiday period. I certainly hoped not. I am not superstitious and am a sleeper who hardly dreams (or at least never remembers his dreams); however, all week I dreamed about bottles and lots of them. It was early January 1998 when we again ventured to Staten Island. It was an unusual day because, as I looked out Lisas window at the thermometer high above Columbus Circle, the temperature was an unseasonable 50 degrees at 9 oclock in the morning with the sun shining and the sky a crisp blue. In addition, we had decided to bring along our friend Dave Cutler, who while well-known for his metal detecting exploits is a virtual novice at privy digging.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Robinson's Brown Stout; Dearborn & Co. (IP); eagle embossed; W. Pond & Co., Philadelphia XX Porter & Ale (IP); Union Glass Works (IP); Knickerbocker Sodawater (IP); and Philadelphia XX Porter & Ale (IP).
Upon arriving at the site in Staten Island the digging boys split-up: Dan and I dug more test holes in the bulldozed lot and Dave and Scott dug a test hole precisely where Scott and I had speculated the next privy would be located. Failing to uncover anything after an hour, Dan and I went over the fence to inspect the other guys efforts. We were disappointed to see that Scott and Dave were almost three feet down and had found only sterile yellow clay. The spot appeared to be a wash-out and our theories and dreams of a pontiled-bottle cache looked like mere fools gold. I decided to probe closer to the house. I probed out another pit that was filled with coal ash and dated closer to the turn-of-the-century, similar to the 1890s privy excavated a week before. There were also a couple of shallow ash pits that were void of artifacts. Frustrated, I yelled to the digging boys (minus a few expletives) Where is the old stuff?
With nothing left to do at 11 oclock in the morning, I decided to try a little more in the back center test hole Scott and Dave had dug before filling it in for good. After shaving another foot off the back of the hole, I stuck my shovel into the corner where I saw some black dirt mixed with the yellow clay. After shouting to Scott to come and take a look, he calmly replied Looks like old rotted roots from the tree. Despite Scotts remarks, I stubbornly thought that it looked promising. Two shovel-fulls later there was fresh ash on the tip of the shovel! As we widened the hole a little more, it became evident that we had another Staten Island wood-lined privy, and we were at the front right corner. Although we hoped that this outhouse dated from the missing periods (1850s-1880s) and was filled with pontils, we were not holding our breath due to our prior lack of success at this site.
After clearing some of the overburden and widening the hole to make a step into the privy (it started almost three feet below the surface), we decided to put Dave into the hole to find the first bottle. As Dave descended, he asked his patented question: Do you think its old? Literally thirty seconds later he pulled out an unembossed, aqua, coffin flask from the 1870s. Granted, this is nothing to write home about (and nothing to write an article about) but finally being out of the 1890s certainly was a start. Cleaning out a little more dirt, Scott showed us the parameters of the wood-liner that was defined by the brown-black traces of rotted planks which were the roots that I had initially uncovered. Starting to dig into the ash, Scott unearthed an open-pontiled amber umbrella ink the only hitch was that one of the panels had a spider crack. Nonetheless, our excitement grew; this was indeed a pontiled-bottle privy.
I was next into the pit, and from then until dark everything was a blur. The first bottles that I pulled out were a few smooth-based aqua sodas from Brooklyn and Manhattan embossed with 1860s dates, and a crude, aqua Hyatts Infallible Life Balsam. A heartbreaker was a teal Old Dr. Townsends Stomach Bitters shattered in place, with the brick still sitting in the middle of the fractured bottle. (I can close my eyes and imagine those kids in 1870 tossing that brick at the huge, shiny bottle floating in the privy muck). Dan was next in the hole, and he extracted almost a dozen sodas, including a couple of brilliant, emerald-green W. Pond & Co. XX Philadelphia Porter & Ale squats. He then pulled out one of my dream bottles: a cobalt, iron-pontiled Knickerbocker Sodawater. My only wish was that I could have uncovered that beauty myself I may have promised to name my first-born child after him in exchange for the pick on that soda when we were to divide up the bottles. Dan also pulled out an aqua, pontiled Washington & Taylor flask (GI-37) that was intact except for a one-inch chunk missing out of the shoulder. He almost uncovered both of my dream bottles in one fell swoop things were getting crazy.
At this point we were barely two feet into the privy dirt and about five feet below the surface. We were not even using digging tools instead the bottles were tumbling out by merely running our fingers through the light, airy soil. The pottery and bottles were so densely packed that the guy in the pit was literally handing up two and three bottles at a time. Sodas, medicines, whiskeys, inks, champagnes, colognes, condiment bottles and every other variant imaginable, manufactured with smooth bases and iron and glass pontils, were pouring out of the earth. Also tumbling out were scores of other artifacts such as large cents, marbles, figurines, clay pipes, doll parts, buttons, and pottery.
Initially we placed the bottles on a ledge near the hole, but as the numbers increased we moved the bottles to the flat roof of the one-story building next door. In addition to the pile for broken bottles and pottery, we set aside a little area to gather the shards from the various slip-decorated redware dishes from the 1840s-50s, which were slowly being pieced together like puzzles. Eventually we restored four plates completely; one had a flower pattern, another said ABC, the third had James written on it, and the last said Thilarion Abbott. (A little research may show if the occupants of the old house had these names).
Back in the pit, in the midst of more sodas and other assorted bottles, Scott pulled out a quarter-gallon cobalt Caswell & Mack bottle. This was next to the fragments of a green, pontiled, sheared-lip Lafayette & DeWitt Clinton historical flack (GI-81) and a purple Mrs. S.A. Allens World Hair Restorer that sadly had the neck knocked off. Dave went back into the hole and excavated, almost immediately, a mug-based, iron-pontiled, amber Duponts Artesian Water from Louisville, Kentucky. (Bottle diggers from the South may have seen this bottle before,
but it sure is an unusual discovery in New York). After letting him take out a few more sodas and a mint six-inch tall pontiled peppersauce embossed with ribbing and stars, we kicked Dave out to let someone else uncover a good bottle.
Knickerbocker Sodawater, iron pontiled.
I crawled into the pit and started sending up a number of pontiled embossed cylindrical medicines (such as Liquid Opedeldoc, Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup and B.A. Fahnestocks Vermifuge). I even located the missing neck from the World Hair Restorer, which fit like a glove and later glued back perfectly. Of course, the sodas were still spilling out of the ground when I found them. Them? I had pushed aside the pieces from a number of broken, colored sodas when there, sitting in my hands, was not one but two Knickerbocker Sodawater cobalt beauties. At that point we were totally giddy who could have imagined that it was only going to get better?
After these finds, I was booted from the wood-liner to give Scott an opportunity. He dove in and immediately shouted Hey, Andy, were you feeling like you got too much? You left a green, pontiled figural flask hanging out of the wall! It was unbelievable! In my delirious state, I had left dangling from the side of the privy an olive-green figural flask, crisply embossed with a cornucopia and urn with fruit on opposing sides (GIII-7). After thanking me profusely, Scott also pulled out a couple of domed inks, a crude pontiled Dr. Wistars Balsam of Wild Cherry, and, sadly, a broken, sheared-lip, pontiled rich-green utility ink. Dave was back in the pit, where after pulling up a couple of unembossed but colored sodas, he popped out an aqua, smooth-based Pikes Peak historical flask from high on the back wall of the privy (GXI-9)! After a little digging boys celebration, once again Dave was forcibly ousted from the hole. Dan was in next, and he proceeded to pull out a puce, pontiled Lyons Powder, a variety of colored and iron-pontiled sodas, a few embossed, aqua, pontiled medicinal cylinders, and a crude, yellow-green Udolpho Wolfes Scheidam Aromatic Schnapps a lot of neat bottles but nothing spectacular.
Scott replaced Dan in the privy where he promptly found a few more sodas. A short time later he called up Andy come in here and join me. As we sat in the hole, he pointed to a wall where the bottom corner of a bottle was sticking out. It was dark-colored and seemed to be high quality glass. I turned to Scott and excitedly asked Do you think that is another one, another historical flask? Scott was not certain but stated that if it was a flask, I was more than overdue. The next five minutes were excruciating as this bottle was crammed between compact layers of pottery and brick, but eventually there it was sitting in my hands my first whole Liberty flask! This green, sheared-lip, mint beauty had an eagle on one side with Liberty above, and Willington Glass Co., West Willington, Conn. embossed on the reverse (GII-64). I started to laugh uncontrollably: I had uncovered both of my dream bottles in a New York City privy in one day, just as I had set out to do less than a year and a half earlier.
After this incredible find, Scott finished up the bottom of the privy and uncovered an intact red-brown glazed ovoid jug from the 1850s. We then cleaned out the corners and found some real heartbreakers, including a broken puce Drakes Plantation Bitters and a six-inch tall aqua pontiled Winans Indian Liniment. Lastly we did manage to extract an iron-pontiled cobalt Dearborn & Co. soda, an early 1850s ten-inch Wheeler & Oneil clay beer, a pontiled, aqua, miniature demijohn (with the wicker embossed), along with more aqua sodas and common pontiled bottles. Thats right, a 5 x 5 x 6 wood-lined privy from the 1850s to 1870s laden with bottles from bottom to top and side to side.
What a sight! We had lined-up the almost 200 bottles, including over 70 sodas, on the roof of the neighboring building. The varieties and colors were spread out for a dozen feet. We were all amazed at how close we had come to filling in the test hole and not uncovering this mother lode of glass. Certainly we had all learned a lesson about persistence and perseverance. Our giddiness was also mingled with the realization that we did not have enough newspaper and bags to wrap-up and cart-off all of these bottles. Though we soon solved that problem, the diggings boys have had another dilemma since then not enough shelf space! Shucks, we can live with that......
Since our extraordinary day, Scott, Dan and Dave have dug three more privies on the property. Five outhouses and two ash pits were in the backyard, and three outhouses were in the empty lot, including a stone-liner. These privies were not as productive; one was the newer wood-liner that I had probed out and the others were older but barren except for a broken, tubular pontiled, teal-colored, rectangular medicine embossed Law & Boyd in an arc, with N. York under the name. Try and look that one up because we could not find it listed the digging boys sold the pieces for $200. A week later in a neighboring yard, they uncovered an amber, iron-pontiled eagle flask embossed Ravenna Glass Company on a banner with an anchor (GII-37). Happy digging and may the bottle gods smile upon you.
1 Dan Magee has written a couple of recent articles about the digging boys uncovering bottles in upstate New York, Brooklyn and Manhattan (see A Hike in the Woods in the June 1997 issue of A.B. & G. C.).
|(3) historical or
figural flasks: Eagle/Liberty; Pikes Peak;
(1) abminature demijohn (wicker embossing) (OP)
(1) amber Dupont Artesian Water, Louisville, Kentucky (IP)
(1) peppersauce with stars and ribs (OP)
(1) puce Lyons Power (OP)
(1) bar bottle with cobalt lip (ground pontil)
(3) cobalt Knickerbocker Sodawater (IP)
(2) abcobalt Dearborn & Co. Sodawater (IP)
(10) various shades of green Philadelphia XX (and XXX) Porter & Ale squats
with a variety of embossing on the reverse (4 IP)
(1) abblue-green Philadelphia Union Glass Works soda (IP)
(2) green Cole Superior Soda & Mineral Water, Staten Island (IP)
(1) green soda with embossed eagle
(1) turquoise R & C, New York soda (IP)
(1) Dixon & Carson (IP)
(2) green & blue-green Mineral Water
(50) various embossed & unembossed, aqua & colored sodas & squats (3 IP)
(1) amber Mrs. Allens World Hair Balm
(2) Barrys Tricopherous for the Hair and Skin (OP)
(2) Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup (OP)
(2) Dr. Fitch, 714 Broadway
(1) Lyons Kathairon For The Hair (OP)
(3) Liquid Opodeldoc & Seaburys Oleaginous Opodeldoc (OP)
(2) Fahnestocks Vermifuge (OP)
(1) Ayers Cherry Pectoral
(2) Professor Woods Restorative Cordial & Blood Renovator
(1) Hyatts Infallible Life Balsam
(1) cobalt Caswell & Mack
(2) Udolpho Wolfes Aromatic Scheidam Schnapps
(1) Dr. Wistars Balsam of Wild Cherry (OP)
(1) coffin flask
(2) dome ink
(2) amber & aqua umbrella ink (OP)
(1) master ink with spout
(1) Lockport green master ink (OP)
(1) red-brown glazed ovoid jug with handle
(1) gray salt glaze mineral water with handle
(1) salt glaze beer stamped Wheeler & Oneil
Plus over 70 various bottles including wines, champagnes, whiskies, olive oils (OP), condiment bottles (Lea & Perrins, etc.), spice containers, clear perfumes (ground pontils), ladies balm and Florida waters, blueings (OP), small medicines with initials (OP), vials (OP), small flared-lip puffs (OP), unembossed paneled & camphered medicines and containers (OP).
Did you enjoy this digging story? Every month Antique Bottle and Glass Collector magazine gives you neat digging stories like this one.
Why not subscribe today,
It's easy just click here. SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION
Return me to: HOME PAGE - Go to: OTHER DIGGING STORIES