antique bottles DIGGING IN THE 'HEIGHTS' privy digging

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If you're lucky enough to be a privy digger, then youknow older is better. Whether you're probing for trash pits inthe country, or digging “monster” holes inmany of America’s older cities; the hope is, you’lleventually get behind an old farmhouse or dig pontil bottles outof an 1840s Greek Revival outhouse pit.

The houselocated at #98 Pierrepont Street that was dug. Actually myoriginal request was for the house on the right. As we laterfound out that the house dated from the early 1870's and didn'thave a pit anywhere in the yard.

Well, since we hadn’t dug anything or stepped foot inBrooklyn in nearly four months the news of a long awaitedpermission in Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhood -- BrooklynHeights -- came as a welcome surprise.
After the unusually long lay-off, Richie, Jack and I were firedup, and ready to start the fall off right. Our latest permissionwas the result of our last time in trying to line something up.Seeing how we all had busysummers planned we agreed that if we found something it wouldhave to wait till the fall to be dug.

So, armed with a few probes, abottle or two, and some digging pictures off we went looking forsome digging leads and a sympathetic ear. Well, that was back inearly May, the weather was getting nicer by the day and the “heights”was alive with people trying too shake off the long wintermonths. With nice weather, as you might expect, there’s alltypes of people engaged in all sorts of outdoors activities. Fromblock to block, and across busy avenues, there were shoppers,people washing cars, sweeping sidewalks, and just hanging outtalking with neighbors and the occasional passer-by.

That'sRichie and Jack taking a five minute break holding up the threeDrakes Plantation Bitters that came out pretty early in the dig.There were at least two more in a nice puce color that werebroken.

Wait, did I say passer-by?, That’s where we come in! Afterthe three of us got separated, which sometimes happens, I decidedto go past an old brownstone that I had been watching for severalyears. Although there was nothing happening in front of thebuilding there were several people out front of the adjacentbuilding having a sidewalk sale. After a quick browse over thegoods I introduced myself, and inquired about the vacant housenext door. The guy’s name is Eddie, and he was prettyinformative about the property in question. It seems the househad been bricked up for years, and was finally in the process ofbeing renovated. After a few minutes I asked if I could gothrough his house to take a peek in the yard next door.
“I guess that would be OK, besides there is a cistern inmy backyard I’d like you to see,” he replied. Oncein the yard I saw what he was talking about --- an open, hollowcistern with no top cover! “I’d sure like to get itfilled in or covered,” Eddie went on to say. “Maybewe can help you out, how about a big bluestone slab over the topto seal her off, and letting us dig your privy." Isuggested. Again, Eddie was more than accommodating, and agreedto the idea.
Once I returned with the guys we explained that the cistern wouldbe no problem, that we’d cover it over after the pit wasdug. We scheduled the dig for around Labor Day that way we allcould enjoy the summer, and look forward to digging again towardsthe fall.
Well, the second week of September finally arrived, and with it adefinite date for our permission. Although the weather was stillhot and humid you’d be hard pressed to find a more eagerbunch of guys. We had an “in” at eight in themorning, so we figured we’d have the pit completely openedby ten. Rich did a little research, and found the house listed inan 1860 directory, so we were sure there would be a privy.Finding it turned out to be no great mystery because of a shallowdepression we first noticed in the backyard back in May. If ourhunches were correct the privy was under an old patio that Eddiewanted removed because of the sagging, so things couldn’thave gone any better. I mean, an old house, a receptivehomeowner, a pit ---all we needed now were the bottles!
Luckily, the privy was right where we thought it would be, a fewprobes confirmed it was loaded with ash. “The tip keepscoming up full
ofash,” Rich mentioned.
Hopefully, now it was just a matter of time before we’d hitour first bottle. Opening up the pit turned out to be rathereasy, given the extremely light ash. The dirt seemed to be flyingoff each shovel full before it hit the ground.
I’d say within the first four feet or so we had our firstbottle; nothing great, an unembossed hinged-mold, sort of shapedlike those small Union bluing bottles
common during the 1860s. “Keep digging, Jack,till you hit more bottles,” we jokingly said. Althoughit was barely eleven, the sun was already above the surroundingbuildings, making it a bit uncomfortable, so it was time to get afresh body below.

Beforeand after pictures of the yard, showing what it looked likeduring digging and once we put it all back together; fence, patioblue stones and all.

I jump down, and continued to shovel out the ash at a steadypace. Outside of an occasional lump of partially burnt coal orbroken brick nothing much was happening. The first hint ofanything out of the ordinary I spotted near the wall. Judging bywhat I could see, the bottle seemed to be angled slightly upwardwith its neck protruding above a flattened area of ash. Once Iwas able to brush enough dirt away from the glass the familiaroutline of an amber Drakes Plantation Bitters became apparent.Although it was hard to tell, two of the side panels and theirmatching roofs seemed intact. Once freed, in the bucket it wentfor safe keeping.
“Anybody want to come down here,” I asked(what a stupid question!) As you might expect, the answer wasyes, and with that, down came Rich. We continued to move dirt;Rich filling buckets, Jack pulling, and myself dumping each loadwith a watchful eye. Almost immediately, Rich began uncoveringsmall pockets of bottles and shards --- not the privy layers wewanted, but nevertheless, a hopeful sign of better things tocome. By now the sun was shining against the back wall of theprivy putting Rich in the spotlight, illuminating his every move.Within ten minutes Rich had amassed a nice little pile of bottlesalong side of where the buckets were coming from --- a few moreblanks, black glass, a dated squat soda and a Knickerbockerstoneware bottle were visible from up top, just to name a few.
Although the privy was just average in size (about six footround) it was pretty productive so far. We were now down sevenfeet, so on to the pontils we went! Totals thus far, about fiftybottles, including another Drakes that Rich unearthed just beforehis stint was up. Hey, one more, and we’d each have one.
Once Rich was up top we decided to take a short
break. A quick glance at oneanother, and the bottles lying nearby revealed just how much ashhad managed to settle on us and the surrounding landscape. Itkind of reminded me of one of those TV documentaries on the Mt.St. Helens volcano. A sort of mini ash eruption in downtownBrooklyn.

Thesebottle represent about a quarter of what was actually dug. Thesewere the better bottles that were un-damaged and not to badlystained, something for everyone.

When we finally took a look at the last load of bottles thatRichie had sent up, Jack and myself were even happier. Rich hadalso sent up a large open pontil Professor Wood’s HairRestorative and a Dr. Kennedy Medical Discovery that just missedbeing pontiled by only a few years. Add to this several morelocal hair bottles, and a few shards of mochaware, and the threeof us were more than satisfied.
At about the ten foot layer the gray colored ash we had gotten soused to seeing was finally given way to some good old “nightsoil”or privy dirt. Knowing that the house dated from the later 1850smade the last several feet of digging that much more alluring.Who knows, maybe we’d find that ultimate stoneware or soda,that could become the cornerstone of a collection. With renewedinterest we began to scrutinize each movement of dirt as if itwere the last, hoping for something special.

It was now late afternoon, the shadows from the buildingsthemselves, plus what was being cast from surrounding trees wasbeginning to make it difficult for whoever was working in thepit. I didn’t mind staying up top, so it was up to both Jackand Richie to finish her up from below. So, while I continued todump buckets and Jack pulled, it was Rich who worked whatremained. With a little luck we’d figured therewouldn’t be many more buckets to take out anyway.

Some ofthe first bottles to come out of the Pierrepunt Street Privy.

Soonafter we laid them down, they were covered with a silt-like ash.

The bottom seam was just chockfull of shards of yellow-ware,decorated crocks, and mocha bowls, that were unfortunately allsmashed beyond repair. The open pontiled unembossed utilities andmedicine types that we had been hitting all the way downcontinued; Rich must have pulled another ten or so just along thebottom layer. As for additional embossed bottles, not many moreI’m afraid --- a nice plum-purple open pontil Lyons Powderand a few more commoner pontil medicines were about all that wasleft intact. Unfortunately a lot of broken bricks made sure ofthat.
All things considered, not a bad pit, about a fourteen footerwith an unusually high amount of unembossed stuff. By the time weleft Brooklyn, and thanked Eddie for the permission, it was aftersix. A quick stop at our favorite McDonalds, and it was on toJack’s house to pick our bottles. Just another later thanexpected Saturday night home from digging.
Our next scheduled digs, bothin the Heights, one Rich says dates back to 1827 we’ll keepour fingers and probes crossed for good luck.

That's Rich downabout nine feet and 120 years! The bottle he's holding looks tobe English, probably a condiment of some kind. In the bucket andup, for safe keeping.

A partial list of the better finds of the day included:
(3) Drakes Plantation Bitters (amber)
(1) Professor Wood’s Hair Restorative
(aqua op)
(1) Dr. Kennedy’s Medical Discover
(aqua SB, hinge mold)
(2) Black Glass Ale types (one pontil,
one SB)
(23) rectangular unembossed medicines
(aqua, OP)
(4) round utilities (aqua clear OP)
(1) square unembossed medicine type
(med. blue OP)
(1) lg. pottery master ink
(1) W.P. Knickerbocker 8 oz. stoneware
(1) master ink (med. green w spout SB)
(2) dated 1860s type squat sodas
(1) pot lid base Davies Brooklyn NY
(1) pot lid base with decorated border in
blue of bears in woods
(1) Lyons Powder (plum purple OP)

- plus over 60 other embossed and blank medicines,

foods, hairs, a few plain, white iron stone plates,

several pipes, two toothbrushes, a mucilage,

two metal bells, a large whale's tooth

and another 60 or so bottles that had minor damage.

(below)Onefinal shot of the four of us (left to right, Jack, Me, Richie,and the Homeowner, Eddie). Eddie was happy the way things turnedout, we helped him with his cistern problem, and he returned thefavor by letting us dig the privy in his yard.

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