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Privy Treasures

By Staff | Sep 1, 2010

Tom Zahnow holds a rare bitters bottle manufactured in Wheeling in the 1800’s.

If I were to say buried treasure, most people think of gold and silver hidden long ago. For Tom Zahnow of Sherrard buried treasure means privies. Privies or outhouses were very much part of any home in the city or country side before running water became common in the last century. Not only were they a necessity for our everyday needs, they were a place where people discarded household trash.

Tom’s unusual hobby is excavating old privy sites for the trash thrown away over 150 years ago. If it survives it could be a treasure in today’s world. I asked Tom if he considered himself a treasure hunter or archeologist, he responded that he was a little of both. After talking with him about his hobby and his research, I would also include a bit of a historian.

The organic waste that once made up the bulk of the privy’s contents has over the years broken down into black composed earth. The glass and a variety of materials thrown into the pits has sometimes survived in the long forgotten places. Still the idea of digging into yesteryear’s toilets is to some an unpleasant hobby.

After becoming interested in old bottles, Tom’s first dig was an old cistern on 14th street in Wheeling.

“It was a big cistern that was about six feet round and brick lined. We dug down about 28 feet before we got a little nervous about the depth of the hole.” The first dig produced only a few treasures. Tom remembers his first find was a soda bottle that was made in Pittsburgh in about 1860. Since then he has dug over 50 sites and found many more bottles and other items.

Tom explained he finds sites with the help of an old Wheeling map that showed the locations of homes in the 1800’s, “We usually knock on doors and talk to people. Or if it is a rental property we contact the owner to get permission. Probably 90 percent say go ahead and dig.” When they are digging an abandoned privy, making sure the site is restored to its original condition is important. Respect for the property and the trust given by owners is key to being able to dig future sites. “We realize one mess up and that would hurt our being able to ask other people to dig in their yards.”

Tom digs with Rob Bulgarelli from Washington, Pa. He never digs alone for safety, especially if the hole is to be more than six feet deep. Given the places he digs, health concerns are always present in his mind. “You always think about it, especially when you get into a wet privy, when the last three or four feet are just muck and some stink a little.” Not only are there heath concerns, but the hole requires constant monitoring to watch for cracks in the clay walls or loose soil. The average privy is between 12 and 16 feet deep. Some were lined with brick, others with wooden boards along the side walls. The construction often depended on how much money the owner had, but the bottom was usually the same.

Tom looks for sunken places in the yards along back alleys to probe with a special spring steel rod to find abandoned privies. Pushing the rod into the earth takes years of experience to know when a site is found. The tip of the probe is made special so that when it is pulled up a small bit of material is picked up in the probes tip. “You are looking for traces of lime or pumpkin brick that is a real bright soft orange, or maybe some dark dirt, anything that should not be in regular ground.”

After the four corners of a site are found and marked, the dig begins. Grass is removed like sections of a puzzle and placed on tarps in the order they were removed. Then tarps cover the ground and barrels are placed on them to hold the dirt from the excavation. Separate barrels hold glass and objects found in the holes. “You can dig 20 privies before finding a good one that has some valuable things in it. Some have nothing, others have a few dollars in bottles and then you find the one that contains several dollars in bottles, but those are rare.” In 75 percent of digs the bottles were broken when they were put in the hole or time and ground pressure finished them off. Good bottles were often made of thinner quality glass or made square in their construction. These factors make them rare to survive and be found intact.

The age of a privy can often be told in the color of the glass found in it. Aqua greenglass was usually made before the 1880’s. After that bottle glass was often made clear in color. A rare piece to find is a cobalt blue colored bottle. Bottle makers would on occasion when filling an order for a customer throw in a blue bottle to show them what was possible to be made. To find one today is very rare.

Privies Tom dig contains a variety of glass bottles that were manufactured from Wheeling to Pittsburgh. He also finds marbles made of both glass and clay in dig sites. Silverware, old watches, tokens, and coins that were lost or discarded long ago into the foul dark places sometimes appear in the dark dirt. Some sites contain clay smoking pipes, stone crocks, and chamber pots among the broken bottles.

Tom explained that he understands that in about 1880, a city ordinance was enacted that disallowed the placing of non organic materials in city privies. It was also about that time general dumps were established to give the city residents a location to dispose of household solid waste. Before that time, the job of a honey dipper was an unpleasant one, but a necessary one. Backyard space in the city was limited and redigging an outhouse was often impractical. The solution was for a man called a honey dipper to descend into the privy and fill buckets to be pulled up and dumped into a wagon. This process could keep an outhouse usable for many years. The honey dippers would take their cargo to the river or an out of the way ravine to discard the material.

Tom can be contacted by e-mail at TBOK39@AOL.com. He enjoys his hobby and is always looking for new sites to dig and people to talk with about his past time. He has over the years collected more than 700 bottles in his personal collection. Included are 200 different medicines bottles from Wheeling for doctors or pharmacies. But there is one bottle he still hopes to find and he knows it is out there, a Doctor Crammers Stomach Bitters Bottle.

Bitters was another name for whiskey which was not taxable at the time, whiskey was. Value of Doctors Crammers Bitters is in the eye of the holder and perhaps someday Tom will find that special bottle as he looks Thru the Lens.