Privy to History

By Rebecca Ruger

outhouse cartoonThe beach isn’t the only place to find antique and well preserved glass artifacts. But you’ve probably never thought about plowing through the remains of an old outhouse to unearth these treasures. But many people have, and do. Privy digging is an actual thing, where avid and adventurous bottle collectors and novice historians locate and excavate historic outhouses. The outhouse of old was used for more than just the obvious; it was treated as a refuse container where much of the home’s rubbish and trash was also deposited. Privy diggers have uncovered some fascinating and sometimes unexpected items, including guns, brass knuckles, ivory toothbrushes and combs, porcelain dolls’ heads, dentures, cigarette holders, marbles, coins, buttons, and so much more.

The sediment (polite phrasing) underneath outhouses has, after so many years, lost its odor and will be softer as privy diggers punch a probe through the earth to test/locate the site. Sometimes this begins with privy diggers, having researched towns and cities for homes older than 100 years, going house to house, knocking on doors asking permission to dig. Privy diggers go where few others would have the stomach to, motivated by the possibility of adding unique finds to their personal collections or by opportunity—some antique items found can be worth hundred and even thousands of dollars.

Pete Jablonski privy diggerPeter Jablonski, President of the Greater Buffalo Bottle Collectors Association, says that delving into buried latrines can be very rewarding. “Privy digging offers the treasure hunter the ultimate high: to touch something no one has touched in 150 -175 years; unearthing material culture from the 1800’s, never knowing what’s going to come out of the hole next; researching the artifact and discovering the fascinating history behind it.”

Archaeologists really give a crap about this kind of historical excavating. They claim that privy diggers are destroying history and are a general threat to archeology. But the discord between archaeologists and privy diggers is an old one and the debate will go on so long as there is history to be made, which is apparently what you’re doing with each visit to an outhouse!

Did you know?

The moon and stars commonly found on the doors of outhouses were actually more than just decorative. The cut-out was first, a source of light, but also a gender label dating back to colonial times when literacy levels were low. The crescent moon distinguished the ladies room from the men’s room, which was symbolized by the star. If homes had only one outhouse, it usually would have had a moon on it.

Elk Falls, Kansas is the self-titled ‘Outhouse Capital of Kansas’. The tiny community of about 200 residents offers OutHouse Tours on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving every year for almost 20 years. Residents and businesses contribute to the event, re-building, relocating, and decorating outhouses to be toured, with cash prizes awarded.

There exists in this world outhouse museums. Yes! There is one in Nova Scotia (Outhouse Museum at the Rossignol Cultural Centre, Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada), and one in South Dakota, the South Dakota Outhouse Museum, which claims a mix of historic outhouses that tell stories of Colome, South Dakota’s little history.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine May/June 2018 issue.

Author Richard LaMotte explains how to identify glass bottles

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published