Archaeology in your Backyard

Last Thursday, the featured speaker at the Grand Island Historical Society was Peter Jablonski, a teacher and an owner of an antique store. During his copious free time (I once had a teacher who liked that phrase a lot!), he searches out the sites of old privies, and he does archaeological digs.

Peter explained that, in the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as regular garbage pickup. When stuff got broken, people threw it down the hole in the outhouse (also called the privy).  Just about everything went into the hole, including glass jars, pottery, broken toys, smashed mirrors, and other stuff. When people switched to indoor plumbing, the privies were torn down. Peter described how the privies are located. You take a spring-handled metal rod and stick the probe into the ground. In Niagara County, the privies were usually stone-lined and, thus, easy to locate. Buffalo privies were usually wood-lined, and those linings were more likely to decompose than were the stone-lined privies.

The objects that were found in the privies told the story of a time gone by. These objects included decorated stoneware with a salt glaze. Most of the stoneware were decorated with birds or flowers. Any stoneware with other types of decorations could be quite valuable. Peter said that a man fixed stoneware decorated with a lion, and he got $8,000 when it was sold at auction. Other objects included:

  • broken dolls
  • clay marbles (“Someone literally lost their marbles,” Peter said.)
  • pieces of a piano
  • pieces of a gun
  • oil lamps (people carried these at night and, on occasion, dropped them down the hole, leaving them in darkness)
  • spittoons
  • chamberpots
  • hairbrushes
  • bone-handled toothbrushes
  • a mixing bowl with seaweed
  • an 1830s piece of mochaware with an earthworm pattern with cat eyes (the mochaware was highly colored pottery)
  • a human tooth with a cavity
  • a cow tooth

Much of the bottles that were found in the privies came from two major Western New York glass houses. One was in Lockport (near the Erie Canal), and the other was in Lancaster (near a railroad line). The glass was made by master blowers, who used a wooden mold and a rod to produce the bottles. Eventually, glass was made by machine, rather than by master blowers. Most of the milk bottles were machine made.

One type of bottle was a soda bottle that was designed by William Hutchinson. When the bale was pushed in on a bottle of Hutchinson soda, it created a popping sound. Hence the term “pop” started being used as a name for “soft drink.”  I always wondered about that. Now I know why we say “pop” when talking about carbonated beverages.

I had thought that “Pop” was just another name for “Dad.” I got that idea from Dr. Seuss’ famous book “Hop on Pop.” (“I like to hop. I like to hop on top of Pop. Stop! You must not hop on Pop!”)

But I digress.

So. Back to the privies. It turns out that the best way to date a privy is by figuring out the ages of the bottles. People kept china for generations before throwing out the broken pieces. Coins, also, might have been kept for years. The bottles, on the other hand, were thrown out immediately after usage.

Some of the bottles were interesting. In Niagara Falls, a suspension bridge collapsed in 1889. Before that disaster, the bridge was quite a sight and something for local companies to use in their own advertising. The owners of a neighboring pharmacy had the words suspension bridge engraved on their bottles.

Another interesting privy story: Peter told us about the Society of Historical Archaeologists’ excavation on Johnson Island in Lake Erie, near Cleveland. Evidence was found that confederate prisoners, who were held there during the Civil War, had tried to tunnel through the privy. They were apparently attempting to escape.

All in all, it was an interesting presentation. Who would have ever guessed that an outhouse could be so fascinating?

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