Just What are Outhouse Diggers?

   I received an EMail from Charles M. Cook relaying the following information which I found to be extremely fascinating. I hope you do to. With his permission, here is what he has sent me so far.

   I applaud you for having the capacity to know what is interesting and cool. Mail boxes come right behind outhouses as interesting subjects. Outhouses, as known in the past are an endangered species. Environmental concerns and technology have changed what they were...a hole in the ground to poop in. Here's Johnny! What you have done thus far is outhouses as seen in passing.. What I bring to you takes us underground, where I have spent many hours.
   My background...Born in Kansas, started in Oklahoma, raised in Houma, La, early retirement from UNOCAL, a major oil company four years ago, now a licensed real estate agent...Ain't dead yet. OK, more general info about outhouses, up close and personal....Mind you, most of my experience has been in Louisiana.
   You are a man after my own heart. I have been enamored with outhouses for years. As a youth they were a dreaded necessity when we visited my rural relatives along the Oklahoma? Kansas line. However some thirty years ago I became interested in collecting antique bottles. Do you know that excavating the site of old outhouses is one of the best ways to acquire old bottles. Of course, seldom is the structure still standing. Most of my digging was done in south Louisiana, predominately in New Orleans. There were something like a quarter million people there at the time of the Civil War...and no garbage pick up. They often threw it down the outhouse hole. They were usually lined with wood or brick and were "dipped" and reused sometimes. However, if you find one that wasn't, it is a virtual time line as you dig down. I've excavated some as old as 1800. Of course we do old wells also.
Terry Guidroz in a hole. I "dug" with him for almost twenty years. Being ten years older than he, I used that to shame him into hard work, not to let me outdo him.
   When a privy was used, and never disturbed, it is a chronological record. The ground surface is the present. The bottom is the date it went into use. As it is excavated. each layer represents a time period. I have dug privies that represented a fifty year time frame. Obviously they were very deep. Bottles, and artifacts clearly, according to layer at each depth were in chronological order. It is like reading a book. You can tell a lot about the users. According to the products they used, how they fared financially. Whether they imbibed or not. What ailments they suffered...medicine bottles. Other interesting articles found: a silver dollar with a hole in it and an "X" scratched on it. A military canteen with the users name scratched on it. Whole potties, in perfect shape.(thunder mugs)
Terry Guidroz in a hole deeper and deeper.
   It was puzzling why these undamaged pots were in there. My idea...People kept these under their beds. The next day they took them out to the privy to dump...raised the bench lid, and accidentally dropped the whole thing in...looked down there and said "the Hell with it." More items dug...clay smoking pipes, bone tooth brush handles, opium bottles, hand painted pottery marbles, doll parts, a couple of hand wrought grappling hooks...dropped something in, fished for it, hook got caught and was abandoned????, swords and knives, a flintlock pistol, I know someone who found a little jar with gold teeth in it...I don't want to know., Most macabre...a friend was digging, alone, in the French Quarter in New Orleans...a motel was being constructed on the site...privy not too deep, wooden sided...at bottom, more trash,etc noted off to one side...sometimes a privy was dug overlapping an older one...as he dug to the side he suddenly began to find bones, and decided they were HUMAN...back outa there, sitting on the side of the hole...WOW,what to do? He left the hole open and left. Later that night, he called a local TV station and anonymously told them about it. The remains of seven people were found by the authorities. There were several large fires in the French Quarter in the later part of the 1700's. Apparently later construction was built right on top of a small cemetery. You think you are going to eternal rest? Years later....look out below!!!!
Pay dirt! Terry pretends to drink from a black glass whiskey circa. 1860.
   People have even lost their lives digging privies. I know of several cases that diggers were buried when the walls collapsed. Common sense and caution could have prevented it. It is spooky at the bottom of a fifteen foot hole, even if it is brick lined.
   Some years ago, here in Houma, Louisiana, with two partners, I opened an antique bottle shop, named "THE OUTHOUSE". Later while I was on a vacation trip, my "partners" found an old cypress outhouse, talked the owners into giving it to them, and transported it to the front of the little building the shop was housed in. It was a "quaint" symbol along with our sign. There was, however, one problem. The shop building was rented from an elderly couple, whose home was located back behind it. They had no sense of humor at all. By them time I returned, my partners had to remove the outhouse from the premises. I wish they had taken a photo before moving it.
Some of my collection; many dug.
   For the squeamish, after a hundred years, or more, the outhouse pit is little worse than the surrounding soil. In New Orleans the water table is often 3 or 4 feet below the surface anyway.
   Once in Elko, Nevada, far up a slope from the main road, I found an outhouse that was triangular in shape, the doors were open, and the holes were triangular. It makes one wonder about the anatomy of the early inhabitants.
   Incidentally, with intuition, and knowledge from past experience, we find these sites with spring steel probes, 5' and up. Actually, my poor old aching back no longer allows me to do this. I guess it pulled too many five gallon bucket of slush, stones, brick and hopefully bottles from as deep as 15'. :-)
   I am also the only person I have heard of that has a collection of 19th century outhouse holes. When the building was built over the pit, the very last thing done was to go in and cut the holes in the bench. Often these fell to the bottom of the hole. When I began to discover these and realize what they were I began to save them. In some cases, nearly two hundred years after one fell to the bottom, Charlie Cook was retrieving it. I wonder what the look on the face of the builder would look like if some one had told him that. I plan, eventually to put a finish on some of them and make wall hangings, perhaps with a little brass plaque stating what it is. Conversation piece??
   When privy (outhouse) hunting in old New Orleans, if you find one at all, it will be no younger than 1900. New Orleans had a sewer system by that time and they were outlawed. In smaller cities they were used by a few fairly recently. Although some were dipped and reused, sometimes it was easier, and more pleasant I'm sure, to just make another one. I have found as many as six in one back yard in New Orleans, from the turn of the century back to the 1820's. They may seem to be practically solid glass, nearly empty, filled with unusual articles, or any combination of the above.
   Hunting for old bottles is like being a prospector. Every time we go out the big strike might be made. I live in Houma, some 50 miles from New Orleans. We worked from daylight to flash light, and once I even talked some one into letting us plug in a drop light through a window to finish a dig. We also crawled under 18th century houses looking. New Orleans is mostly at or below sea level. All 19th century houses were raised on piers or chain walls
Bottle in foreground is commonly called a lady's leg...reason obvious, circa 1870.
   If I made 10 cents an hour, I did well. However, some antique bottles are worth thousands. Since I started thirty years ago, many have greatly increased in value. It was the hardest work I've done in my life, and as a youngster I hauled bales of hay and worked on oil drilling rigs. I would go on welfare before I'd work that hard for a living, but I would, and did do it for fun. :-) the value of the bottles is just a measure of how well you're doing, keeping score. We/I had our DAYS!!
   THE BLUE BALL DAY, no pun intended. That's not true. Directly across the street from a housing project, with a reputation for bad stuff....Probed a privy...at about 5' level started hitting glass, etc. Cobalt blue glass seen...slow down, use hand tools. Found one perfect, looking like new, cobalt blue globe, protrusion on the bottom, sheared lip on top. Beautiful, but what is it? It was carefully lifted out, wrapped and placed in the truck. Suddenly another...same sequence. Several more, same sequence. Eventually we found twenty-four, plus four smaller ones and one dark green one. Pretty, but so what? It turned out that they were founts for whale oil lamps. The least anyone got for one was $100. I've still got a pair and a small cobalt one. That was a $3,000 day...total digging time 6 hours.
Yours truly, twenty years, and twenty pounds ago...not trying to appear younger, but this is the only thing I have with outhouse connections. The last three photos were published in Terrebonne Magazine, featuring my strangeness. I live in Terrebonne Parish...County to everyone else in the USA. Note the probe lying on the ground in front of me.
   Once in a dig in Thibodaux, 12 miles from Houma we dug a bottle...only two bottles in the hole....Dr. Cox Southern Cough Syrup. Teal green...pontil scar on bottom/pre-civil War, near perfect condition. I didn't get it in the flip. Two years later my long time digging partner who got it sold me three bottles for $600...I paid through the nose. I treasure all that I personally dug. A month ago, I was offered in writing, $2,000 for the Cox, another is now valued at $1500. That'.ll show him not to be mercenary. You can believe I rubbed it in.
   Other items found in digging privies...Clay smoking pipes, tools, saws, adzes, cups, plates, tooth brushes(bone) the list is endless. 90% of all are broken. I've almost shed tears over broken items. In Baton Rouge, LA, home of Louisiana State University(I think they could beat Michigan), we once took a archaeologist from the university on a dig with us. He told us he was amazed at what we knew, type of article, age, etc. We used to keep the shards and broken stuff for him to study. The archaeologists detest us. As far as they are concerned, we are pot hunters, like those who rob the ruins in South America. The guy we took with us said that since we were going to do it anyway, they were better off knowing what we do. It has been my experience that a good outhouse digger knows more than most of them. We lack their methodology and proper recording More often than not, we salvage prior to complete loss. I have bottles dug under the present site of the Marriot on Canal Street in New Orleans, a skyscraper. After being run out in the morning, a front came through and dropped 12 inches of rain in 24 hours. That afternoon, during the downpour, we returned. In digging out the foundation of the building formerly there, they had dug through the side of a privy. It was raining so hard, that, after building a little dam around the site, three of us had to bail, while another dug. We recovered about thirty bottles, some of which dated at least to 1810...happiness is. The construction company was worried about liability. Don't tell me we don't salvage.
   The outhouses of people of historical note have been excavated. Several years ago, I visited the restoration at Navoo, Illinois. This is in the county that Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church settled his church. He was killed by a lynch mob, and Brigham Young then led them on to Utah. The day they were to leave, the Mississippi River froze solid, for the first time in the local's memory. They drove the wagons across on the ice. Any way, Joseph Smith's outhouse had been excavated. They ever had a cracked shaving mug that had his name on the side of it.
   Henry Stanley, who tracked down David Livingston in Africa, and upon finding him, uttered the famous phrase, "Dr. Livingston, I presume.", lived in New Orleans in his youth. His home still exists, although it has been moved to another site now. Some friends of mine excavated a privy on that property and found stuff dating back as far as the 1860's...digger's comment upon finding the first bottle..."Dr. Stanley, I presume."
   In New Orleans the people who dipped privies were also called "Night Crawlers". An ordinance was passed that this could only be done at night, making it less offensive to the residents. Naturally, it was originally done by slaves prior to the Civil War, and by the same people afterward, probably for less compensation than previously.
   You can send Email to the Outhouse Digger himself. Just click on the link in this paragraph.
There is at least one other Outhouse Digger out there and I received the following Email from Rich Price (aka "Digger Dick") which proved to be as interesting as Mr. Cook's Emails. Here is his information:

   I am a bottle digger originally from Calif. Been here in San Anton for 3 years. Dug a lot of privies in California for bottles. Dug 6 holers of Victorian hotels to small ranch shallow pits. They call us seasoned diggers "privy diggers". Here in Texas I've seen some "open-backs". Privy's without a pit, just a open back bottom to let the "spoils" run down to a low spot.
   I have seen and heard of some strange stuff dug out of "Privy Vaults". A large Victorian black & white alabaster dildo (still in digger's collection). A 4 shot pepper gun wrapped and placed in a mason jar. A baby embryo inside of a mason jar. (decomposed when the jar seal was broken). The ole' trick was to hide stuff in the privy vault and to recover it later when needed. A wire around a mason jar worked good. Also if it was stuff you didn't want anyone else to see it also went into the pit. The old man's whisky and bitters, etc.
   Privy names, let's see, Nessy, Privy, Thunder Box, Crapper, Shitter, Back House, Das Scheisshaus (German), Water Closet, Outdoor Convenience. How bout' "honey dippers", the men who "dipped-out" the full privy for a small fee.

Here are other Email(s) from people with
Outhouse Digging Questions and Comments:

  We recently had a sink hole appear in the back yard. We kept filling it in but it got deeper. We finally started digging & found what appears to be a privy. It looks like it had a concrete top, or roof which is what collapsed and caused the sink hole. Found some nice pieces of decorative slate, etched with a design & colored. It does not appear to be too deep, but I am not too sure. I assume the slate may have been part of the seat,(if they were ever made that fancy). Anyway could you let know of any one who may be interested in exploring this. Would appreciate any help you can give. Thank you. R. Bittman, N.J.

[ANSWER] I'm constantly amazed by the amount of response I get from my little corner of the Outhouses of America Tour web site, from all over the world.
  The concrete would seem to indicate that it is probably of the twentieth century. If the seats were made of slate that would be something I've never seen. Nearly all were made of wood, no matter what.


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This page was created on January 18, 1998