A million years ago, I saw a TLC-type show on privy digging that blew my mind. Just the idea! It’s so obvious but I never had once considered it:
Wherever there’s a house built before running water, there’s an outhouse buried in the yard somewhere. An old pit, long covered-over and forgotten.
And the thing about these old potty holes, they tend to have lots of neat stuff in ’em.
Ewww, no — not that. All the, ahem, “organic waste” breaks down rather quickly, there’s nothing left of that when you dig down 100 years after the, um, “act.” The soil, however, is richly fertilized.
And it’s also often full of the most interesting objects: Common everyday items from daily life way back when.
Like, whatever you can think of that you’ve dropped or almost dropped into the toilet: watches, jewelry, perfume bottles, buttons, brushes, belts… And people hide stuff in toilets, too, right? Weapons and contraband and documents, money and ammo. Kids love to toss stuff in the potty as well: toys, dolls, banks, pens…
If a privy filled up, they’d often cover it over with old kitchen refuse and dig the next one right beside it so sometimes you literally can sift through both consumption and disposal on the same site, ha.
So this show highlighted how “privy digging” is this awesome hobby where an owner calls you up to say they want you to dig a big hole in their yard. You show up and there’s a nice handy “X” marked in soft sod with no rocks. A couple of shovelfuls, and you’re pulling out gold doubloons and colonial rifles! Plenty for the whole crew, you’re all millionaires but you promise to continue digging for the love of history. The end.
That was some show! Really stuck in my mind. Ever since, I haven’t been able to look at a historic property without wondering where I would poop if I lived there.
So this East Falls house. Looks like there’s an 1862 Smedley map online showing a dwelling on the property already. And indoor plumbing wasn’t introduced to this part of Philadelphia until the 1880’s at the earliest sooooo…..
By golly, I think there’s a potty! There’s no big “X” in the yard, but how hard could it be to find it?
A quick inquiry to the New Jersey Antique Bottle Club landed me Joe Butewicz, who sent out a crew that very weekend to have a look around with a thin steel rod, and perhaps do some minimal exploratory digging.
In the meantime — like a splash of cold water to my reality show O-face — Drexel University’s Danielle Kreeger (environmentalist by day, passionate bottle-hunter in her spare time) provided some historical context for our dig:
The property is interesting but I’ll be honest with you. Most wealthy folks actually routinely had the resources to pay to have their privies dipped out. The best pits for finding things are actually the poorer neighborhoods where privies would rarely get cleaned, and so trash accumulated. But that’s just a rule of thumb, we have seen some very interesting exceptions.
In general, only about 1 in 4 privies actually turns out to have been worth all the work. I’ve dug 10 in a row in Philly, all 25-30 feet deep, and not even a marble came out. So it can get pretty deflating. But when you get a pit with a layer at the bottom, it’s like opening a time capsule and you can find some very interesting items.
For the property, you’re right on the edge of the privy period. If it’s 1880 or newer, then they likely would have built the house with indoor plumbing and a toilet inside. Wealthier folks had this long before others. But even in poorer parts of Philly, the transition happened much earlier than anywhere else in the country. If it really does go back to 1860, then you probably have a pit.
So great. Contrary to the possibilities reality TV has led me to believe, there’s probably not a ton of coins and collectibles buried just outta reach at the Indian Queen Lane place.
But… there could be, right?
East Falls was kind of a podunky sorta town way back then, and the house was quite close to the river (where industrial wastes of all kinds were routinely dumped). And the Hohenadels were hardly the Wanamakers — would they have paid to have their privy cleaned before it was sealed when the house got indoor plumbing? Or might they have been like, “Aww, heck, we’re out here in the boondocks, why bother..?”
A girl can dream, can’t she? And quite possibly burst from curiosity, or so it seemed the night before the dig. Is there anything to find? Wouldn’t it be cool if….
Early Saturday morning, a team assembled at Hohenadel house:
- Matt Waholek
- Walter Waholek (Matt’s dad)
- Walter Waholek’s grandson (also named Walter)
- Andrew aka “Digger Drew“
- Some guy named Tom
- Another guy with a beard who might be named Kevin
They paced around the yard awhile, pointed at doors & windows, discussed amongst themselves. Swooped a metal detector this way & that.
They used the steel rod pokey thing. They dug around a little. They filled their hole up, found another spot.
Again with the steel pokey thing. More digging. More looking.
(you get the picture)
Finally, younger Walter raised his arms in victory — this is probably it!
They dug down farther this time, looking for signs of stone or wood indicating the sides of a pit.
Unfortunately, the yard here has been drastically changed: the land likely once sloped down away from the house in an incline, but in more recent years a retaining wall has been put up, dividing the former yard neatly into an upper and a lower section (the lower section is actually part of a daycare center located on Midvale).
While there’s a possibility the privy could be on the lower property, Matt & his crew suspect it’s buried down deep under the earth in the retaining wall. He’d need sonar equipment to find it for sure, and then it would likely be a challenging dig, going so far down. They politely accepted defeat.
But but and again but…!
While researching Philadelphia privy digging, I ran into metal detectors. Go figure, they’re both nuts for history and digging through trash. Anyway, a Facebook page on Metal Detecting in SE PA led me to rabid historian Jason Velykis, who kindly came out the following day to size up the grounds for a potential investigation of his own. He swung his machine around a few minutes, pulled up a 1981 quarter. A good omen, we agree: he’s in!
Jason will be coming out Tuesday with his most advanced equipment, to painstakingly canvas every inch of land outside Hohenadel house. The task involves setting the detector at different frequencies, then following a specific search pattern to uncover the targeted metal. A typical search involves multiple sweeps, removing each layer of refuse until eventually you’ve got every last scrap.
Most if not all of what Jason finds will be trash — and he’s fine with that. Even if the only thing he comes away with is that 1981 quarter, he’s still solved a mystery: What is in the lot? Nothing. Case closed, BAM! (now you see why I used the word “rabid” to describe his interest in history)
UPDATE: Rained Out Revelations
Oh bummer. Raining too hard today for Jason to do his thang. I kinda assumed when I saw the clouds that it’d be a bad day to be swinging an electrified metal rod around an open field but surprisingly, some metal detectors are waterproof for just such an activity. And Jason actually went back & forth on whether to come out or not. He made the right choice, I think, to reschedule.
Of course, he couldn’t just watch the rain while all that history sat here waiting for him — he got online and did some research of his own on the property, below.
Thanks, Jason — we might not be done with this privy thing yet! Stay tuned…