In Philadelphia, history can be found around every corner. But a group of friends who call themselves The Privy Diggers have been finding it 20- to 30-feet underground.
The Privy Diggers consist mainly of Michael Frechette and Tom Salvitor, as well as some other friends who will occasionally join them in an abandoned privy on any given weekend, searching for bottles, pottery, and whatever else is buried.
“There are tens-of-thousands of privies here, so there is no shortage of information on 1770 to 1880 Philadelphia through material culture,” Frechette said.
Before public sewers and trash collection services, most homes came with a privy, an outhouse over a large pit in the backyard, often used as a bathroom and for trash disposal. These pits could be as much as 40-feet deep and were lined with brick but no mortar, so water could seep through.
Once public sewer systems were introduced in the late 19th century, homeowners started filling up these privies. Now, The Privy Diggers are excavating these holes to see what parts of history may have been thrown out with the trash.
The diggers show up to most sites prepared to, well, dig.
“You carry a probe, a long shovel, and a short shovel,” Salivator said. “That’s the typical loadout.”
They use shovels to dig and a tripod with a pulley on top of the hole so they can fill up the buckets of dirt and hoist them up to the surface as they dig. Once they get deep enough, they reach what Salvitor calls the artifact layer, where most of the salvageable, historic material may be located.
Then they put the long contractor-grade shovels aside and start using smaller garden-style shovels to dig out the artifacts carefully so they do not damage them. Salvitor sometimes even uses a butter knife when he gets to the artifact layer.
Artifacts are not the only objects they are digging through at the bottom layer of a privy. The nature of their hobby begs a natural question. So, yes. They are also digging through very old poop.
“It’s pretty disgusting, but it’s 150- to 200-years old,” Salvitor said. “It’s got a weird smell that’s different than the stuff you smell in the bathroom.”
But it is all worth it to them when they start to uncover items they can add to their collection or sell online. Frechette has sold literal truckloads of old bottles to collectors online because he ran out of space on his property to keep them. Some of the bottles can be worth upward of thousands of dollars, he said.
Frechette has several relationships with archaeologists whom he has given items that hold historical value. As historic parts of the city gentrify and new construction occurs, Frechette is aware this history can be easily lost.
“If we don’t take it, these items will end up in a dumpster,” Frechette said. “That’s what the construction workers will do.”
Frechette has been digging up privies for around six years. He started one day when he was walking his dog with his son and they stumbled upon someone digging in a privy at a construction site. They ended up talking and after they saw the old pottery and bottles the digger uncovered, they were hooked. Soon after he started a group with his friend, Salvitor, who has been digging since 1993.
They find most of their sites by going on Philageohistory.org to see when certain areas of the city were built. If a site is not on the 1862 map, they don’t bother with it.
“Ideally, what happens is these privies were filled up and then they stopped using it, that’s the dream,” Frechette said. “But what often happens is they were emptied out a hundred years ago and filled.”
Salvitor started digging in Baltimore, where he currently lives. He would use a metal detector to search for buried treasures and trinkets and kept stumbling upon privies. At first, he did not know what they were. But then he dug one out and found old bottles.
Since then, he digs every spare minute he has. He used to dig almost every day and it got to the point where he was going through multiple shovels a year, he said
“It’s a great workout, but over time it takes a toll on your body,” Salvitor said.
One of the older items Salvitor looks for is black glass, which are crude whiskey bottles from the early 1800s. Frechette looks for redware, a kind of low-fire ceramics made in America that became very popular during colonial times when the British cut off trade in the Americas with the rest of Europe.
“You find things that have a personal touch to them,” Frechette said.
For instance, he once found an old jar lid from 1850 that had anti-immigration writing, warning against Catholics. It was an artifact from the Know Nothing Party, a precursor to contemporary, Make America Great Again-style anti-immigration sentiment.
The Privy Diggers are not the only ones who are digging out privies looking for treasures. Frechette said that, right now, there are around half a dozen crews doing the same thing. While The Privy Diggers dig to collect, Frechette said some of these crews dig as their occupation, and can get territorial over certain areas in Philadelphia.
“It can get pretty competitive out there,” he said. “Privy digging does not attract the best of us.”
Abandoned properties and construction sites are prime spots for privy digging, tempting some diggers to trespass. Some crews have bad habits like lying to homeowners, damaging construction sites, or leaving the holes empty, Salvitor said.
“I have seen grown men get into fist fights over antique bottles before,” Frechette said.
Frechette said one of the things that separates The Privy Diggers from the other groups is that they have a following on Facebook, so they have been getting requests from owners to come and dig out the privies on their properties.
“We get permissions on a regular basis now,” Salvitor said.
According to Salvitor, many younger homeowners in Philadelphia are very open to digging out privies to see what they could find. He and Frechette make sure to lay out tarps around the privy so that they don’t damage the homeowner’s yard.
“We typically like to give stuff to the homeowner,” Frechette said. “Sometimes they want the first pick out of the stuff you found.”
Recently, Jay Stuart, an old friend of Frechette, reached out to him to dig out a privy on his new property in South Philadelphia at 9th and Reed streets. Many houses in South Philadelphia still have outhouses with a cast iron toilet connected to the lateral privy.
When Stuart renovated his current home, he found several items stored in his walls such as trash, alcohol bottles, and extract bottles. He even put in a time capsule between the floors so that the next generation can experience uncovering something left behind from the past.
One of the best parts about uncovering these items is learning something new, Stuart said. For instance, a person may find a lot of beer and seltzer bottles from colonial times because the beer was actually safer to drink than the water, he said.
“I want to see what was left in there from past generations,” Stuart said. “As a Philadelphian, it’s our shared past, it’s owned by prior generations and future generations.”
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