In search of history, York man excavates old privy

John A. Pavoncello
York Dispatch

Local glass blower Harry Smith knows a thing or two about privies. The 44-year-old York City business owner has been excavating them for years.

Privies, better known locally as outhouses, have long been a place to deposit more than just human waste. And digging up an old one can lead to discovering valued bottles, pottery and more. 

"There should be artifacts down about 3½ or 4 feet," Smith said recently during the first day of a York City dig. 

Before the start of modern trash collection, many people used their privy as a garbage disposal. Glass bottles, pottery and other nonbiodegradable things often went into the hole in the outhouse. 

"I've found Civil War-era bullets, intact type for a printing machine. I've found all kinds of neat stuff," Smith said when describing previous digs.

But Smith's real goal is unearthing old glass. He not only collects interesting glass bottles but also uses broken pieces for art and jewelry projects.

This privy was located by Smith in a courtyard behind Kaletta's boutique on North Beaver Street. The courtyard will soon be covered over with pavers and landscaping.

With a large blue canopy covering the dig site, and his beloved yellow lab, Ralph, lying nearby in the shade, Smith started with a small test hole, about 2 feet by 2 feet. 

Local glass blower and privy excavator Harry Smith digs out a possible mid-1800's privy behind Kaletta's on N. Beaver Street, Wednesday, July 7, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

The privy is the second Smith has excavated at the site. The previous excavation, about 5 feet away, ended up containing considerable amounts of leftover building material from Central Market, which was constructed in 1888.

"There were layers of sandstone from the window sills, there's brick that they had left over that they broke up," Smith said.

Smith started digging for artifacts as a kid and has unearthed at least 19 privies over the years. 

Several days into the dig, Smith showed off a wine bottle, probably from the late 19th century, with a turned top in near perfect condition.

"There are no chips, no nips, no anything. I'm pretty happy with it," he said. 

This privy is special because it is the first fully brick-lined one Smith has come across, he said. Smith believes the privy would have been in use during the 19th century and covered in the early 1900s as sewer systems became widespread throughout York City.

"Whoever lived here probably got plumbing about 1910 to 1915 or so," he said.

The dig ended up taking a lot longer and going a lot deeper than he expected.

"It's been time consuming because I keep (discovering) different layers of artifacts," Smith said.

About a foot above the 9-foot mark, where he expected to find the pit's bottom, Smith said he believes he may still find some older items.

"Any dig is always a great experience as far as getting to the bottom of whatever site you are at, to extract artifacts without destroying them," Smith said, "I'm so very, very happy with it, but I'm very tired, ready to fill in the hole and get back to glass blowing."