Well/Privy Diggers Come to East Harlem to search for Vintage Trash!

…Mid-December we returned to East Harlem and realized the catalyzing Mansard structure sat on a double width lot. The side of the yard that once contained the privy was covered with old crumbly concrete and under that lay the filled-in basement of an early 1900s apartment house.A block away a row of circa 1860 houses awaits the most recent sprawl. During the late 1870s the homes along the length of Pleasant Avenue became part of the first Little Italy in New York City. All but forgotten today the area once contained the largest number of Italian and Sicilian immigrants in the city and is still home to the famous “Rao’s Restaurant” (frequented by movie stars, pop artists, writers and other noteworthy figures). Yet, running into someone of Italian birth living there today is as unlikely as locating an intact privy. While canvassing the area we met at least one person, a septuagenarian who had grown up in Italy. We probed in his garden for a privy and later learned that his house had not come into existence until the tenement explosion of the 1880s; long after indoor plumbing had become standard there.

Situated within earshot of traffic on the FDR Drive, running along the Harlem River just south of the Triborough Bridge, is a cul-de-sac one block from Pleasant Avenue. It retains a 19th century feel with its cobblestones and old homes. We connected with two artists walking a dog. Fey and Rio were not convinced at first about a dig claiming the potential to produce antique bottles but we mentioned cleaning up, and their eyes widened. There was a large above ground pool which had been drained and left standing, and, there was a good chance the entire house was coming down soon anyway. We agreed to help dismantle the pool and drag it out to the curb whether we found anything or not.

Pre-plumbing buildings in East Harlem.
Backyard without pool.
A sidewalk and concrete curb were laid over the privy and a small tree grew from the center. We decided to continue the excavation anyway, entering, exiting, and bucketing material from one tight corner. One wall was missing and the entire box was in shambles, disturbed by several large tree roots over the decades. Reaching the far side of the hole, about six feet back, was difficult due to the elfin space being navigated. While Rio, a photographer, documented the dig, the sun was setting and there were still three feet to go. A luminous quarter moon rose over the Harlem River, heading directly for the flickering skyline but we still needed more light. An extension cord and a droplight were rummaged from the basement.
Our first find after rigging the light was an early pharmacy bottle, Miller & Co. 245 Third Avenue COR. OF 20th Street NY from nearly one hundred blocks south of our location. Then, an R.R.R. Radway & Co. New York, a tan and white ginger beer, a whiskey bottle (Whitney Glass Works), two Dr Porter New York, a W. Ellis & Co. Phil and a darning egg.As the evening wore on the wind picked up and a winter storm saturated the sky, then more bottles began appearing. Despite the cold weather we were sweating and the formidable crisscrossing roots from earlier were now above us. Among the discoveries were a pontiled, gasoline-puce, B & P N.Y. LYONS POWDER, a pontiled, GUERNSEY’S BALM NEW YORK PATENT, an umbrella ink, three beers and numerous examples of generic pontiled medicine and utility bottles. Returning to fill in the hole we discovered a D. L. Ormsby beer bottle, a wine bottle and a six sided ointment jar that had eluded us the previous night.

A rectangular vault at night.
The odyssey involved seven different digs, and investigating a dozen other yards which turned out to be barren. The first with its abundance of opium vials through the most recent, a cistern made of stone, took place between October and February. This elusive period in Harlem’s history revealed many of the same bottles, wares and artifacts which have been discovered in middle-class neighborhoods around the five boroughs and elsewhere. In a blaze of activity we caught a unique glimpse of Harlem, then and now.

An assortment of mouth-blown bottles from Harlem privies, pontiled and smooth base examples, ranging from 1850s to 1875.


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