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Digging for Baker’s Premium Bitters bottles on Venable Street

May 21, 2014 6:30 am by

Submitted by Ann on Venable Street:

About a month ago I answered my front door to a stranger who immediately told me, before telling me anything else, “We’re not selling anything.” Tom, first to the door, is from Newport News; Chris from Baltimore; and Robert from northern Virginia and they are ‘privy diggers.’

On the back of their card, which is as big as a postcard, is the claim that they restore the yard to the way they found it “…or in some cases in improved condition.” In my case the yard was improved – they removed an old tree stump and I gained enough garden space for two more rows of vegetables.

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2239-41 Venable Street (mid-1930s)

Elijah Baker House / 2239-41 Venable Street (mid-1930s)

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Elijah Baker and his family were the first people to live in my house on Venable Street. From 1840 until the late 1890’s Elijah lived in and worked from home, making and selling “E. Baker’s Premium Bitters,” a “universal family medicine” with “Testimonials from well-known Richmond people” (the book Old Richmond Neighborhoods dates the house at 1850 but a date of 1837 is also recorded, substantiated by advertisements for the Premium Bitters as early as 1840).

Today Elijah couldn’t carry on his business in Union Hill without at least a ‘special use permit.’

Baker’s Bitters bottles are highly sought after by bottle collectors if the bottles are in good condition – sometimes bringing hundreds of dollars. Although Tom, Chris, and Robert have dug up several Bitters bottles in excellent condition, the only one they’ve uncovered in Richmond was from a privy on Clay Street near VCU; and they had to dig sixteen feet to get that one. The three hoped for Baker’s Bitters bottle from Elijah’s own house.

They began their search near the back end of the yard close to Burton Street where they located a promising site actually in the shed; but all they found were oyster shells…big oyster shells…bigger than any I’ve ever seen. The one I kept is about eight inches long and Chris described one that he had uncovered on a dig in Baltimore that’s nearly a foot long.

The site in my shed wasn’t what they were looking for: it was too small, too shallow, and didn’t have much of anything in it except the shells.

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dig 01

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They speculated that Burton Street might not have even existed when the Baker family moved to Venable Street; and that the Bakers probably wanted a privy closer to the house anyway – the far end of the yard where the shed is located is a long way to walk on a cold night.

So, since Tulip Street, or some form thereof probably existed when the house was built, the side of the yard near the street was a much more sensible location. So Tom and Chris and Robert moved into my vegetable garden and were almost immediately successful.

These three have been a digging team long enough to be able to determine, by sound and feel alone, whether or not the probe was into something interesting; and, of course, since the probe is hollow, what it brings up tells them even more. About two feet down, Chris found a brick wall that appeared not to have been mortared, typical of privies they said: privy walls were left un-mortared so that liquids could seep through them.

Tom, Chris, and Robert have a language all their own..no matter what came up, they commented immediately and knowledgeably: reverse painting on glass, types of glazes on pottery, and dates and stories behind the bottles, broken or otherwise.

But only one Bitters bottle came out of the hole and it was broken even though the hole they dug ended up being deep enough to bury Robert who’s barely visible in the picture below. And the brick wall turned out not to be a privy after all but most likely part of a summer kitchen…the mortar had simply disintegrated over time.

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dig 03

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When they were finished digging, filling, and cleaning up, I could hardly tell they’d been in my yard but there was proof in what was left behind for me. Here are just two of the unbroken finds. Anyone interested in having their yard experience this sort of thing, give Robert a call at the number on the card.

More information about the Bitters bottles can be found at Peachridge Glass (as well as a picture of Tom looking happier than he was at the end of the dig in my back yard).

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urban archealogy


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