Alexandria, VA – Alexandria’s rich history is well known but there is even more to discover, thanks to the privy digging efforts of Tom Levielle and his friends. Since 2011, Levielle has investigated over 500 privies in the area, sharing his recoveries with homeowners and fans online.
Privy digging consists of locating and exploring the contents of defunct outhouse vaults. While that might give people pause, after a hundred years or so, it’s just dirt. The reason for privy digging is to salvage antique bottles and common household artifacts from the past.
Tom’s interest in privy digging started simply enough. “I used to go prospecting in Northern Virginia and while panning one day I found a really old bottle,” he says. “I took it home and looked it up. It was a beer bottle local to Washington, D.C., and had a little picture of a fox on it. It was very interesting.”
His interest quickly grew. “My dad told me about this fishing spot he had, and to get there he had to walk past a bank that had a whole bunch of old glass just sticking out. One day we went out there with shovels and that was it. I fell in love. The natural progression from just getting into it was that then we would dig around in the woods and wherever we could, and that turned into knocking on folks’ doors to get permission to look through the old privies.”
Alexandria is a natural venue for exploring backyard privies. Tom says, “In Virginia, if a house was typically in a city setting and older than 1915, spanning back into the 1700s, they would have had outdoor plumbing, and because the City didn’t have regulated trash pick-up, the privy became the trash can too.”
About first digging in Alexandria, Tom says, “It was in 2012, behind a Captain’s house on Queen Street. We dug a 6-foot round, 24-foot deep brick lime structure that had artifacts dating from 1915 back to 1830. Hundreds of bottles, ceramic, porcelain, anything not organic would still be there. Toothbrushes, things children would play with, bottles, ceramics, all went in there whole or we found enough pieces that we were able to glue them back together.”
Tom’s favorite found item, he says, “was a bottle in Alexandria that had the name of the soda bottler on one side and a shield and eagle on the other.”
How do Tom and friends go about privy digging? After getting permission from the homeowner, the real work begins. “We use an instrument called a probe,” he says, “which is a spring steel rod, to locate where (the privies) are and then we lay out our tarps and trash cans.”
Then the digging begins. “We hope that when we look in them that there would be a layer of artifacts that didn’t get cleaned out. Sometimes they are empty and sometimes they have stuff in them.”
After the job is complete, they restore everything to the way it was before or even better. “A lot of times (abandoned privies) cause the backyard area to sink, and we’re able to fix that. We fill it in, cap with concrete, and it no longer sinks for the homeowner.”
The treasures privies hold tell stories of how life was back in past times, stories not found in history books. “You find out where they got their soda, medicines for kids, what butcher shops they shopped at. When you pull this stuff out of the ground and clean it up, you see where they bought a bottle or even their dishes and silverware. It’s all in the privies.
“When you’re digging in Alexandria,” he adds, “it’s solving a mystery. And every house in Old Town has one of these in their backyard that we can explore. For the love of history and for fun.”
If you’re interested in finding out what type of history is in your backyard, contact [email protected] or 757-508-6985.