Alexandria, VA – Have you ever noticed a circular, caved-in spot on the street, in a driveway, or a back alley in Old Town? That was once a privy. Residents used to use privies as outdoor toilets. Privies became obsolete when indoor plumbing was developed. Residents began using them as makeshift garbage chutes, using anything they could to fill them up, from glass bottles to milk bottles to leather boots to toys to everyday items and rare finds.
One local man is making it his mission to excavate these privies and repurpose these everyday treasures from Alexandria’s past. When Tom Leveille started Virginia Bottles 10 years ago, it was a hobby requiring time commitment and much travel. “I used to drive three hours both ways from Newport News just to knock on people’s doors,” he says. “I loved it so much, I could not get enough of it.”
In fall 2011, a friend directed him to knock on some doors in Old Town Alexandria, given its bountiful history. “The first one we did at 635 Queen St. had so much stuff in it, and I fell in love instantly. Then we got a tight-knit group of guys and have been going steady ever since.”
The first Old Town privy Leveille excavated was 6 ft across and 24 ft deep and had 1,000 intact bottles inside. “It was really cool,” says Leveille, “and it is really a labor of love. When the stuff is coming out [of the ground], and the homeowner is interested, neighbors say hi, and we all have a good time, you’d never know we are doing hard work out here.”
The privies that Virginia Bottles excavates are anywhere from 12ft to as much as 35ft deep. Leveille’s most recent excavation was a 32ft privy at a property on N. Alfred St. in Old Town North.
“We discovered this a few years ago when we had a rainy season,” says Alan Bondzio, owner of the N. Alfred St. property. “That started to subside, and we have two dogs who always wanted to go over by this new hole. Then I called archeologists a couple of years ago, who were documenting these all around old town.”
Bondzio’s house was built in the 1880s as a house for freed slaves. The dividing line between Old Town and what used to be known as Uptown, the area designated for freedmen, was the alley behind Bondzio’s house. In so historic a home, it made that sense that a privy was there, but he and his husband Jesus Chevere never knew where until the ground began to sink in their others’ yards around Old Town.
When Bondzio heard of Virginia Bottles, he immediately reached out to them. When Tom excavates a privy, he first probes the ground to find its precise location. Then his team begins digging. Once they’ve dug far enough, a team member climbs into the hole and rigs a pulley system to deliver the buckets of dirt, bottle, debris, and possible treasures.
Alan’s privy gave up a pair of leather boots, a clay pot lid, and about 1,000 fully intact bottles. Alan kept a few, but Tom takes the bulk of his finds to restore and repurpose. “It is amazing to see some of the stuff they just dug out. These guys are working hard for it, so I’ll take a couple of souvenirs, but it is their stuff,” says Bondzio.
One find from this dig was a Starboy soda bottle—a Pepsi affiliate—from the 1920s. Privies often have various items from different eras in them because they were sometimes cleaned out and filled back up.
After the treasures are rescued, Virginia Bottles refills each hole with pure dirt and covers it with a concrete solution to ensure its safety.
The N. Alfred St. privy makes 50 digs in Alexandria for Virginia Bottles, but Tom’s dig total is closer to 500 along the entire East Coast. “They are little tiny snapshots of history,” he says. “To know someone in this house drank that milk in 1930—you can’t make a living from it, but I’d rather do this than anything.”
If you have a privy you’d like excavated, you can message Virginia Bottles online at www.instagram.com/virginiabottles/.