Miller Student Lamp
Reference Desk Lamp Information Other Resources On-Line Shopping

The Lampworks LOGO
Purveyors of Antique Lighting and Accessories
435 Main Street  ~  Hurleyville, New York 12747

    >  Home
    >  About Us
    >  Contact Us
    >  Site Map

-------------------------- outĚhouse -
1. A small, enclosed structure having one or two holes in a seat built over a pit and serving as an outdoor toilet.
2. An outbuilding, as on a farm.
-------------------------- privĚy -
1. A necessary house or place; a backhouse.

dug burner
Remains of a privy-
dug prong burner by
Manhattan Brass Co.?
    privy-dug kerosene lamps     
The Outhouse Connection

Outhouse, Robert AuBuchon The Outhouse or Privy [click here to enlarge]
Photograph courtesy of Robert AuBuchon

As a young boy growing up during the 1960's in rural north-western Pennsylvania, I have vivid memories of these icons from the past - the outhouse. All of my paternal grand- and great-grandparents lived in the country. My grandma Mary Edminster lived on a farm in Cambridge Springs. Although she had running water and indoor plumbing, the outhouse, just off the beaten path down the hill toward the stream and barn, was still used well into my teenage years. Just up the dirt road and over the hill lived my great-grandparents, the Hutsons. They did not have the modern conveniences. I recall a hand pump at the kitchen sink and one out in the front yard for water and the proverbial outhouse for, well, you know. My great-grandma Mittie Marrie Hutson made the absolute best dinner rolls - the kind with three lobes that looks like a baker's hat - but that's another story. My great grandma and grandpa, Sadie and Dale Edminster, did have the full compliment of indoor amenities, but we still used the outhouse at the end of the driveway, between the house and the barn, as long as I can recall visiting them at that location.

A Primer on Privies...
"The location was usually determined by the easiest digging spot and how fast you needed to get there. Old-timers would line the hole with a wooden crib to keep the sides from caving in. Later stones, brick and hydraulic cement were employed to keep the hole intact and in some required locations, provide a water-tight seal, hence the term "privy vault" found in municipal ordinances. Besides the standard bench with one or more holes, a trough or funnel may have been attached to one side, directing liquid wastes to the hole below. To add a touch of class, a toilet seat may have been installed. Nothing quite like a little sliver in the right place to get your attention."1
-- Mike Reilly

By now, many of you are probably wondering what a dissertation on outhouses is doing on this lighting web site. Well, it's this - a common item recovered by bottle diggers from privy digs are the remains of oil lamps. That's right, lamps in the outhouse pit. It turns out that privy pits are a potential bonanza for diggers. Bottles, jars and other artifacts are common,
A nice privy dug fount and base, Ellipse Band and Fine Rib pattern on the fount, circa late 1860's or early 1870's
Photo: Mike Cothern

but it was the lamp connection that piqued my interest. And when you think about it, it just makes perfect sense. Many trips to the privy were made after nightfall, the occupant often guided through the darkness by the flickering glow of a hand lamp or lantern. In all but rare cases, it was likely accidental that a lamp ended up in the pit - carelessly knocked off the wooden seat or shelf and sent tumbling through the hole to its murky grave. I'm sure many were abandoned then and there, without any further debate, rather than be retrieved from that dismal fate! The above lamp, dug by Mike Cothern, was recovered from a brick lined privy that had bottles in it dating back to the mid-1860's. (Read Mike's story below.) There is no significant damage to this lamp except a small flake on the base, which would indicate its accidental demise. Unless the connector was broken, there would be no reason to discard it. Most of the connector had been eaten away over the years, but a small amount does remain attached to the base. Displayed as-is or restored, this lamp would certainly make for interesting conversation.

The Thrill of the Hunt...
About 3 weeks ago we started probing for a privy or well on a lot that used to have a big old two story house on it. We'd been looking at this old house for years. We could tell that at one time these people had money. Anyway, we finally had our chance. We probed and probed. We finally hit a good spot. It was evening time so we decided to dig a test hole to make sure that it was what we were hoping it was. We dug into it and the dirt was solid black on the top. We went about 2-1/2 feet down and found a round brick lining. Boy was our blood pumping! We just knew we were going to get some good bottles and no telling what else. We filled it back in to be ready for us the next morning. We arrived the next morning after our restless night of anticipation and immediately got our shovels out and hurried to the spot. We started digging and kept digging. Finally after about six feet down we started hitting glass. We wanted to find at least broken pieces so that we could determine the age of this privy. We picked up a couple of pieces and right away we knew we were in an 1860's privy! One of the broken bottles that came up was a very good flask from Nashville. Well, we went down about three more feet digging some whole unembossed bottles, but nothing fantastic like we thought it should have been. Then in the next couple of feet (about ten or eleven feet down) we were digging Drakes Bitters, Pig Bitters, and other great broken pieces. My partner got in the hole and he pulled up a golf ball sized swirl marble, an 1845 large cent, and then he shouted up and said that he had an oil lamp. I asked "Is it whole?" He said "No, but let me see if I can find the rest of it." After about ten more minutes of digging he shouted up again "I got the kerosene holder." I said "Alright!" He put it in the bucket and I pulled it up and we put it in the front seat of the truck. We kept on digging down to around thirteen feet, but we didn't do as great as we thought that we would. We filled our hole back in and came back the next day to search for the next great hole.
-- Mike Cothern

Privy-dug Oil Lamps A clear finger lamp in the Diamond Sunburst pattern and a cobalt NUTMEG night lamp.

Pictured to the left are two finger lamps from upstate New York that were dug from old outhouse pits. They are both missing their handles, neither of which was located with their respective fount. The blue lamp shows significant staining and some substantial scratches and its collar is missing, the other collar is still quite usable. The fact that the rest of the lamp was not recovered raises the question of how often these pits were just used for incidental trash. Perhaps we'll never know.

Outhouses and the Historical Record...
"When a privy was used, and never disturbed, it is a chronological record. The ground surface is the present. The bottom is the date it went into use. As it is excavated. each layer represents a time period. I have dug privies that represented a fifty year time frame. Obviously they were very deep. Bottles, and artifacts clearly, according to layer at each depth were in chronological order. It is like reading a book. You can tell a lot about the users. According to the products they used, how they fared financially. Whether they imbibed or not. What ailments they suffered...medicine bottles."2
-- Charles M. Cook

The two TRIUMPH lamp burners shown here were found buried in a trash pit in an early 1800's farmhouse in southwestern Pennsylvania. The foundation of the house was stacked stone (no mortar) and was deteriorating. The owner unearthed the indoor trash pit when he was excavating around the foundation to make repairs. The pit was three to four feet in diameter and nearly six feet deep.
Trash pit burners A pair of TRIUMPH burners from Benedict & Burnham Mfg. Co. from a cellar trash pit

While most of the discernible contents were bottles, fruit jars and similar glass items from the late 1800's, there were also a number of tools, hardware and implements recovered. I was fortunate to have been entrusted with these burners by the owner. These burners are in relatively good shape except for the deflectors which are badly deteriorated on the one side. These were patented in 1878 and manufactured by the Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Company. One wonders if this damage was the result of being buried in damp earth for many years, or if the damage occurred through use, and were ultimately discarded. If the reason was the latter, it must have been the thin metal of the deflector that burned through with use - a certain flaw in the production process, otherwise there would have been no logical reason to throw them away.

Digging around old outhouses and privy pits is not the ideal Saturday or Sunday afternoon for everyone. To coin an old phrase, "Is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!" As long as there are bottle diggers and unexcavated outhouse sites, I'm certain that more old lamps will once again see the light of day.

End Notes & References
  • 1 Mike Reilly, The World & Milwaukee Early Sanitation History - Outhouses, Privies, Scavengers & Sewers, April 7, 2003,
    < >

  • 2 Charles M. Cooke, The Outhouses of America Tour, April 16, 2004
    < >

  • A personal "Thank you" to Robert AuBuchon for permission to use his photograph, and to Mike Cothern for sharing his account of the dig and for the lamp photograph.

^ Top of Page


Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions of Use | Announcements

Copyright © 2001-2011 ~ Daniel Edminster | The Lampworks ~ All Rights Reserved