“I was helping out my brother. We were working on the furnace, and I could see a bottle up in the floor joists… It was from the Leisy Brewery in Peoria.” Curiosity piqued, he began to research the dusty old bottle, “and from there, it just went crazy…”
And that’s how Jim Searle became a digger.
In the mid-19th century, considered the golden age of collectible bottles, neither garbage collection nor indoor plumbing was common. Instead, trash was disposed of in the backyard privy—that’s right, the outhouse. Today, while the organic waste has long since returned to the earth—and with it, the “eww” factor—durable objects like glass bottles and pottery remain relatively intact. And that’s how a bottle collector becomes a digger. But in 2012, with few privies still standing, how does one know where to dig?
“This gives you an idea,” Searle says, unfolding a detailed map of Pekin dating to 1873. “It shows the buildings on each lot, and you can get an idea of where they were… The older you go back, the privy was usually closer to the house. Later, both Peoria and Pekin started putting them in a line out by the alley.”
Using old maps, city directories and other historical documents to guide him, Searle has found treasure in privies all over central Illinois. Besides older homes, the former sites of churches and saloons make good sites for digging, he says. It’s not unlike a geological excavation, the layers revealing reverse-chronological stories of the families who once resided there: the products they used, their financial and social statuses, the ailments they suffered, their drinks of choice. “It’s amazing what you’ll find in a privy.”
After securing permission to dig, he explains, “you find where you think the hole is and test the ground to see what it feels like.” This is done with a probe—typically a long steel drill rod. “You can feel the difference in the soil. When you hit a spot that’s been disturbed, then you dig…
“If you don’t hit anything, you can get a longer probe and go down six or eight feet,” he adds. “You’ll finally feel stuff down there. Sometimes you can even hear [a bottle] break, if you hit one.” Other times, you might hit a block of lime—once used to control the odor—which is “hard as a rock. If you suspect that’s what it is, you take a hammer and beat the probe through it. If it falls through pretty quick, you know there’s a privy below.”
After digging, the site is restored to its original condition. “We always make sure the ground won’t sink in—that it has plenty of dirt—and we’ll sow grass seed and put the sod back,” he says.
Due to the variety of shapes and colors, unique embossing, and historical significance, antique bottles have long been desired by collectors, who tend to concentrate on specific types—whiskey or beer, milk or medicine—and often, a particular region, brand or company. “I specialize in Peoria beers and whiskeys,” says Searle, “but I also have a heckuva drugstore bottle collection from Pekin.”
A member of the Pekin Bottle Collectors Association since its 1970 inception, Searle chairs the group’s collectibles show, held every September. The club has also published several books cataloging the details of bottles and glasses produced in the Peoria area in its 19th-century heyday.
Though he hasn’t dug a site for several years, Searle has been a collector for decades. He has more than 1,000 antique bottles in his home—and each one tells a story. “The history of it,” he remarks, “is what makes it so great to me.” a&s