Cache Digging

By Digger Odell
©2000 Digger Odell Publications


I think we broke our own record with this hole. Lined up on the garage floor were over 100 pontil bottles dug from a single privy. It was not a large hole, only about five feet deep and at most 3 x 4’ in size. Not big, but it was packed. It was an example of what I call cache digging because out the 100 hundred bottles 80 of them were all the same, unembossed pontiled puffs. Almost identical in size but with great variety and individual character.

I expect lots of other diggers have had similar digging experiences. Back in my dump digging days, we were digging a local town dump. In this one area of the dump we kept finding amber coke bottles. I can still vividly remember dragging home a sack of bottles with seventeen whole amber cokes There was an equal number of broken ones left in the dump.

A few years later, we were digging on a hillside dump in the same small town. Most of what we were finding were 1870-1890 bottles, except for this one area of the dump site where we uncovered what must have been a case of pontiled umbrella inks. Clearly all tossed out at the same time. Maybe someone was cleaning out the basement or backroom. Of the twenty-four or so inks about 15 were whole and undamaged. They must have been sitting around for a number of years before someone decided to pitch them because all of the bottle around them were newer.

One privy we dug contained about 35-40 redware blacking bottles. The privy was behind a business and they had thrown out a great number of these pottery bottles. There were many more broken than we found whole. I can still picture the bottle layer of the hole as having a dark black layer, which was probably blacking from the broken containers. Under than layer was a layer of broken pontiled unembossed rectangular medicine type bottles. Hundreds of them and every last one was broken. The glass was almost to thick to get a shovel or rake through. Two caches in one hole. Maybe when the business changed hands, new owners dumped old stock or perhaps some natural disaster and man-made catastrophe ruined the goods.

My first real initiation into the pleasures of privy digging was a summer I spent digging with Don D., one of well-known Cleveland digging gang. Don and I were digging in Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie was a popular vacation spot around the turn of the century. A number of the homes in some of the neighborhoods were converted to year-round homes from summer cottages. We were digging behind one such house. The privy we dug was about seven to eight feet deep. Almost immediately upon putting our shovels into the ground, we hit glass, bottles, lots of bottles. The hole had virtually been filled in with blob top beer bottles. I tell you that by the day’s end, Consumer Brewing Beer bottles from Erie were common. As I remember, we each took home about 40-50 of them and refilled the hole with as many broken one as we took out. No mystery there.

I have heard other diggers talk about caches too. More than once when swapping digging stories I hear the phrase, "There must have been a hundred of them in that hole broken." One cache that sticks in my memory is a digger’s story about a cache of opium bottles. No mystery there either.

Not all bottles caches are dug either. Bottle caches have been found in many basements of homes and businesses. Drugstore caches for those luckily enough to find them can consist of hundreds of bottles. I was luckily enough many years ago to stumble upon one such cache in a town I had lived in for many years. I was approached by the present owner of the drugstore who said that downtown in the basement of another building he owned was the old stock from the drugstore. It had been a family business, handed down for many years and owner after owner had left unsold or unwanted stock which piled up to the point that the present owner wanted to get rid of it. When I went down in the basement, I found a shelf built into the wall that was lined with very dusty amber and green pharmacy bottles all with labels and many with contents. All told there over four hundred pharmacy bottles in this cache.

Caches of pontiled medicines have been found over the years. Dr. Pinkham’s Emmagogue is an attractive pontil medicine bottle occasionally still found in the pages of GlassWorks Auctions. The story I heard, was that they were all found in southern Ohio. I can remember when they first began showing up at bottle shows. Every one was bright without stain. A few had lip damage. None had contents or labels. I would estimate that about 40-60 of these were found. To my knowledge, no one has ever dug a whole or a damaged specimen of these bottles. Nor, in the course of my research, have I ever found any advertising for this bottle. I can only speculate that they were found at the site of the original manufacturer and that the brand for some reason they were never filled or used.

I have two other pontil medicines in my collection that I am fairly certain came from bottle cache as I have seen numbers of identical ones for sale over the years. One is a Hurd’s Cough Balsam with full label. One sold in the Sam Greer Collection identical to mine and I have seen several others which lead me to believe someone cached in (you know I was going to do that sooner or later). I also have a Bonpland’s Fever & Ague Remedy with a label, which I purchased from a fellow years ago who had about five just like it.

Caches have a way of being dispersed to the point that the items might even seem rare. Back in the 1970s when Bill Agee had written two books on "cure" bottles everyone was looking for "cures." One little cure bottle that was very scarce at that time was a bottle embossed "Arctic Frost Bite Cure". It is a cure little bottle measuring less than 2" tall. We some found a cache of them. They found them with labels and contents and incredibly still in their cardboard counter display holders. Each holder was delightful decorated, with a polar bear I believe, and a dozen of these cure bottles in their original boxes sealed with a proprietary medicine tax stamp. I bought two dozen (2 displays) myself. I kept pumping Roger, who seem to have an unlimited supply about where they had been found and how many. He never told me the whole story, but he said there was a trailer full, over 700 dozen bottles. Well, twenty years later and hundreds of shows I have not seen more that one or two individual bottles. They just disappeared.

Bill Agee listed another bottle in one of his books. An amber Hermanus Cure. The description had been given to Bill by diggers who had found shards. The shards they found were the leftovers from a cache earlier diggers had happened on. Nearly all of the known Hermanus cure bottles known came from this one dig.

Over the years various stories have appeared about digging caches. Amber Hawaiian sodas were nearly unique until a cache was found in a big downtown dig. Virginia diggers unearthed more than 6 dozen Rhodes Fever and Ague Cure bottles from a Civil War era dig site. It is believed that nearly all of the Clemens Indian Tonic bottles with labels came from a single source. I know that if you talk to anyone who has been in the bottle business for any length of time, they too can probably tell a few cache stories of their own.

This last hole we dug 100 unembossed puff from had a couple of other pleasant surprises. We also found several smaller caches of other types of bottles. We found five whole Wistars Balsam of Wild Cherry and five Lyon’s Kathairon bottles. But the best of the group was a small cache of five pontiled Jacob & Brown Balsam of Rhubarb bottles, one of which was a nice apple green.

In this hole we dug five whole Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherry, Five Lyon's Kathairon for the Hair and Four Jacob's Balsam of Rhubarb bottles.  Numerous other examples of each were found, but were broken.

Bottle caches are fairly common based on my digging experience. It makes sense too. I know my own buying habits. I tend to buy the same products week after week. I am fairly certain some future would-be archaeologist digging in a landfill would be delighted to find one of my discarded plastic garbage bags unspoiled. Inside he might be just as delighted to find a cache of unrecycled Dr. Pepper cans, along a with a cache of unopened credit card offers. With that, I’d say I had about reached my cache limit. Good Digging.