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The Privy Dig at the Imboden House

The Hummelstown Area Historical Society was founded in 1971 as a non-profit organization with a mission to preserve the heritage about the Hummelstown area and to educate people about its local history.   The Society owns a 1815 stone structure which houses its museum collection and sits on land originally deeded by Frederick Hummel to the Lutheran Church.  


The Society also owns two structures on Main Street which were purchased for an office and library and so that it would have a presence on Main Street.  The 1908 History House at 32 West Main Street was built on a lot comprised of all of Lot Number 25 and park of Lot Number 24 in the original plan of Hummelstown. The Imboden House at 28 West Main Street was originally the  home and store of beloved Alberta Imboden and her family.  The house occupies a lot which was part of the Hummel survey of the town in 1762.


Noted archeologist Maurice Gaiski and colleagues approached the President of the Society about the possibility of privy digging on the two properties, it is doubtful that there was a privy on the property.   If there was one, the yard had been so changed, that it would be impossible to detect where it was situated.


Wade Seibert, a Society Member, was able to check old photographs of the backyard of the Imboden House, which showed a large barn, garden, clothes line, and a privy.    Based on the photographs, preliminary probing of the earth and the way the earth was recessed in the area where the outhouse was thought to be located, Gaiski surmised that there were several outhouses located on the property.   Based on this assessment and the reputation of the diggers, the Historical Society’s Board gave permission for the dig to proceed.


The location of the first dig was a privy hole closest to the house.  The digging was done by Maurice Gaiski and Doug Reed.   The topsoil was removed and a privy hole was uncovered at the suspected site.  The hole measured 2 feet wide, 4 feet in length and 5 feet deep.  It was lined with field stone (the bottom 3 feet) and brick (the top 2 feet).  The privy had alternating layers of soil and  ashes from a stove, fireplace or furnace.   The primary finds at this site were pint flasks as well as other bottles, several light bulbs with blown glass, small perfume bottles, broken pieces of Laughlin china and green Mason jars, and several cat’s eye  marbles.


For the most part, the condition of the bottles was very good – most were intact.   The flasks were molded bottles with tops added.  This method of bottle construction suggests the bottles were made prior to 1910 and thus were discarded prior to that time as well.   This site was located as corresponding to photographs of the property’s backyard which showed an outhouse had occupied that general area.   The Society has a photograph of an Imboden standing in front of the privy on a wooden sidewalk.  This also suggests that the privy was not a permanent one.  

The Dig on April 6, 2013

Privy #1

The location of the second dig was a privy hole  about 2 feet  north of the first site, and also along the property line.   This time, the foundation was constructed entirely of brick (the model of construction was new to the privy diggers).   The unearthed hole featured alternating layers of ash and dirt.  The measurement was 2 feet wide, four feet long and 4 feet deep.  The brick on the top 18 inches as well as the front wall of the foundation was missing, and the side walls were buckled.  This site yielded a large and equally interesting collection of artifacts.  They included medical bottles of at least 8 sizes, broken lamp globes, milk glass ointment jars, a gold watch, a razor, a toothbrush, comb and several hair pins.   The way the bottles were constructed suggests that this site was occupied after 1910.


Some of the jars were marked with names of Philadelphia pharmaceutical companies, are others are known as remedy bottles or  Philadelphia “ovals”.  Homeopathic glass vials as well as early menthol inhalers made of glass were also found.  Several small bottles had their original glass applicator included.


At this site, a considerable mound of oyster shells was uncovered as well.   This should not be surprising since oysters were a popular menu item for diners at this time period as evidenced by recipes features in the Baer’s Almanac published during this period.  The Society owns a picture of a building which is five properties away from the Imboden property.  The picture shows signage which advertises this business was not only a barber shop, lunch room, and gas station, but also a purveyor of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and oysters.  The picture is dated 1914 which corresponds to the approximate time this privy was being used.

Privy #2

As an additional effort to the privy dig, Larry Gaiski used metal detectors on both the Imboden backyard and the adjoining History House backyard.   He found a locket inscribed Sister AM, a religious medallion, a metal toy horse, another gold watch, and a pin.  Lead pieces, perhaps from the drain pipes of former barns at the rear of both properties, were also found.  Coins which were unearthed included a 1939 British farthing and United States coins that included a quarter, a dime, and many wheat and Lincoln pennies.

The Yard

The dig continued at two additional sites which, due to their proximity to the other sites, suggested they were privy sites as well.  They proved to be a single ash pit. The ash pit was approximately 4 feet by   feet and had a depth that ranged from 2 feet to 4 feet.    Ashes were common in old homesteads and came from burning coal in the furnaces and coal stoves.    To prepare an ash pit, the top soil in an area was dug up and placed in the garden area.  The hole was replaced with ashes, and then covered with some ground.   The team carefully sifted the ashes and dirt in this area.   More bottles and jars similar to those found at the second privy site were discovered.  This suggests that the ash pit was probably operational at the same time as the privy site.    Several jars with wide lids were located at this site – and these appear to have held hair care products or cold creams.

The Dig on April 7, 2013

The artifacts which were dug up will be an interesting addition to the Society’s collection of photographs, furniture and kitchen items, and store items associated with the property.    They are inventoried and added as a new display at the History House.  

Display of the Relics