St. Louis Post Dispatch
'Privy digger' works
to uncover history

News Article


     About JIM

My Eccentric HOBBIES,

I once won an award for having the most unusual hobby. My idea of a good time is to go to one of the worst neighborhoods in downtown St. Louis and dig a 10' deep hole in the middle of a parking lot. Now comes the strange part. This hole is in the middle of a 19th century outhouse.

In 1850, St. Louis had neighborhoods full of row houses that looked like Soulard does today. The inhabitants of the neighborhoods had their bathrooms located in the backyards. Most people have seen pictures of outhouses in books and may have used one at campgrounds.

Today in downtown, under parking lots and buildings, are the long since filled in vaults that were under the outhouses. These vaults were 6-20' deep. The average outhouse hole is 6' long, 4' wide and 8' deep.

Around the end of the civil war indoor plumbing was introduced. As water service and sewers were built outhouse use started to decline. When people stopped using outhouses they filled in the big deep holes in their yards. Some of the poorer people refused to hook up to the modern facilities until a law was passed near the end of World War II. You are probably conjuring up images of how much fun it would be to dig one of these to the bottom. However, there is some method to my madness.

Outhouses were filled in with trash of the day. The soil near the top of the holes dates to when the hole was filled in. The bottom or lowest level is the age of the home that the outhouse serviced. The vault is essentially a time capsule documenting the lives of the people who once lived there.

     Digging...digging and more digging

We find everything from shoes, bottles, pottery, and even table scrapes. It never ceases to amaze me that bones and even egg shells have survived being sealed off from air and light.

I have a large collection of 19th century china dolls and doll dishes. A couple of my favorite items are pipes and children's toys and smoking pipes with the likeness of George Washington, Millard Fillmore, Frank Pierce, and Zachary Taylor popularly known as Rough & Ready. Children's pottery whistles in the image of animals and figures of people from the mid 1800's are extremely rare today.

When I first started digging, my efforts were basically a treasure hunt. Now, I am far more interested in documenting history than the value of the artifacts.

     Look what I have found...

In 1998, I was introduced to Bob Cassilly by an old friend Bruce Gerrie. Bruce and Bob were working on creating the City Museum. Bruce owns Architectural Artifacts Inc. and has a large room in the new museum. Bob Cassilly was the owner of the City Museum. Bob was a world famous artist who created the Turtles at Forest Park. They asked me if I would be interested in displaying my artifacts in the museum as part of Bruce's display. I accepted the offer and enjoyed having my collection on public display. Somehow my business benefitted because the exposure in the museum and a series of articles about my unusual hobby.

In 2006, Bob moved my display to its own room and I quadrupled the number of artifacts on display. My entire collection is now on display. The display is a work in progress as I am constantly adding to my collection. I plan to add more information about my privy digging adventures as time allows. Visit the City Museum to view my entire collection. The collection is on the third floor at the top of the grand staircase.

     City Museum Exhibit...