A Junkie’s Thoughts On Trashpile Archaeology

Today’s guest post was written by David Templeton-David also furnished the photographs.

Collecting old bottles

A Junkie’s Thoughts On Trashpile Archaeology written by David Templeton

Most people don’t spend a lot of time pondering trashpiles. The refuse service comes and picks up the garbage and it’s out of sight, out of mind. But, until garbage removal and city dumps became common, household trashpiles were necessary features with any home. Even prehistoric people had trashpiles for bones and broken tools; archaeologists love to find them.

In our time, out in the country, where most of us lived, the household trash pile was usually quite close to the house, down over the bank, maybe, and if one knows the place where a house set, the trash pile can often be found with some determined searching. That is, if you do stop and wonder where you can find an old trashpile.

People who do look for old trashpiles know that there are two kinds of trash piles; pre-plastic and plastic. Trash piles with no plastic are usually relatively old; seventy years and back beyond. Most contents of a trash pile were, of course, the same as today’s trash: discarded packaging or containers such as tin cans, glass bottles, jars, etc.; or things that got broke. The contents of containers were consumed and the box, wrapper, can, bottle, got thrown in the trash and then to the trash pile. Things were thrown away because they were packaging or they were items that got ruined and became useless. Dope bottles such as Royal Crown Cola or Grapette bottles were taken back to the store for the deposit.

Digging for old bottles

Glass containers, bottles, jars, etc., usually get water in them, the water freezes and the bottle bursts. Tin (steel) cans rust and rot away. Paper and wrappers decompose. In austere or thrifty times, say in the 1930s household, useable containers (jars, wide-mouth bottles, etc.) were horded for keeping buttons, butter and egg money, homemade tinctures, etc.

One seldom finds an item that can be used again or is of any functional value. Yet, almost every shard of glass or dish or piece of crockery holds its own intrigue and specialness; yes, even information about the people once there. So, it turns out that, for me, digging in ancient trash piles is a kind of archaeology, I suppose.

When I dig in an old trash pile I find mostly broken glass pieces, broken crockery or broken bottle pieces or the bottoms of fruit jars and bottles; worthless, except to the imaginative mind. Careful pondering of the shards, jar bottoms, and other marked or identifiable debris, can reveal a lot about the people who dumped there. Even from a very old trash pile, one may discern if family members used patent medicines, if they had children, if they had a garden, had a baby, if they made kraut or pickles; if the kids had kiddie cars or tricycles, if they kept a cow or got their milk delivered in milk bottles. It’s hard to say if they drank whiskey because drinkers were generally shunned by the women and children, so they hid their ways and threw the empties down the toilet hole.

With some thought and imagination, one can usually tell the approximate period the family was there; the kind of shoe sole, the kind of bottled remedies, the age of the fruit jar bottom; whether or not there is any sign of plastic, etc.; if any cans remain, the style of the Johnson’s Wax can or the Log Cabin syrup tin, the number on the coal bucket.

A small piece of a plate or a platter I found last week had “Tudor Rose” glazed into its bottom finish. Dating Homer Laughlin’s Tudor Rose pieces is not easy. The name goes back many decades. But my urge goes beyond dating the piece to imagine the hurt or sadness when that prized platter fell to the floor and broke or the skulking that a boy had to do to hide the pieces and hope some time went by (say, all of the childhood period) before Mother missed it.

Finding old bottles in the woods

Sometimes I find glass items that are not broken; a fruit jar, a patent medicine bottle or a Bromo Seltzer bottle; maybe a snuff glass or a paregoric bottle, a cold cream jar or a Musterole jar. One of the pictures shows a beautiful little bottle I found last week (the watch and money are there just for size perspective).

Very old antique bottles were usually embossed, their names and lettering raised on the bottle’s surface. They had a cork or stopper finish (“mouth”). Their bottlemaker had not yet combined with another company. One can tell which glass plants (Owens, Libbey, Illinois Glass, Atlas, Anchor Hocking, Fairmount, Ball Brothers) made them and get some time frame from the mold number or the date code.

Now, what’s all that matter to anybody? To most of Mankind, trashpile digging is as about as exciting as a bag-tie. So, why do I do it; dig in old trashpiles that is? Lord only knows. It’s personal. Nobody’s business, unless you want to talk about a similar yen you have. Those of us who do it don’t talk about it much and lots of people don’t want others to know they do it, but thanks to Blind Pig and the Acorn, and given like-minded buddies, those who do trash pile digging aren’t ashamed to tell about their treasures and their intriguing fetish. But, only those who do it really understand.


I hope you enjoyed David’s post-since I’m a dump digging junkie-I loved it.



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  • Reply
    March 24, 2012 at 7:14 am

    You know I love finding old bottles. I have so many I’ve had to wrap them in newspaper and pack them away.
    Hmmm, I wonder if someday someone will find my wrapped bottles and wonder just how old they were?

  • Reply
    Shirley Templeton Dillistone
    March 23, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Maybe the obsession stems from the many days we spent going through that dump near the house when we were children. I remember fondly the times I tagged along, but only if you boys didn’t have a BB gun with you that you could use to chase me off. ___ Shirley Sue

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    March 22, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I don’t know where there are any forgotten trash piles, but if I did, I’d probably go looking. We used to have one where I lived when I was a kid. What didn’t get burned in the trash can got tossed. I wouldn’t mind looking there, but someone else owns the land now.

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    March 21, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    I enjoyed this so much..I know where several old trash piles are at and I have went through them..You are so right on about how old those piles are…Old Trash Piles have so much history..Susie

  • Reply
    March 21, 2012 at 12:11 am

    That was very fun to read! When we were kids, there was an old abandoned homestead on the property where we lived. We took great pleasure, and spent many hours, in digging through the junk piles and finding old bottles and such.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    March 20, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    and David…Don’t get me started on trash pile diggin’….We can’t find many places where around here where that goes on…
    We have found old bottles on our property and dug thru a cast away hole in the back of the woods..It was by the old stagecoach road…
    When we would go bank fishing I always wandered the rive bank or lake bank to see if old bottles had washed up…Mostly old whiskey bottles…Seems to be a lot of drunk fishermen…LOL
    Thanks for a great post..
    My favorites are from the 20’s to 30’s..old milk glass salve and cream bottles…I have one that has a bottom lid and a top lid…really weird..most times the lids are rusted off…
    Thanks Tipper, Oh and by the way, those old rusty metal bed springs are taken apart and showing up at craft shows to hold everything from candles to recipe cards…Wonder what my Granny would think about that! LOL

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Great post….and always enjoy everyone’s comments, too.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    i loved this piece…i absolutely love digging in trash piles-especially the really old ones out in the country behind someones old barn or along the foundations of old houses that are collapsed or no longer there. it is amazing to me what i do find there and actually save and use. trashy treasure is what i love to repurpose into the fine art of something that is actually useful.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    I adore digging also and many years ago, I found an old pitcher left curbside near UAB area in Alabama. It had been glued together so many times, I cannot part with it. I fill it with whatever I can find for display and wonder who loved it so much to repair it so many times.
    Maybe the children broke it (like My husband’s stories) and glued it back hoping Mom would not notice.
    Old memories someone just threw out in a trash pile when someone like a student moved in I imagine.
    Thanks for sharing. The fun is finding to keep away from the trash pile and hopefully re-use or re-cycle anything found of good use still for something!
    Smiles, Cyndi

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    March 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    tipper i feel like you… its so wonderful to find little bits of things and wonder about the person who used it.. and how their lives were.. and to hold it .. and think that you are holding a piece of history.. and of times long ago.. sigh….. as for the broken parts of china.. thats right up my alley.. ive been looking for some..
    hope all is well in your corner of the world… sending big big ladybug hugs
    and oxxo

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    When we were kids digging through old trash piles we would find jar lids that had the white glass inside. Daddy would make us bury them under his pecan trees because would make them produce better nuts. He said they had zinc in them and pecans loved zinc. He would let us take out the glass piece and play with it.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    How neat I have loved to dig in trash piles too…My grandparents are from western NC and moved to Fla for work in the early 1900’s.I can remember finding pieces of pottery when daddy and grandp were digging for a septic tank.I have been hooked since then.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I’ve accumulated a few of these treasures over the years, mostly “bitters” bottles and the like. I only hang on to the unbroken ones; seems like a miracle that any of them are. I wish folks hadn’t scattered glass quite so far and wide, though…always another shard turning up when I’m planting or putting in fenceposts, or jutting up from the ground for an animal (including a human animal) to step on.

  • Reply
    Jessie : Improved
    March 20, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I remember my brother and I wandering through my grandparent’s land (which used to be my great-grandparent’s farm). We would dig up farm tools, scraps of metal, bottles, and sometimes, if you were lucky, something that looked suspiciously like an arrowhead. We still have Native American graves in the church cemetery at the end of the street, so these were prized artifacts of a time gone by.

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    March 20, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I love the old bottles; they are ones found in our parents’ houses when they left this earth. I find them fascinating; I too wondered what might have been in them. Are they valuable – who knows? I just enjoy their designs and memories.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I’d love to be known as the local Trashpile Archaeologist. My fear of snakes has kept me from digging in some of the larger piles in the historic town where I live. I bought a metal detector and look for the treasures that are easier to dig. That hobby is addictive! I have found so many coins, jewelry and buttons in areas already searched many times.
    David, thank you for a great story.

  • Reply
    Lonnie L. Dockery
    March 20, 2012 at 10:22 am

    On Saturday my sister called and asked if I would take her to where our house burned down in the late fifties. We went and had a great time reminiscing as we dug through trash piles and burned rubble. We found some real treasures! I like the “historical” aspect of digging for old stuff, but a personal connection to the trash makes it especially appealing. And Ed, I had forgotten “hoop-ee-hide”!

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Each year when my garden is plowed there is always some remnant of the past unearthed. In the 1800s this was part of a huge farm as history tells it. We unearthed the metal markers that were hidden deeply, and these possibly marked a parcel of land before it was turned into a housing development with new markers. Numerous marbles were found and given to little boys (I should have kept them). Pieces of old colored bottles are still found. Intact and very interesting was a small metal circus elephant with a flat bottom so that it sets nicely. House was built in the fifties. I have often thought how interesting to explore the numerous old Coal Company stores that dotted this region and used script. Again, the Blind Pig has given me more to think about!

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Ohm the hours I could spend imagining the family that once used these items…Love it!

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

    If there were any trash dumps around here, I’d be in the middle of it. Had a big city dump when I was a kid that we dug in but that’s long gone.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 20, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Tipper—I reckon my brother, Don, would have to rank among the top level of Appalachian trashpile archaeologists. He has an uncanny eye and spends a great deal of time and effort locating old homesites in the Swain County portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is in conjunction with a major research project he and a partner in the effort, Wendy Meyers, have underway. They are looking for chimneys, home foundations, and other still visible reminders of a world we have long since lost. Sadly, myopic Park officials directed the CCCs to destroy virtually all vestiges of old homes (after they had burned them), and the results make Sherman’s passage through the South look like a Sunday picnic. I’m not faulting the CCCs, since they were just following orders, but there has to be an especially hot corner of Hell set aside for those bureaucrats who did their dead-level best to destroy all visible aspects of a precious heritage.
    Of course finding relics of all sorts is an integral part of this, and Don has located tools, bottles, parts of machines, and truly unlikely things such as a basin for dipping sheep and (on St. Patrick’s Day) a $10 bill. Maybe he’ll share a good deal more.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    March 20, 2012 at 8:47 am

    I enjoyed Dave’s article and I can assure him that this is real archaeology, just more recent. I think that you will find that professional archaeologists digging around in Rome or Athens or Jerusalem get just as excited about finding a trash dump.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Well David,like you I enjoy digging in trash piles or dump sites is what I Call them but they are getting harder and harder to find where I live but do enjoy that habit and have found some neat stuff as well—and oh I am not ashamed to say I dig in them either–those who never have tried it will never know the thrill it brings.

  • Reply
    March 20, 2012 at 8:32 am

    enjoyed the post, i have 10 old bottles but did not dig them myself, in Savannah, 50 years ago, my friends husband was a trash pile digger and he gave me most of my bottles. a couple i bought. the one i had from 1776 i gave to my son. i would enjoy this but have never done it.

  • Reply
    Bill Dotson
    March 20, 2012 at 8:19 am

    I dug up an old bottle a few years ago beside the house and I will try to get a picture of it and send in. I also found several old marbles there too.

  • Reply
    Bob & Inez Jones
    March 20, 2012 at 8:07 am

    I have many of those “trash treasures” in my home. I think it is a worthy past-time. As you say, it evokes us to let our minds wonder to times and situations gone by. May you have many more hours of trashpile picking. I. Jones.

  • Reply
    Uncle Al
    March 20, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for sharing this post. I think I’d say anyone who isn’t intrigued by finding and pondering “old stuff” must have something wrong with them. I have a small but treasured collection of bottles, door knobs etc., found in various places. I too must wear the label of trash tripper.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 20, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Good post, David. Thank you. Thoughts from your words will wander around my head all day.
    There is such a stark difference between then and now. It is staggering the amount trash we generate now. Everything is throw away. When I think about it, it distresses me. I come from the people of Appalachia who used everything to it’s fullest and wasted nothing.
    My grandmother used the dishwater after washing dishes to mop the floor. This to conserve water and soap.
    My grandparents had a garbage can outside the kitchen door for their trash that didn’t burn. They had a burn barrel to dispose of everything that would burn.
    It took a long time for that trash can to fill up. There was nothing in it but tin cans and broken glass and they didn’t buy much in tin cans because they canned almost everything they ate. Any glass that was not broken was kept for some use or other.
    It was a different time and it was a different people from now.
    I look at Tipper’s trash treasures and I see a people. Our ancestors who were strong and proud and had much to be proud of.

  • Reply
    Ed Myers
    March 20, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Make not mistake about it: it is archaeology. It’s also treasure hunting, the two being not dissimilar.
    My regard for trash came from an uncle, who, along with many thousands down here in the mountains, joined the Great Southern Migration from the hills to the manufacturing plants and corporate farms of the north, in this case Ohio.
    Now, Jake also carried with him the desire to work as little as possible. He soon discovered antique junk piles in the lone copses that dot the soy bean/wheat/corn fields in our nation’s bread basket.
    He took me with him on one outing, where we unearthed blue glass, hand-blown jars with visible bubbles dotting their interior walls. Makes one wonder about the person whose breath was thereby captured. My personal favorite, however, were marble “eggs”, which chicken farmers reputedly inserted under hens to induce them to lay. Why they were thrown away, I guess I’ll never know.
    These were some of the treasures of my childhood (along with the memories of the hen-sized mosquitoes that guarded the trash).
    Look around here a bit (with the landowner’s permission, of course). When you find the boxwood or daffodil patch that often marks the habitations of fore-bearers, I’ll bet you’ll find some treasure as well.

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    March 20, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Great post! I love ‘sorting’ through old trash piles

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    March 20, 2012 at 7:19 am

    I love to find old stuff in trash piles! Our first home was at least 125 years old when we bought it. A man came to the front door once and asked if he could dig around out back to look for old bottles and things and he would show us what he found and we would share in the loot. He found a bunch of good old bottles. He dug at the back edge of the property, where there was probably once a “back house” (you know, the kind with the half moon window in it). We also found some amazing bottles with the paper labels on ’em in the basement and attic. Neat stuff!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 20, 2012 at 7:12 am


  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 20, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Archaeological storehouse they may be, but the bane of bare footed boys. Seems the broken and jagged edges are eternally pointed skyward awaited the next innocent chap who dashes in looking for shelter in a game of hoop-ee-hide.

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