209 Anne Harvey


Our house backs up to a large shared garden in Queen Village. The garden is cooperatively owned by eight households, and one of the neighbors built a brick patio there about ten years ago. Two years ago we noticed that one of the central bricks was missing, as though it had just fallen into the Earth. We poked around and realized a large void had simply opened up under the patio, but there seemed to be some brick structure surrounding the void. We had discussions with neighbors, but nobody seemed to know exactly what had caused the situation or who to contact regarding a sinkhole in Philadelphia. I was familiar with the organization Hidden City, and thought they might have some insight into this recently un-hidden urban element. Turns out it was the remains of the old privy pit, built sometime in the early 1800s. John Vidumsky, from Hidden City, was quite interested and came out to take a look. He then connected me with “Digger George,” a privy pirate who excavates old privy pits in order to glean any historic treasures that might lie buried. George came out and confirmed that it was indeed the sort of site he dug, so to speak, and was willing to excavate, re-fill, and cap the pit for a fee and whatever booty he found. I was delighted to have the problem taken care of. The excavation took a couple of days and the brick-lined pit extended almost twenty-five feet into the ground. One explanation for the sinkhole was that the “organic matter” in old privies continues to break down over time and decreases in volume. Then the overlying sediments sink into the space. The whole experience was pretty eye opening and I learned a lot about waste management in historic Philadelphia. Unfortunately for George, another digger had beaten him to the treasure several decades before so all they found were some mid-century bottles, old plumbing, and shards of more valuable historical items. Some of those antique shards are on display here today.