The faces peering out of the old glass photograph from around 1855 were a shock and a joy to the observers.
A shock because the men were down in an old Aurora privy.
A joy because amidst the to-be-expected broken china, medicine bottles and rusted hand-forged nails, this image of an unknown couple was the ultimate validation of the Aurora Historical Society’s decision to excavate two privies on the property of the grand house built in 1857.
Despite decades of experience in digging out old privies to find trash once disposed there, not one of the observers had ever seen anything like it.
The discovery came late in the afternoon at the William and Anna Tanner home, long after the cordial glass, matching others in the society’s collection of Tanner goods, had been found, cleaned up and photographed. Long after the unearthing of chunks of decorative plaster, some still bearing traces of the Tanner’s favorite green paint. Long after the leather shoe, the hand drill, the perfume bottle still smelling of flowers.
An ambrotype, an early form of photography in which the image is fixed as an emulsion on a plate of glass, is a particularly fragile thing, less likely than other early technologies such as daguerreotypes and tintypes to survive. Glass breaks, and even when intact, exposure to moisture or abrasion quickly destroys the film. The incredibly good condition of this picture, after at least 140 years in the ground, was hard to believe.
“Thirty years I’ve been doing this, and this is a first,” said Tom Majewski, one of the diggers.
“We’re kind of delirious over this,” said Aurora Historical Society president Mary Clark Ormond. “As a preservation thing, this is incredibly special, but the human interest aspect has us downright dizzy.”
Curator Jennifer Putzier pointed out that duplication of early photographs was not possible, so each and every picture was one-of-a-kind and probably highly valued by the owner. Because this is a photograph of a couple, possibly even a wedding photograph, it is difficult to imagine why it might have been considered trash at such an early point.
Mike Renaud, who headed up the digging team, estimated that the level of recovery was probably about 1870. The ambrotype could not have been made any earlier than the mid-1850s.
The society will preserve the picture and put it on display, along with other finds from the dig.
“We are very happy with everything we discovered that day,” said executive director John Jaros. “In addition to material goods which we know came from the Tanner’s family life, we also learned that the first privy we dug was later used as a septic tank after the Tanners installed indoor plumbing around 1890. That was before the city created the municipal sewerage system.”
A selection from amongst the thousands of pieces dug from the privies will be displayed for the first time at the Independence Day celebration on the grounds of the Tanner House.
Scheduled from 11am-2pm on July 4th, the day includes tours of the house, wagon rides, petting zoo, music by Hudson Crossing, flimflam man Swinn D. Lure, children’s activities and a pie-eating contest. At 1pm all children present will pull on the ropes to ring two historic bells on the property as part of the national Ringing of the Bells commemoration decreed by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Picnic fare will be available to purchase. All activities are free.
SOURCE: Aurora Historical Society