The Bottle Diggers of Lower Manhattan
by Jessica B. Phillips, Curator

November 30, 2017

Curator Jessica Phillips and curatorial intern eli mcclain prepare to catalogue the collection.

Curator Jessica Phillips and curatorial intern eli mcclain prepare to catalogue the collection.

In the middle of the 20th century, Lower Manhattan's skyline grew taller with the proud edifices of glass and metal skyscrapers. During the day contractors dug the deep foundation pits of future financial institutions, but as the five o'clock bell rang, a handful of local residents and businessmen would scavenge these sites, searching for the treasures they knew lay hidden beneath the dirt.

Often referred to as "bottle diggers" due to the nature of the vast majority of their finds, they would sift through dirt and partially torn down late 19th century brick buildings unearthing bottles thrown out by generations of New Yorkers dating back to the colonization of the island in the 1620s. One such bottle digger was Gifford Dieterle of Lloyd Harbor, New York. Gifford owned a company that operated out of Lower Manhattan in the 1970s and amassed a collection of bottles numbering into the hundreds that ranged from the early 19th to 21st centuries. 

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In early 2017 Gifford's son Tom reached out to Fraunces Tavern Museum.  Gifford had recently passed and Tom was looking for a good home for the family bottle collection. Tom thought the bottles belonged back in Lower Manhattan. While Fraunces Tavern Museum was unable to receive the entirety of the collection it was fortunate to be gifted ten well preserved mallet style bottles from the 18th century.

The bottles will go on exhibit at the start of December in the famous Long Room. They will all be displayed with the other 18th century tavern-ware. The Museum is grateful for this kind gift made in memory of Gifford Dieterle.