When he was 11, Tim Tokosh was fascinated by some old bottles he found in a dump near McKeesport's Menzie Dairy.
He grew up to amass a collection of about 500 bottles and is now vice president of the Pittsburgh Antique Bottle Collectors Club.
"I started finding really old stuff in 1987 in old outhouse and well sites and started to get quite a collection," said Mr. Tokosh, 47, of Elizabeth Township.
Now he is passionate about bottles made in Pittsburgh before the Civil War that held mineral water, beer, ale and soda. Made of heavy glass and free blown or formed with molds, the bottles are "stunning," he said.
"Everything was handmade. People took time making them. It's something nowadays you couldn't afford to do," he said.
The age of a bottle can be determined by the type of "pontil" mark on the bottom, the mark that is created when the rod used to hold the bottle while it was being formed was snapped off.
From the latter half of the 1800s to about 1920, Pittsburgh was home to a number of glass manufacturers, or "glass houses," about 40 of them on the South Side. J.C. Buffum and Co. City Bottling House on Market Street was the "creme de la creme soda pop bottle maker" from 1845 to 1920, according to Mr. Tokosh.
"I have some of their first bottles," he said.
Many of the glass houses closed after the automatic bottle machine was invented in 1903 by Michael Owens.
But some of the bottles that they made can still be found.
Each weekend, Mr. Tokosh and a team of up to three other "diggers" -- members of the 50-strong antique bottle club -- venture into the North Side, South Side, West End or "any old part of the city."
"Probably every old house, 100 years or older, had an outhouse on the property," he said.
In the 1800s, people used their outhouses as "garbage dumps," he said. "And if they were addicted to alcohol [or a medication], and the wife got upset, the man of the house could consume it in the outhouse and drop the bottle down the hole."
Before digging, Mr. Tokosh gets the landowner's permission, presenting documentation and pictures of previous digs.
"Eighty-five percent of the time, it's a yes because they are as curious as we are," Mr. Tokosh said of the property owners' consent.
Then the thrill of the hunt begins.
Using a 3- to 8-foot steel rod, Mr. Tokosh probes the grass, looking for a soft spot.
"This tells you the ground was disturbed. It will go right through," he said.
Next, the team starts digging anywhere from 3 feet to, in rare cases, 60 feet deep. Nicknamed "mole in the hole," Mr. Tokosh descends fire escapes and extension ladders to get to the bottom of the hole.
"Many of the holes are brick lined all the way down," he said.
The team fills 35-gallon garbage cans with dirt from the holes. Once they examine and retrieve any items, they place the dirt back in the hole.
"We don't mess up anyone's yard," he said.
Mr. Tokosh said his most unusual discovery was a "torpedo" soda bottle he found a couple years ago in the Hill District. A torpedo bottle has a rounded base because the bottle was meant to be stored on its side so that the liquid would keep the cork moist and it wouldn't dry out, he explained.
The value of a bottle is based on rarity, condition and, mainly, color. A 175-year-old clear bottle may be worth only a dollar, but the same bottle in cobalt blue may be worth $100, Mr. Tokosh said.
One of Mr. Tokosh's more unusual findings was a terra cotta sculpture of a side view of George Washington's head, which he found in a hole off Monterey Street in the Mexican War Streets. The virtually intact reddish orange form was 20 feet below the surface and stamped, "New York Terra Cotta Architecture Clay Company 1887."
A couple of weeks ago, he found more than 200 intact whiskey and beer bottles, crocks and teapots in two holes he dug off East Ohio Street. The items were divided among the team of four diggers and the property owner.
"We are serious collectors who don't do this for monetary gain," Mr. Tokosh said. "It's more of a passion than anything."
Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org