Utah’s newest liquor store will display historic artifacts, mostly from an 1890s outhouse

The many old bottles, ceramics and other items shed light on the lives of “common” people in Salt Lake City, an archaeologist says.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Historic Preservation Officer Chris Merritt talks about artifacts from the 1800s uncovered during the construction of the new downtown liquor store in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 29, 2024.

In February 2023, construction crews working to build downtown Salt Lake City’s new liquor store unearthed a veritable treasure trove of artifacts, mostly from the 1880s to the 1890s in an unexpected place: The site of an old outhouse.

While the gleaming two-story liquor store with a facade made almost entirely of windows now stands at Edison Street and 300 South, back in 1898, a neat row of businesses with housing on the second floor stood in its spot — and behind those businesses was an apartment building or a boarding house, according to fire insurance maps from that time.

And behind the apartment building was a privy, likely used from at least 1889 through 1898, according to an archaeology site form.

How did about 40 whole glass bottles in differing sizes and shapes end up buried in that privy? People probably threw them and other garbage down the outhouse hole, said Chris Merritt, the state historic preservation officer for Utah.

Today, shoppers at the new Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services state liquor store at 151 E. 300 South can view the (now cleaned) bottles. Those and other artifacts found in the privy and around it are now housed in glass cases installed on the store’s east wall.

Along with the bottles is a piece of a red earthenware pot, portions of platters and plates, a few animal bones, a horseshoe, a piece of a porcelain toilet bowl, two whole bricks and a plastic token, likely from the 1950s, a decade before all those businesses along 300 East were razed to make way for an asphalt parking lot. And each object has its own story.

Why a privy?

Since the site of the new liquor store has been “churned a little bit” throughout history, Merritt said, with structures being built and then torn down and then built again and then paved over, some of the artifacts’ origins are open to interpretation. He said he believes the broken items (like the pieces of ceramic and earthenware) came from around the privy, where people were just disposing of refuse, and the whole objects came from the privy itself.

“Salt Lake City didn’t get centralized garbage collection until 1888,” Merritt said. “So, that meant people had to deal with garbage themselves. And sometimes they would fill holes in the yard with the garbage. ... If you already had a hole, and it was already stinky, you might as well throw your garbage in there and get rid of it.”

Once a privy “filled up,” it was common practice to dump trash in it, bury it and then dig a new privy next to it, Merritt said. He said he believes that soon after this particular outhouse filled up, the entire lot changed into a commercial district, by which time there was a sewer system in place, so another privy wasn’t dug.

When the excavation crew hit the privy site with their backhoe and discovered the artifacts, they reported their findings to the State Division of Facilities Construction and Maintenance, which contacted Merritt with the State Historic Preservation Office.

When all the buildings on the site were removed in the 1960s and the corner was turned into a parking lot, workers “pretty well scraped the site clean,” Merritt said. So, there wasn’t a need to do a controlled archaeological dig while the liquor store was being built, because the site was so disturbed. That meant “we could just salvage material and learn a little bit of the history that was still intact,” he said.

The old bottles

(Utah State Historic Preservation Office) A bottle from the 1800s that once held embalming fluid is now on display in the state liquor store at 151 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City.

The bottles found on the site include amber beer bottles; green bottles that capers came in; clear liquor bottles; and light turquoise bottles that once held soda, liquor, medicine and even Worcestershire sauce.

The cow and pig bones found at the site, combined with the presence of capers bottles and the Worcestershire sauce bottle, provide a window into what people in the late 1800s ate.

Salt was expensive at the time, Merritt said, but people still needed to add seasoning to their bland beef and pork, so they would add the pickled capers as a way to incorporate a salty “pop” into their food.

“So many people don’t think about capers being that dominant of a food, but almost every excavation you find capers,” Merritt said.

One of the most unusual bottles found in the old privy site is a large rectangular bottle, darkly clouded with age. It’s from the Champion company of Springfield, Ohio, and it once held concentrated embalming fluid, made from formaldehyde.

“It’s the first one I’ve ever found, and so it sent me down a rabbit hole,” said Merritt, who wondered how a bottle of a product typically used only by morticians would end up in a domestic setting.

Merritt checked maps to see whether there was a funeral home nearby, but there wasn’t one. He eventually learned that since there was not wide access to refrigeration in the late 1800s, people would actually add small amounts of embalming fluid to milk to help preserve it and keep it from spoiling.

Merritt’s interpretation is that people were probably often doing this in the apartment building or boarding house behind the row of businesses on 300 South, as people ate together in big groups and consumed large quantities of milk. A person could have bought the formaldehyde at a dry goods store, he said.

“What happened is that people were dying from bad milk,” Merritt said. “And then people started dying from too much formaldehyde in milk. Because it is meant for the dead, so it’s not something you want to drink shots of.”

The small medicinal bottles have a story, too. Medicine back then was often mostly high-proof alcohol, but it was still thought to be good for you, so drinking medicine was a socially acceptable way for women to drink alcohol, Merritt said. While it was OK for men to consume beer and liquor in public spaces, he said, women more often would have to duck into the privy to sneak drinks of medicine, and then they’d throw the bottles down the hole.

The earthenware pot

(Utah State Historic Preservation Office) A piece of an earthenware pot made by Danish potter Frederick Petersen in the 1800s is now on display in the state liquor store at 151 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City.

When the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah in 1847 with the goal of establishing a self-sufficient agricultural society, Merritt said, they needed people who could make things, including potters.

In the 1850s, they experimented with potters from England, but since those potters came from large factories, Merritt said, their skills were often limited.

Back then, Merritt said, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was opening proselytizing missions in Denmark, and those Danish potters still followed a system based on masters and apprentices. So they knew how to create pottery from start to finish, which is what one would need in a frontier setting, he said.

In the late 1850s, Salt Lake City saw its first wave of Danish potters arrive, Merritt said. Among them was Frederick Petersen, who arrived in Utah from Denmark in his late 20s and had been apprenticed to a potter since he was about 5. In the 1860s, he opened his own pottery shop on 600 South and 300 East, Merritt said — about three blocks south of the liquor store — and he ran it until he died in 1898.

Merritt helped excavate the site of Petersen’s pottery shop for his master’s degree, and he recognized the piece of red earthenware found at the liquor store site as probably made by the potter. “That made me very happy, because that’s very connected to this neighborhood,” Merritt said.

The lead-glazed pot, which was likely thrown on a wheel, would have stood about 18 inches tall, Merritt said, and probably would have had Danish-style lug handles and been used to store milk or other supplies. The red clay came from Red Butte Canyon, he said, from a clay deposit by East High School.

”A lot of the earthenware industry in Salt Lake City faded by the 1890s, because we had railroads,” Merritt said. “People wanted this nice white stuff, they didn’t want the old-style stuff. And so a lot of the pottery shops just disappeared. ... So, that made me happy, because I get one piece of his story on display.”

Why the artifacts matter

(Utah State Historic Preservation Office) A horseshoe from the 1800s is now on display at the new liquor store at 151 E. 300 South.

Each of the artifacts provides a “window into the past,” Merritt said. While history often focuses on “the big narratives, the big stories, the important people,” he said, the items that were found in this corner lot illuminate the lives of the “common” person who lived in Salt Lake City in the 19th century.

Now, people can come shop at the new liquor store and “learn a little bit about Salt Lake City history,” he said.

“These items are going to be on display, not in a box somewhere never to be seen again,” Merritt said. “And so this, to me, is a good usage of this history and that discovery.”