glass bottles found in an new york city row house are common around old houses
Photo: Jose Picayo
Simple glass bottles, like these from a New York City row house (and one opium bottle found stashed in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, attic), 
are a common backyard find around old houses. A chemical reaction with the minerals in the ground turns the glass iridescent.
Along a historic row of houses on New Hampshire's Canaan Street Lake, renovation contractor Lud Leskovar was reworking one 1840s dining room when he removed the largest drawer of a set built into the wall. The drawer itself was less than a yard wide and a foot tall, but it opened up into a space that was 6 feet deep and more than 4 feet high. A trap door at the bottom of the tiny room allowed secret entry into the cellar. "From the basement looking up, you'd never know it was there," Leskovar says.

Back in the 19th century, Canaan Street was on the main road that led from Boston to Montreal, and Leskovar suspects that the secret room may have been used for spiriting contraband—illicit goods or perhaps runaway slaves—to Canada. Today the room has no special use or value; the current owner didn't even know about it until Leskovar happened on it. But the excitement of stepping back in history will keep him dining out on the story for years.

That's what a lot of homeowners dream about: not just possessing a piece of history in the form of an old house, but stumbling upon it, left untouched, within the walls. Few finds are as intriguing (or as large) as a hidden room, but even the most mundane objects hold a particular magic. It's as if time has been suspended until that unknown door swings open or that ancient newspaper headline is unfolded from behind a wall or that cast-off bottle surfaces from beneath the dirt in the backyard.

If you gathered all the items spit out by old houses, you would soon learn that they fall into one of three categories: the monetary, the maudlin, and the just plain mundane. Here are a few tales of discoveries that we've collected over the years from friends, old-house enthusiasts, and our own renovations. Many we found delightful, some a little mystifying, and a couple just a bit frightening.
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