Toronto Tradespeople Find Treasures During Their Work Day

Old bottles found by Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing
Old bottles found by Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing

There is treasure all over Toronto. There is valuable stuff hidden underground, in cluttered attics and basements, in people’s cars and garages and in the strangest places anyone could imagine. Some Toronto tradespeople seem to have amazing luck at finding hidden loot and they buy, sell and amass big collections of cool stuff in their spare time. Many of the trades listed below get to keep what they find during their regular work day.

Basement Waterproofing and Underpinning Workers

Chris Cavan of City Wide Group basement waterproofing has been picking through dug relics while supervising digging crews excavating Toronto home foundations for over twelve years. “We always show the property owner what we find on the lot first,” Cavan explained as he unpacked the company’s bottle collection, “I just want to put that out there right now. What you see here is what wasn’t claimed.”

Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing with century old bottle found in trench around house foundation.
Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing with century old bottle found in trench around house foundation.

The act of waterproofing a house usually involves digging a deep trench all around the cement walls of the foundation. Depending on the area, the history and the culture of the neighbourhood, the soil right up beside the house can sometimes be pay dirt.

Cavan unpacked a dozen, century old glass bottles, some 1940s-era silk screened sodas and a lovely, big cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia bottle. His prize, however, is a palm-sized pumpkin seed flask with an applied top, probably made in the 1890s. He also found a lid for a tooth powder (a product available before toothpaste was produced), some ceramics and plenty of old coins and keys. “The best stuff comes up in the first six to nine inches, unless you hit a privy pit,” Cavan added, recalling his years digging trenches.

Old bottles found by Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing
Old bottles found by Chris Cavan of City Wide Group Basement Waterproofing

What Cavan calls ‘privies’ are century-old latrine holes. According to him, it was common in certain parts of Toronto for homeowners to dig latrine pits right beside the house. When the sewer pipes came into these homes in the early 1900s, these old holes were filled in with rubbish, bottles and trash and capped off with furnace ash. Some of that century-old garbage is quite collectible today. “I always tell the boys to slow down when they see white ash. That’s a tell-tale sign. We’ve found porcelain doll heads, little blue medicine bottles and horseshoes. Those are the things people collect.”

Backhoe Operators at downtown Toronto Excavation Companies

On downtown Toronto lots and especially lakeshore properties, the backhoe is a time machine. Every single workday from 7 a.m. until about three in the afternoon, the big rig claws its way down through centuries of topsoil. The backhoe operator has a front row seat as each claw bucket filled with dirt sometimes drips glass bottles, early Canadian pottery, U.K. stoneware and lots of other collectibles.

The unrestricted relic hunter on any excavation job is actually the shovel man who works in tandem with the heavy equipment operator. It is this individual who does the collecting as the backhoe driver cannot afford to leave the machine to pick up anything – the condo developers who are watching up above are on a tight timeline and wouldn’t respect an excavator’s personal passion for the past. Still, many items are found and saved by the shovel man. Here’s Saul Berringer with an Alex Burns Toronto soda bottle from the 1890s that was recovered at the Forward Condos site at Bathurst Street and Lake Shore Boulevard. This bottle would fetch a minimum of $30 on eBay.

Saul Berringer holds an Alex Burns soda bottle from the 1890s that was recovered at the Forward Condos site in Toronto, photo courtesy of Dumpdiggers blog
Saul Berringer holds an Alex Burns soda bottle from the 1890s that was recovered at the Forward Condos site in Toronto, photo courtesy of Dumpdiggers blog

Soil Remediation Plant Workers

Whatever valuables the excavators miss on their shift has a second and much better chance of being recovered at the contaminated soil remediation station. Cleaning toxic soil is a big business in Toronto and one of the biggest plants is Green Soils or GFL (Green for Life) on Commissioners Road. That’s where Stephen Brown works.

All those dump trucks filled with dirt from the downtown core are also filled with collectible bottles, silverware, stoneware, and even military relics. Brown says that when those trucks dump their loads, the dirt soon undergoes a variety of treatments and in the shuffling, all manner of objects are revealed. As part of their job description, Brown adds, “The workers are expected to walk about and pick the solid items off the screens and wire mesh filters where they accumulate.” Thus, one could say that workers in this trade are actually paid to pick up and collect historic objects.

Automotive Cleaning Staff

Automotive cleaning staff at Toronto area automotive detailing shops or mobile fleet cleaning services know that the job can pay great dividends.

Justin Habaybeh from Autoscrubs Ajax Pickering Auto Detailing has the dirtiest job on the team and one he wouldn’t trade for the world. As the owner of a busy travelling car cleaning company, he keeps the task of emptying the industrial vacuum bags all to himself. That’s because these heavy sacks are the repositories for everything that has been sucked up out of automobiles all day long and they weigh about ten pounds each when they’re full.

Justin Habayeh of Autoscrubs Ajax Pickering Auto Detailing
Justin Habayeh of Autoscrubs Ajax Pickering Auto Detailing

Justin knows his employees tend to dump each vacuum’s contents into their bin without any inspection, but his years in this trade have taught him that’s a big mistake. “If you can stand the sight and smell of the cleanings, those sacks are goodie bags filled with toonies, loonies, quarters and other small change. There are sometimes rings, guitar picks, and little trinkets of every description.”

Demolition Contractors

Old buildings are usually valuable treasures all by themselves. Practically every part of an old structure is salvageable. Demolition contractors sort debris into piles and separate out metals, especially copper pipe and conduit, antique porcelain bathroom fixtures, and whatever else they can liquidate into cash. Some workers search even harder to find what is hidden away inside walls and under the floorboards. Reselling antique bricks and historic wooden beams is a thriving industry in Toronto and all over Canada. In Toronto, there are two major outfits: Canadian Salvage Timber and Forever Interiors. These companies work with demolition contractors to buy and sell old bricks, timber, stone and more profitable items like old wooden doors, oak trim, and thick hardwood floorboards.

“There’s usually lots of old newsprint in the walls of century old buildings,” says Mandy (name changed to protect her identity). She explained how newspaper was regularly used as insulation in the walls of Toronto houses and how this is sometimes found surprisingly well preserved today. “I collect ephemera and have mostly paper ads and advertising,” she states proudly. Mandy explained that after performing dozens of demolitions in the Annex neighbourhood, she has accumulated a vast collection of Toronto newspaper advertising from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mandy added that she intends to donate everything to the Toronto Archives when she retires.

Junk Removal Contractors

When Toronto residents call a junk removal service and ask for a quote, the estimator will naturally inquire about the nature of the load. If this appraiser gleans some idea that the rubbish contains metals, which despite being heavy to lift and dangerous with sharp edges, she might actually lower the price. Depending on the market, and how much metal there is, the whole job might even be done for free.

Today, the current price for scrap metal is largely controlled, or at least profoundly influenced by Chinese markets. China is the world’s second largest economy and a vast manufacturing powerhouse. The global demand for finished goods from this nation’s countless factories affects the prices of most raw materials, especially metals. If a specific metal is in demand in Asia, then almost overnight, the price will rise here in North America. Ever wonder why so many garbage haulers on Kijiji are more than willing to drive out and load your scrap for free? Metal is money.

Being employed in the rubbish removal trade can benefit workers twofold. Just working on site when debris is moved from decades-old resting spots can yield dividends for junk removal contractors, depending on how much they know about the materials. The client just wants it gone, but not everything has to be put in the back of the truck and a junk removal worker can pick out antique items or even valuable scraps like copper pipes, lead window caulking, and zinc- or nickel-plated steel components from early catalytic converters and car batteries. There is one Toronto worker we know that has amassed a rather large collection of Victorian-era brass doorknobs.

Toronto’s old homes and buildings offer a wealth of unexpected treasure and these Toronto tradespeople benefit every day through serendipitous discoveries during their regular work day. It definitely makes you think twice if you are currently living in an old home!


  1. This is so cool. I would love to find something awesome but I live in a new home. LOL! Those old bottles are so cool.

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