Bed, bath, & beyond: chamber pots

Bed, bath, & beyond: chamber pots

Warning: this post may contain paintings of ladies peeing. Oh no, I just realized that is where all my future site hits are going to come from.

Saw this today on Two Nerdy History Girls when I was slacking off from reading Locke: “Strange English Dining Customs and Furniture“:

“Will it be credited, that, in a corner of the very dining room, there is a certain convenient piece of furniture [chamber pot], to be used by any body who wants it. The operation is performed very deliberately and undisguisedly, as a matter of course, and occasions no interruption of the conversation.” (from Louis Simond’s 1810-1811 Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain)

“This struck me especially today when an old admiral who, clad in his dress uniform, probably on account of Lord Melville’s presence, made use of this facility for a good ten minutes, during which period we felt as if we were listening to the last drops from a roof gutter after a long past thunderstorm.” (Letter from Prince Pückler-Muskau (1828))

I’ve sort of tried not to ever think too deeply about where and how people did their business in the long 18th century (scatological humor poems are fine and all, but reality is too gross), but I can say I definitely would NOT have thought that they kept chamber pots in the dining room sideboard as well as in the bedroom. Or that there would be a screened-off area of the dining room for pissing. Repeat: dining room. Some sources I found seemed to indicate that people used them mid-meal, but I don’t know how reliable that is; however, most agreed that one of the reasons women originally retired to the drawing room after long dinners was so that men could pee in the dining room.*

—From the Reading, PA newspaper the Reading Eagle on June 1st, 1951: “Public Showing of Glittering History“:

“Some of London’s most glittering history is being seen by the public for the first time. . . . But nothing stresses the changing sense of values more than one piece of silver . . . . Made in 1716, it is listed in the catalog as ‘Chamber-pot, engraved with a coat of arms.’ Apart from the fact that it is made from silver, it is identical in design to modern pieces of china; but the catalog adds: ‘These chamber-pots were dining-room, not bedroom, furniture in the Eighteenth Century.'”

—Pegs and Tails has an article, “At Your Convenience,” with some fantastic images of chamber pots (no, really! They’re hilarious! I guarantee you will not be disappointed), and claims that Georgian “[w]omen, similarly caught short, would either scurry behind the curtains, pot-in-hand, or their maid would fetch an ergonomically-shaped bourdaloue which they would immodestly thrust beneath their petticoats.” No citation on that, but they do give this image (click thumbnail below and click again for full-size), and, you know, it may be pervy, but you have to admire the attention to detail:

La Bourdaloue
“La Bourdaloue” by Francois Boucher (1703-1770).

—Pepys records in his diary for Apr. 21, 1664 that he went

“to my uncle’s and there dined very well, and so to the office, we sat all the afternoon, but no sooner sat but news comes my Lady Sandwich was come to see us, so I went out, and running up (her friend however before me) I perceive by my dear Lady blushing that in my dining-room she was doing something upon the pott, which I also was ashamed of, and so fell to some discourse, but without pleasure through very pity to my Lady. She tells me, and I find true since, that the House this day have voted that the King be desired to demand right for the wrong done us . . . My Lady, my wife not being at home, did not stay, but, poor, good woman, went away, I being mightily taken with her dear visitt, and so to the office, where all the afternoon till late, and so to my office, and then to supper and to bed, thinking to rise betimes tomorrow.”**

I included part of Lady Sandwich’s quote because man, who has the kind of presence of mind to talk politics at a time like that?! Michelle Obama? Although I GUESS maybe he means they talked politics AFTERWARD, but I like my version better.

The point is, be thankful for indoor plumbing and bathroom privacy, if you’re lucky enough to have those amenities. And wash your hands.


*See Where Queen Elizabeth Slept & the What the Butler Saw: Historical Terms from the Sixteenth Century to the Present by David N. Durant (62); Bungalow Bathrooms by Jane Powell and Linda Svendsen (19); and the possibly dubious Daily Life in 18th Century England by Kirstin Olsen (268). You might be surprised how hard it is to find critical sources on 18th century peeing practices, but then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

**See also Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England by Sarah Toulalan, where she claims (counter to the argument that scatological humor is necessarily a send-up of propriety) that toilet privacy in the 16th and 17th centuries was not really an issue (228-30).


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