Sunday, May 1, 2011

CHAMBER POTS: A peek behind the bathroom door.

                         Ahh the good old days,
                 well maybe if you were part of the upper class.

    As romantic as the Victorian era may sound, I have a feeling it was pretty rough in the trenches….especially the trenches running through town filled with the byproducts of the Industrial Revolution.

    By the mid-1800s, the consequence of 3 million people crowded into London was flowering, mixing, and foaming merrily along. All sewers led to the Thames, pouring through bulkheads along the shores. (I always thought punting on the Thames sounded so nice, probably not.)

    The abominable odors of the Fleet river, complained the monks of the White Friars, "have overcome the frankincense burnt at the altar". They claimed the fumes caused the deaths of several brethren. And for a number of sultry days in 1859, the Thames seethed, seeped, and nearly boiled under the burning sun of an unusually hot season. Parliament was suspended as window blinds saturated with lime chloride and other disinfectants failed to subdue the odor and revulsion. It was so revolting that one foreign newspaper bannered twin headlines to catch the calamities of the day: "India Is In Revolt, and The Thames Stinks."
   The cess-pit which existed in London for many centuries, from medieval times onwards was a chamber in which sewage from each individual house was 'stored' until it was emptied. This dubious task was assigned to the 'night-soil men'. And nothing was sacred not even privy privacy. Saltpetre men extracted nitrates from excrement, so it could be used to make gunpowder. Saltpetre men also had a license from the king to enter into anyone's house at any time and remove the sewage-ridden earth from the cess-pit.

    By 1858, George Jennings had popularized public lavatories. He first introduced the novelties by installing them in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851; over 827,000 people paid to use the "necessary convenience."
     Still the chamber pot, our topic of today, remained in demand for many years due to the fact that converting one’s home was expensive and on occasion not logistically sound. Chamber pots are known by a variety of names including: •Po •Pot •Pot de chambre •John •Jordan •Potty •Thunder pot •Thunder mug •Bourdalous
      The chamber pots of the working class were usually made of copper, although later ones might be of crockery. The chamber pots for the rich and royalty were solid silver, the kings' very ornate and pretentious. James I had a portable "potty," which he used for traveling. During the 1500s, poor families would urinate in a pot and at the end of the day this urine would be sold at the local tannery to tan animal hides. Some families were so poor they "didn't have a pot to piss in" thus the term.
      Going even further back in history, injuries caused by the far-flung contents of the chamber pots, or "missiles of mirth" as one ancient Greek dramatist called them, persisted through the ages. Early Roman law included the Dejecti Effusive Act, which fined a person who threw or poured anything out of an open window and hit someone. The law awarded damages to the injured party. Strangely, the statute applied only during daytime hours. King Richard II followed suit with his writ of Statuto quo nut ject dung "A writ that no one is to dump dung."

      Proper manners would prescribe warning unwary pedestrians that a shower was on its way. Thus the cry of "Garden l'eau" (pronounced Gardy-loo, and meaning "Watch out for the water!") would echo up and down the streets. Over time it evolved into English slang for the toilet or loo.

        If you were a family of means, you had a chamber maid to empty the chamber pot. With some variation, the hierarchy of maids in large households ran thusly. Housekeeper, Lady’s Maid, House Maids divided into Parlour Maid, Chamber Maid, Laundry Maid, and servants.

  The Chamber Maid was responsible for taking care of the 'chambers' in the home. Normally this meant the bedrooms and dressing rooms. They would make the beds, dust, clean up the clothes and floors. They would also take care of the 'facilities' such as chamber pots or bathrooms.

      There are still occasions when chamber pots seem practical, envision a two story house with only a main floor bathroom, primitive camping trips and long car rides.
       Anyway, the next time you use your lovely nice smelling facility gleaming with porcelain, chrome, and travertine tile, do offer a moment of gratitude for the advancements we’ve made.

     For which modern day convenience or invention are you most thankful?



  1. YEEEWWWW!!! This is a subject we rarely think about, so used are we to our gorgeous bathrooms with granite countertops, slate floors, heated towelracks, hot running water and facilities to flush away all objectionable waste. Although my grandparents had modern facilities in their home, I remember the chamberpot under their bed. I have never stopped to consider the odors that arose from millions of people living in the confinement of a city. In this regard, we have 'come a long way, baby'.

  2. Very interesting post! We who read and write historical romance tend to shy away from the gory details. But I've camped many times and a chamber pot, or porta potty, as we call them now, saves having to traverse through the dark woods to the modern bathhouse in the middle of the night--or in the case of primitive camping--the dreaded outhouse. LOL.

  3. Yeesh. Didn't the moneyed Londoners do the country during summer? If I am remembering right, that explains it.

  4. Wow what a interesting blog. I write historicals so I do have a very basic knowledge of chamber pots. I had an aunt who worked for a wealthy family in the 1920's and one of her duties was emptying and cleaning the chamber pot. She told us, that they were used at night time,and we only supposed to be for urine (you had to go to the toilet for more solid material) but many "guests" ignored the unwritten law, and my aunt said it was revolting having to clean up after them, but of course she had to do it or would have been dismissed from her position. Yuk


  5. Very informative and interesting. I returned recently from China and I was surprised to find chamber pots still in use in, of all cities, Shanghai. You can find photos and my comments on my blog.

  6. Yikes...and i wonder what they used to clean themselves? (Horrible images come to mind..)

  7. I was saying to a friend just recently how thankful I am for indoor plumbing, an ingenious invention!