Vintage View: The chamber pot

The chamber pot

When I was a child, my brother and I regularly came up from the country and stayed with a more ancient relative in Dublin over weekends. 

Our bedroom abridged hers with rolling pocket doors. At night, with the car lights raking the steel, venetian blinds, our infant imaginations were consumed, fascinated and repelled by one detail of her living arrangements above all others — the curiously named ‘Jerry’ beneath her heavily upholstered bed.

It was a big house, and I can well appreciate why this tiny, disabled but ever elegant woman did not take the dark adventure to the nearest proper bathroom, which was in fact the original outside ‘privy’, connected loosely to the house by a windy corridor roofed in plastic sheeting.

One of her bird-like legs was stiffened by a gold bar inserted after a dog attack at 16. That chunk of bullion, (which she flatly promised us as a gift after her demise), would not allow the limb to be bent at the knee. Silent, discreet, she was clearly an accomplished athlete in those private moments by moonlight.

Nature’s call has provided polite society with a conundrum for centuries, and before modern pipe-work sloshed the problem off and away, it remained an issue far closer to home. Lidded boxes or pit latrines were one step up from a spontaneous squat and in use for over 4,000 years, but in the fetid, damp conditions of an enclosed space — disgust and disease were suffered jointly.

Visit any Irish medieval castle and you can often find evidence of the ‘garderobe’ , an open chute set below a small protruding room high on the walls. Royals and gentry nestling their pocked quarters on a roughly wooden bench carved out with a less that generous hole, could fling their nightly soil as far from their bedchamber as gravity and the castle’s height would allow to a cesspit below.

In many great houses, including Cahir Castle, Tipperary, linens from the bedchamber were suspended above the leavings of the garderobe by the laundry servants, the rising ammonia fumes whitening and sanitising the textiles. Garderobes set over moats left a suitable stew few invading enemies would dare to swim or wade.

In 1596, Sir John Harington, referred to by Queen Elizabeth I as her ‘saucy godson’, published his ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax (A New Discourse of a Stale Subject)’ a thinly veiled exploration of the shortcomings of the Earl of Leicester.

While throwing the political dirt, Harington introduced the design of the modern raised cistern. The book caused a suitable stink at court and her majesty was enraged by Harington’s cheek, but saw the potential of his potty talk.

She had this strangely visionary object installed in her chambers, complete with crimson velvet and lace padded lid. She rarely used it in the end, as the embarrassing roar it made after her ablutions was too undignified for her royal sensibilities to tolerate.

As for Harington? Elizabeth took the ultimate revenge and sent him to campaign in Ireland.

By the late 17th century the ‘S’ bend pipe, which uses water to isolate the horror of the soil pipe from the room, was developed and loos went large with the products of Thomas Crapper.

Crapper developed the work of watchmaker Alexander Cummins, but he did not in fact invent the flush toilet. Still Crapper and Jax (from Ajax) became slang terms for the toilet and are destined to endure.

Portable pots were a Godsend on draughty nights in a Georgian or Victorian home and were used across all levels of society, some enclosed in a commode or ‘night stool’ chair.

There are quite beautiful examples of ladies’ bourdaloue or ‘slipper pots’ made to slide beneath the enveloping skirts which must have made any bodily function a potential nightmare.

It’s speculated that the name Bourdaloue (giving us the term ‘loo’) comes from the name of a French Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue, who, sensing the regular discomfort of his heavily upholstered female congregation during long sermons, came up with this delicate solution.

The slipper pot was ideal for coach journeys where it could be used even in the crush of passengers, the contents then flung from the window.

Today, gorgeous hand painted and printed porcelain and faience bourdaloue are routinely mistaken for gravy boats, and arrive at the table for small and grand dinners worldwide.

English Regency gentlemen had none of the scruples or manners of 18th century ladies. Enjoying their drinks and cigars after dinner, they were comfortable to swagger over to a chamber pot secreted in the short side of a sideboard and relieve themselves, some poor servant having to deal with the results during the early morning hours.

In the 1940s, chamber pots garnered the name ‘Jerry’, I discovered, as a slight to the Germans, some even carried a print of the Führer’s face on the interior for a nightly Blitz by the family. Well, I think we can agree- he asked for it.

The 19th of November is World Toilet Day, and you can find out more about the work being done to provide people’s throughout the world with safe sanitation at: www.worldtoiletday.org 


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