Historical novels set before the era of indoor plumbing and flushing toilets, tend not to dwell on the basic necessities of everyday life. However, when it comes to flushing out the truth about our ancestors’ toilet habits it turns out that fact is more fascinating than fiction.
10 Terms for ‘Chamber Pot’
In the early 19th century, to answer a call of nature on a wild winter’s night, it took a hardy soul to traipse through the rain into the backyard to use an outdoor privy or earth closet. For the majority of ordinary people, the indoor alternative was a chamber pot, which was a simple china pot that was kept under the bed or in a cabinet beside it. Emptying the slops out in the morning was a way of life, it was just a question of who did it, with an unlucky maid being the number one contender. Indeed, the Victorian nursery usually lacked a sink, specifically to stop a lazy nanny from taking the easy option of emptying the slops down the plughole instead of carrying the offering downstairs. But chamber pots are nothing new and have been around since classical times, with examples found in archaeological excavations which date back to ancient Greece.
Most people know what a chamber pot is, but would you recognise it if called by one of these alternative names our ancestors might have used:
- thunder mug
- po: from the French, pot de chambre
- the looking glass: as doctors used to examine urine as an aid in diagnosing ill health)
- jerries: in fairness, this is a later expression, probably from World War II. One explanation for the name is a poster of a Jerry (slang for a German) hiding under the bed (the idea being careless talk costs live) – but I have been unable to find this poster. Other possible explanations include the German helmet being a similar shape to a chamberpot, or that troops in the Western Desert urinated into empty jerry cans.
- guzunder: one shudders to think of the reasoning, but actually a guzunder is something that goes under something else, such as a chamber pot under a bed.)
- commode: a piece of furniture containing a concealed chamberpot was known as a commode; early examples include a faux chest-of-drawers with a pot built in.
- close stool: named for the squat wooden stools with a lid, that houses a chamber pot to keep the smell in.
- pot, potty, or potty pot
- Oliver’s skull: possibly a reference to Oliver Cromwell, presumably this denigrating term was more popular with Royalists than Roundheads!
- the Jordan: possibly referencing the river Jordan
The Inconvenience of Knickers
Why do we refer to ‘a pair of knickers’ when it’s only one garment? The reason goes back to the early 19th century because women wore an undergarment essentially made up of two legs. These separate legs were attached to the waist with a cord or ribbon, one on each leg, and were a literal pair. But this wasn’t just some sort of kinky quirk, there was a method to the madness of the crotchless panties, and all because of ladies’ clothing, specifically their voluminous skirts, way back when.
For a start dresses, skirts, and petticoats were made from yards and yards of fabric, floor length, and worn in layers; all of which adds up to armfuls of fabric to hitch up in order to reach your knickers. And in cold weather, warm heavy fabrics such as wool or flannel, in addition to several petticoats to keep the cold out, but added extra yardage and weight This all added up to a considerable weight of cotton or wool, and if you were really unlikely there was the cage of a crinoline to lift up and somehow swing it out of the way. All in all, when wearing voluminous skirts, it was much easier to lift, squat, and pee, than to fumble for a drawstring around your waist and totally lower your undergarments whilst supporting yards of fabric to stop it getting wet…and then doing the whole thing in reverse to secure the knickers back in place.
It took a change of fashion, in the 1880s onward, and a narrower skirt silhouette to develop knickers with crotches. The earliest versions had buttons down below, perhaps a throwback to the difficulty of raising and lowering pants in pre-elastic days. And then eventually, happy days, the buttons were supplanted by a stitched crotch.
Oh and if you were wondering about the origin of the word drawers (another word for knickers). The latter got their name from the act of ‘drawing’ the garment up and down.
The Origin of the Wardrobe
We’re all familiar with the unpleasant odor that permeates public toilets; which is due to the ammonia released from urine when it’s sprinkled where it shouldn’t be. However, our medieval ancestors were a lot less squeamish about stale pee and instead used it to their advantage.
An up-and-coming wealthy lord who wanted to impress was likely to include all mod-cons when designing his new castle. This took the form of a small room built into the outer wall, with a horizontal opening into the moat far below: a sort of outhouse-in-the-air, as it were. When nature called, the lord or lady retired to this room to relieve themselves. What may surprise you, is that the couple would hang their finest velvets and silk garments in the same room, their latrine. The reason being it was believed the stale urine smell, along with fresh air wafting up from below, kept moths, fleas, rats, and mice away and protected the costly silks and wool of expensive garments.
And the name of this room? A garderobe…or ‘room for cloaks’. Although the medieval room was a form of latrine, over time the meaning evolved into the more familiar ‘wardrobe’ or place to hang clothes.
The Wrong End of the Stick
If peeing in a pot wasn’t bad enough, ‘splinter-free’ toilet paper wasn’t invented until the 1930’s [* ] An early record (Seneca, 1st century AD) of a way to wipe a backside was moss or a sponge tied to a stick. This is where the expression “getting hold of the wrong end of the stick” comes from! Indeed, the Greco-Romans were an inventive/humorous lot. They also used pieces of broken pottery to wipe their rears, sometimes writing an enemy’s name on it, as a surefire way to show their disdain.
Perforated toilet paper was a relative latecomer, but from the early 18th century people recycles printed paper into toilet paper by cutting newspaper or catalogs into squares and joining them with thread. It’s said that in 1818, the American publication, Farmer’s Almanac, even drilled a hole in their magazine to facilitate the pages being strung to an outhouse wall [#]
The last word goes to commercial toilet paper, made specifically for the purpose, appeared in 1857. However, the manufacturer didn’t think this was anything to shout about. Indeed, some manufacturers, for example of The Scott Paper Company in 1890, wanted to distance themselves from such an unmentionable item and only sold their product to pharmacies, who in turn sold it from under the counter.