ANCIENT TIMES TO 20TH CENTURY
(Picture: Bourdaloue by Spode Pottery & Porcelain Factory, c1776. Dunham Massey © National Trust/Robert Thrift)
In Britain up to the 20th century, a bowl-shaped chamber pot was commonly stored in cupboards, under seats in carriages, and beneath beds for use at night – in the West Midlands it was called a ‘guzunder’ because it ‘goes under’ the bed. This bourdaloue was a narrower type designed during the 18th century for women, and was handy for long theatre performances or even church services. Indeed, it was reputedly named after the French priest Louis Bourdaloue, who was renowned for his lengthy sermons.
(Picture: Bridgeman Images)
This woodcut print shows a 16th-century street scene in which a woman defecates in the street, a man shovels dung into a cart, and someone empties a chamber pot out of a first-floor window, showering a woman below.
For most of human history, toilets inside houses were unheard of, and pots or bowls provided convenient receptacles for bodily waste. Of course, that waste needed to be emptied out somewhere – into a stream or river, or into a convenient open drain or street. Some were emptied into cesspits – large holes dug into the ground, sometimes lined with wicker or stone; often they were designed to be porous, so that liquid waste soaked away into the soil, leaving solid waste to be removed or covered over when the pit was full.
For some people – particularly those living on the upper floors of crowded buildings in growing cities, such as the tenement blocks of Edinburgh in the 17th and 18th centuries – it was much easier to simply toss the ‘slops’ from your chamber pot out of the window. A shout of “gardyloo!”, derived from the French “garde à l’eau” or “gardez l’eau”– “watch out for water” – warned passers-by of an impending deluge from above. Still, the risk of a soaking with urine (or worse) was high, so in 1749 the so-called Nastiness Act was passed, permitting residents of Edinburgh to toss their waste out of windows only between 10pm and 7am.
Some chamberpots were fitted into boxes that could be closed to block the smell, and to hide embarrassment. These were known as close stools – and wealthy owners, including royalty, owned highly decorated, plush models such as this velvet-lined one at the palace of Knole, Kent, managed by the National Trust.
(Picture: © National Trust Images/John Bethell)
Before the introduction of comprehensive sewer systems, cleaning streets in towns and villages was an ongoing challenge. The filth that accumulated might include not just human faeces but also food waste, horse dung and other animal droppings. From the late Middle Ages, regulations governed how far from homes cesspits should be dug, and how authorities and householders should keep streets clean. In cities such as London, residents’ complaints about improper waste handling were dealt with in wardmotes (local district courts) and Assizes of Nuisance.
Yet despite the levying of fines for dropping waste or allowing it to accumulate, and obligations on citizens to keep their stretches of streets clean, the problem remained severe into the 19th century, particularly in the growing cities of Europe and North America. Still today, in cities with large slum districts and insufficient or absent sewerage and sanitation provision, many people have little choice but to simply go in the street, and leave their waste where they dropped it.
(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)
You can see several different designs of chamber pot in the collection at Crossness Engines.