That’s Right, it’s a Post About Privies

That’s Right, it’s a Post About Privies

It’s much more fun to view the Regency era through rose-colored historical glasses, focusing on the flattering emprire-waisted dresses, pretty bonnets, beautiful countryside, well-stocked elegant country house libraries, and of course the handsome men wearing handsome clothes. Better to ignore the position of women (as the property of either their fathers or their husbands), the fact that most of us would have been scrubbing away in the kitchen rather than sitting in the drawing-room, the lack of good medical or dental care, and of course all of those other less-savory details, am I right?

But in this post, I’m going to go there anyway! The topic of where to, um, go, came up in the comments of one of my posts a while back, and as I’ve captured quite a few photos over the years, I decided for this month’s installment to go digging and show the various ways people went to the bathroom/restroom/toilet/water closet (the difference in terminology for this between the US and the UK never ceases to amuse me) back then.

In medieval times, the place for this would have been the garderobe, ironically a bit closer to what we have today than what followed it. This was a portion of a castle that hung over the side, and had a seat (or very often seats) with a hole in them. You, uh, went, and it would land on the ground below, where it was some unfortunate soul’s responsibility to periodically clear it away.

A garderobe at the medieval portion of Dover Castle.

For those in the Regency era still living in castles that were more than just castle in name only, these might still have been within old portions of the building, but they wouldn’t have been in use. They’d been replaced by the outdoor privy, which might be more genteelly referred to as a cabinet d’aisance, and the chamber pot. Outdoor toilets don’t tend to be something that survives from historic houses – perhaps, again, because they detract from the romance of history, and are less likely to be saved. But I have run across a few in my travels. See if you can spot this one at Mompesson House in Salisbury:

The garden at Mompesson House.

Don’t see it? We’ll get a little closer…

Outdoor privy at Mompesson House.
Presumably they’ve omitted the hole in the restoration to avoid some prankster trying to use it, or this is a hinged cover; I can’t recall.

Here’s another, at Mount Vernon in Virginia, also located within the garden. It’s a farther hike from the house than the one at Mompesson House, and shows that the old communal medieval setup has not at all gone away:

The privy at Mount Vernon.
Communal privy at Mount Vernon.

This raises a lot of questions for me, particularly: just who would have been in here together? I have to assume that the sexes would not mix, and so presumably one would wait if someone of the opposite sex was in there. But is my assumption correct? Caricatures from the era do seem to bear it out.

I have to think, as well, that women would not have gone out there alone. Consider the Netherfield Ball, for example. All of those ladies and gentlemen were there for many hours, and I have to think most of them would have needed a visit outdoors at some point. I think the ladies would all have found at least one other person to go with, and they would then have gone in together if it was communal. For a lady, she could only have gone alone at risk to her reputation, to be out in the gardens in the dark by herself.

There was, of course, that other indoor option, the chamber pot (which I’ve once seen referred to as a voilder, and have picked up for use in my writing because, again…romance; who wants to be reminded of the existence of chamber pots in a romance novel?). Many historic houses show these in a sort of traditionally expected location under the bed, but in truth they were often cleverly hidden away in public rooms:

Hidden chamber pot in a parlour at Number One Royal Crescent in Bath.
Close up of the hidden chamber pot in Number One Royal Crescent.

The guide in this room indicated that anyone would have just used this chamber pot as needed when the family was sitting around in the morning, which I am a bit dubious of, both because I heard a few other inaccuracies going through the house, and because it doesn’t quite jive with what I’ve heard and read about elsewhere. Perhaps in the time of wider Georgian skirts this could have been done discreetly, but during that era the more purpose-made bourdaloue would have been more likely to be used.

Based on everything else I’ve seen and heard, it’s more likely that use of the chamber pot was also not done in a mixed-sex environment. The story that comes up most frequently is that of the gentlemen making use of the chamber pot within the dining room after the ladies had departed. You can see evidence of this in the Robert Adam-designed dining-room at Saltram:

Dining-room at Saltram.
Hidden away in a beautiful cabinet like this one…
…are a pair of chamber pots.

The separation of the sexes after dining was something England was famous for during this time, and nobody quite knew how it had come about. One of the better explanations I’ve read is that it started when tea-drinking became popular, and began with the ladies departing to the drawing-room to prepare the tea. The gentlemen would at first join them when it was ready, but before long they got to talking about politics and drinking port and brandy for longer and longer periods of time, therefore delaying the tea preparation as well.

Yet I wonder if the cause was even simpler…did the sexes separate so they could each relieve themselves in these hidden chamber pots after a long dinner of eating and drinking?

They are also to be found within bedrooms, yet again hidden away in bedside tables or even stairs:

Bedside table with buit-in pot at Number One Royal Crescent.
Bedstairs with a built-in pot, at Chatsworth.
Here’s a rather pretty one, along with a basin, hidden away in a little closet in Jane and Cassandra Austen’s bedroom at Chawton.
This chamber pot in a bedroom at Saltram was given a lid and matched with the decor, rather than being hidden away.
Poorer households, such as this one recreated at Buckler’s Hard, would also use chamber pots, although they made no attempt to hide them. In Edinburgh’s medieval skyscrapers, people of the city were infamous for crying “garde loo!” and dumping them into the street.

Round about now, you might be wondering about the water closet. They had been invented for centuries by now – indeed, Queen Elizabeth I had one – and Joseph Bramah had obtained a patent in 1778 for what might be called the first fully functional flush toilet.

Water closet at George III’s Kew Palace.

Yet while some great houses installed them, they were by no means commonplace. Labor was cheap, and it was easy enough to pay servants to carry the chamber pots downstairs and dispose of them. Indeed the biggest development in great houses related to this was to build separate stairs so the wealthy did not need to meet servants carrying their nocturnal effusions on the stairs, rather than the widespread installation of water closets.

Part of the reason water closets didn’t catch on was the lack of more modern plumbing – without sufficient plumbing to thoroughly carry away the waste they could be no more convenient than a chamber pot. Still, in the Regency era, when you consider the comfort of seating and the lack of residual, err, waste, I think the people who actually had it best were naval captains. In the great cabin of any naval ship of size, there is what’s called a quarter gallery, a toilet very similar to the old medieval garderobes, except that it emptied into the water (something we now, of course, know to be an environmental problem). With an unlimited supply of seawater to regularly flush it out, I think it probably would have been my choice for that time:

Quarter gallery in HMS Victory.
Officers’ “seat of ease” on HMS Victory.
Seamen did not have it quite so good: there are two seats in that box-looking structure on the left, the “head.”

It was ultimately the need for sanitation in the Victorian era that led to the spread of the water closet; the rise of cholera (which may be linked to the year without a summer in 1816; more on that in future posts) meant that the olden days of dumping waste in streets and rivers could not continue. London was by necessity a pioneer in sanitation and plumbing, and English potter Thomas William Twyford invented the single piece ceramic toilet. Thomas Crapper commonly gets credit for inventing the flush toilet, but he was merely a major manufacturer.

An old Crapper toilet, in underground Seattle.

Interestingly, many water closets continued to look much like the old medieval garderobe, or that naval quarter gallery:

The water closet at Agatha Christie’s Georgian house, Greenway.

And the chamber pot took a while to completely go away! Here is one in Winston Churchill’s bedroom, at the World War II Cabinet War Rooms:

Winston Churchill’s bedroom in the underground Cabinet War Rooms.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at one VERY behind-the-scenes aspect that would have been going on in Jane Austen’s novels. Now let us return to those rose-colored glasses, and be grateful for our lovely modern flush toilets!

sign saying, "Now wash your hands"

34 Responses to That’s Right, it’s a Post About Privies

  1. Great post, Sophie! Made me laugh 🙂 I especially like the cabinet with the wash basin and mirror on top and the chamber pot on the bottom. Very elegant, as one would expect from Jane Austen :p Hidden in the steps leading up to the bed is a great idea on the surface, but I questions the practicality and functionality. I can think of mishaps!

    • Thanks, Summer! Yeah I think Jane Austen had one of the more elegant ones, and it was nice and simple and practical to just hide it away in a closet. I hadn’t thought of mishaps with the bed steps but now I am envisioning all sorts of icky insanity, lol.

  2. The outhouse is still quite common in Norway’s summer houses. Small cottages in remote places that does not have electricity or water. The first apartment I rented in the early nineties actually had one… It is okey in the summer but in the cold winters it is freezing.
    I was surprised to find out that Elizabeth 1th had one though.
    Thank you for an enlightening post and I am looking forward to the next.

  3. I remember as a very small child when we lived in N. Ireland for a couple of years with our grandparents on the farm, there was no running water inside, just the outdoor pump and an outhouse. I, too, am grateful for our modern conveniences and the close proximity of toilets. I have wondered about medical issues that would arise, how they were dealt with them…taking off rose-coloured glasses here for sure!

    • Ah, good point, Carole…there were definitely a lot of diseases that resulted from poor sanitation, and many of them would not have been good to have to deal with using either a communal toilet or a chamber pot. Eesh, I am sure glad to put the rose colored glasses back on when it comes to that! Thanks for your comment!

  4. Up until 1958, I grew up with a chamber pot and communal 3 hole outhouse that was shared with 6 families. No, I did not live in a commune but a converted farm workers camp – money was short and needed elsewhere. Thought nothing of it, later my mother said my best friend’s mother was concerned my brother, sister and I growing up in such conditions! After the war when families were returning from internment camps, there wasn’t much left of what they had before – farms, businesses, etc. All was gone unless you had friends or hidden savings. One by one families left, it took my parents eight years before we moved. Had no problems before starting school – had relatives with indoor plumbing. I do miss the washroom though – didn’t realize until I got older what it was – made of galvanized steel, we had a hot tub/soaking tub before it became fashionable! Memories …

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Patricia! Having grown up in the 80s I’ve been surprised by how many people have these early childhood memories of outhouses and chamber pots.I think we’d all still like to have that hot tub/soaking tub, though.

  5. We still have a usable outhouse, which has come in handy during the indoor plumbing issues I’ve had in the last year! It is also amazing what some lime can do to the, er, “effusions” before it is cleaned out on the coldest day of the year and removed to the “pit”.

  6. A really interesting post that makes me glad I live in an era of flush toilets and plumbed sinks. You mentioned bathroom/restroom/toilet/water closet. I’ll add The Loo and The Chamber to that list of British nicknames. My good friend married an Englishman whose last name was Chambers. Because The Chamber is a nickname for the bathroom in England, kids in school called him Louie (in honor of The Loo) and the name stuck. We met as adults and everyone was still called him Louie (even though his real first name is something else entirely).

    • Chamber I haven’t heard at all…loo I have. I read that it might come from that Scottish “garde loo,” which in turn comes from the French “garde a l’eau”…it’s interesting how many of these words stem from French!

      I usually just ask for the toilet when I’m there because it feels a bit naughty since it would be mildly rude here, haha.

      Thanks for your comment, Nancy!

  7. Very informative and something I have wondered about. When I was young, I would sometimes visit a neighbor who did not have indoor plumbing instead they had an outhouse outside the house. I used it a few times and it definitely made me grateful for the modern toilet.

  8. Very interesting. I am glad for our flush toilets!lol I don’t know unless I lived in those times if I could have done my business in a chamber pot!lol And I certainly would not have wanted to be the poor soul who had to clear it away when someone went!

  9. The house my family lived in when I was a baby didn’t have indoor toilets. I was about 20 months old and my Mother was just beginning to “housebreak” me when we moved to a more modern farmhouse. I was impressed with the flush. Mom always said I trained myself!

  10. Well, this was an interesting post. I am always looking for ways stories handle the various names to describe where they go. It is usually when our heroine finds out she is pregnant… and has to deal with morning sickness… where does she run? Balls and assembles… yeah, men probably went outside to the privy [or to the garden and the nearest tree, men have it so easy] … although I’ve never seen it mentioned in a story. I figure women went to the refreshing room where chamber pots were prepared for them or a version of some of the pictures you have brought us. I cannot see them traipsing outside into the night. With the elaborate clothing women wore during the various ages… they would need assistance with… cleaning themselves… otherwise they would have to practically undress in order to… manage.

    As a child we did not have indoor running water or inside facilities. We used well water and the communal water bucket with the dipper. It is a wonder we weren’t all sick. We also had the outdoor toilet and at night or during bad weather we had chamber pots under the beds. I still remember that. When we visited relatives… I remember they had an outdoor toilet too. Man… that was long ago. I do so appreciate an indoor facility… warm during freezing temps and cool during the heat of the summer and I certainly don’t miss that gawd-awful toilet smell. Thank goodness for modernization.

    Thanks for this post… I really enjoy seeing historical locations and since I don’t travel… get to experience it as though I was there. Great photos.

    • Ah yes, the receptacle for morning sickness is I think how I first had to start reading up on this stuff. Although it’s also been a convenient way to get people out of the drawing room when needed.

      I think it would be manageable in Regency dresses as long as you were careful…somewhat similar to a maxi dress today and drawers weren’t closed between the legs for that purpose. The big old Georgian dresses with panniers would have been a whole other matter but I think they were the primary users of the bourdaloue.

      Thank goodness for modernization indeed! And thanks for your comment, J. W.!

  11. I would have been happy to have some of these in my first five years of life – we had a communal non-flushing toilet at the bottom of the garden (and no indoor hot water)

  12. Thank you for sharing this. i always wondered how the bathrooms look before and how they clean/flush it before the pipes etc were made. I also may not be able to travel to see such, thank you for sharing.

  13. Thanks! I have wondered about carriage travel, and arriving at your host and hostess’s place after a long trip. Surely the first thing is that you’d be escorted someplace to relieve yourself. There is a very naughty Regency print called “Laying the Dust” showing some ladies at the roadside.

    • Wow, I didn’t really think about that, but yeah, seems like first thing you’d do is get a chance to go. Often people seem to be invited to go and freshen up, so maybe that was both use the facilities and whatever else you needed to do.

      Probably for people rich enough to have their own post-chaises they could stop and use the facilities at an inn whenever they needed to. Riding a public stage on a strict timetable would have been rough, though…you’d probably have to choose between eating/drinking and using the facilities in the few stops that were long enough for either!

      Thanks for your comment, Lona!

  14. How fascinating! Thank you for the informative post and photos.

    In Germany we call them “Plumpsklo”.

  15. Thank you for this very, very interesting article on toilets in the past. It has always interested me, too. I remember visiting the University of Virginia several years ago. The older dorm was considered an honor to be at, but it had no indoor toilet facilities, as in Thomas Jefferson’s day, when he designed it, it was not a factor. I guess you just had chamber pots. This was in the mid 1990s when I took a number of students there for a conference and we toured afterwards. That was in my History teaching days so long ago. One had to go out in the cold to a public facility from those dorms but not the newer ones. There were also funny narrow stairs there since Jefferson did not like using space for stairs.

    • Wow, I didn’t realize they hadn’t retrofitted the older dorms. I think I would have been torn between living in such a historical place and having to leave the building to use the facilities. I suspect staying warm would have won out for me. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment, Donna!

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