Toilets, or the Lack Thereof, for Georgian Women

512J3dWI1KL._UY250_.jpg In my books, I often have my characters address their personal needs. For example, in A Touch of Grace, my heroine is working in the ladies’ retiring room as a seamstress at a ball, but as she is pregnant, she must sneak around to use the chamber pot that was meant for titled ladies. The heroine, Grace is married to a marquis, but she has run away from her husband and cannot let anyone know her identity. 

But what excuse could a Regency guest have for excusing himself or herself during a supper party? Would he or she say they were going to “freshen up”? What would a man say, and where did he go? Believe it or not, some sources say the men never left the dining room but relieved themselves behind a screen in the same room. I do not know about you, but the thought of sitting at a table and listening to someone urinate behind a screen while I attempted to eat my meal (and not counting the obvious smell) would be a real turn off for me, but I am realistic enough to understand the necessity of such crude designs in the Regency period. If any one seriously had the need to leave the table for personal reasons, a footman would be sent to escort them to the proper facility. 

Ladies did not want to draw attention to themselves leaving the table to go to the toilet. I think most waited until the ladies left the room so the men could enjoy their drink and smoking and then went. The men often used the pot  in the room, so we have heard, as soon as the ladies left. 

I have often heard that women ate and drank very little at balls and social functions because they could not easily discover a means to relieve themselves at these events that lasted for hours on end.

Underwear: Here’s the shocker – women wore very little in the way of underwear as we would define them. (Panties/Knickers) Yes, they wore a chemise, slips, corsets and short-stays but should a stiff breeze kick-up, it is highly likely that our Regency sisters felt a distinct draft-in-the-aft.

Leaving the dining table was very poor manners indeed. I remember reading that the astronomer Tycho Brahe died after a dinner party because his bladder burst. Brahe was long thought to have died from a bladder infection after politeness kept him from excusing himself to use the bathroom during a royal banquet in October 1601, causing his bladder to rupture.

I always assumed it was one of those strict codes of behaviour that dictated not leaving the table once the meal was served, and that’s why men and ladies separated right after the meal, not just for cigars and port, but also for that all-important chamber pot hidden in the cupboard. I assume the ladies had a somewhat more delicate solution. 

francois_boucher__la_bourdaloue_01b

image by Francois Boucher

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What was a Bourdaloue? – All Things Georgian

From Joana Major and Sarah Murden’s All Things Georgian blog, we learn, “Just prior to the Georgian era, they did have the chamber pot, but that was not very practical to be used in public so they devised an object known as a ‘Bourdaloue’. Personally, we think that the Bourdaloue would have been more discreet to be honest. Rumour was (as no proof seems to exist) that the name of the object evolved courtesy of a Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue who gave such long speeches that could last for hours that ladies needed to relieve themselves.  Another school of thought is that they came about as a result of women not wishing to miss a second of his amazing sermons, either way, whether true or not the ‘Bourdaloue’ evolved.  Certainly he gave his name to part of a hat* which seems far more acceptable. It also seems feasible that the modern word ‘loo’ came from this term, but again we have no proof of this….” It was a boat shaped vessel with a raised lip at one end and handle at the other, a bit like a gravy boat and the maid would be expected to carry this for her mistress and likewise empty it after use. If you didn’t have a maid then you dealt with this yourself. Apparently it was designed to be used standing up, possibly not that easy to use then!”

A 2013 article in The Daily Mail entitled “Did Mr. Darcy Have Bad Breath?” tells us something of Austen’s time period, “What of other toilet habits? Once again you needed stronger stomachs than we possess to get through the common daily atmosphere. Men, even women, caught short would use alleyways in which to relieve themselves.

Even indoors, it was common to keep a ‘jordan’ or chamber pot in the corner of public rooms. Privies, outside in the yard, were known as ‘necessaries’. There was no toilet paper on sale. They were supplied with household scrap paper, and even leaves and moss were pressed into service. Flush toilets which worked were introduced as late as 1778, by Joseph Bramah, but sewers were often not handy. Eventually, someone had to empty commodes and privies into buckets for collection by night soil men with carts. Arrangements in large towns were more sophisticated, but their streets were made noisome by the sheer weight of horse dung. This led to the need for crossing sweepers who would, for money, clear you a path to cross the street. It was hard to take a droppings-free walk in towns, hence the prevalence of foot scrapers at doorways. The rich, when not in carriages, employed sedan chairs carried by two chair men fore and aft.”

Bathroom etiquette is strange and interesting. Apparently ladies in the Georgian courts were not allowed to leave the royal presence unless dismissed, which could take a very long time. They wore cups strapped under their gowns so they could go while standing in place. It kind of explains those hooped skirts. Still, think how carefully you’d have to move so your cup did not, as they say, runneth over. 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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4 Responses to Toilets, or the Lack Thereof, for Georgian Women

  1. Rosemary N says:

    Fascinating. I knew they didn’t wear drawers, but the thought of having a cup strapped to you defies imagination.

  2. JanisB says:

    These are the questions everybody always *wants* to ask but are too embarrassed.

    According to my own researches, women in England began “borrowing” men’s drawers in the very early 1800s. They, or their maids, undertook to sew the garments to a more fitting size. It wasn’t until about the 1850s that they were available commercially. There was great concern for the health of women whose nether regions were exposed to air contaminated by the sources of filth you describe, as well as to nursing the contagious sick. And, IMNSHO, rightly so. The first women’s drawers were knee-length, adjusted at the waist by tape ties, and sometimes embroidered at the bottom of each leg — altho’ the garment was not intended to be seen in public, the occasional breeze or the clumsy alighting from a carriage could (scandalously!) expose the adorned hem. It is reported that Queen Charlotte enjoyed scandalizing society by allowing a glimpse of her drawers at social events. Of course the lower classes adopted this garment much after the upper classes.

    My understanding of TP is that while leaves, moss, scraps of paper, etc were in use, the upper echelons of society used cloths — possibly torn or cut from old, worn clothing and bed linens — which were laundered by their laundress for re-use. Interestingly, this practice seems to be making a comeback amongst some of eco-mindedness, e.g.: http://living.wallypop.net/wipes.html (I *really* have no connection to this biz).

    I have always supposed that Brits adopted the term “loo” following the victory at Waterloo, but am perfectly happy to stand corrected. Thank you for another fascinating glimpse into real, everyday history.

  3. Grymm says:

    Another is version is the gradual Anglicisation and contraction of garde a l’eau, the medieval warning given when emptying the guzunder out of a window, to gardy loo to loo.

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