This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on 6 July 2018.
It’s much more fun to view the Regency era through rose-colored historical glasses, focusing on the flattering empire-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.
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 They’d been replaced by the outdoor privy, which might be more genteelly referred to as a cabinet d’aisance, and the chamber pot.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:
Don’t see it? We’ll get a little closer…
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Interestingly, many water closets continued to look much like the old medieval garderobe, or that naval quarter gallery:
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:
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!
Meet Sophie Turner:
Sophie Turner worked as an online editor before delving even more fully into the tech world. Writing, researching the Regency era, and occasionally dreaming about living in Britain are her escapes from her day job.
She was afraid of long series until she ventured upon Patrick O’Brian’s 20-book Aubrey-Maturin masterpiece, something she might have repeated five times through. Alas, the Constant Love series is only planned to be seven books right now.