Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Useful & Necessary: The Bourdaloue

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Susan reporting:

Most modern museum-goers who spot these two porcelain vessels in a display case would assume they were serving pieces. They're certainly pretty enough for an elegant 18th c. table, especially the one with the family crest on the side.

But necessity has always been the mother of invention, and often of design that's both handsome and useful, too. Consider the spreading hoops of an 18th c. lady, draped with yards and yards of costly silk petticoats, and then consider maneuvering all that yardage each time nature called.

There was a solution. These are two examples of bourdaloues, chamber pots designed specifically for women. With the assistance of a lady's maid, they could be slipped beneath skirts and petticoats, employed while standing, and then discretely carried away. Other versions were more utilitarian and fashioned of tin or leather, and intended to make long journeys by carriages bearable. Even when skirts shrank in size towards the end of 18th c., the bourdaloue was deemed too practical an item to abandon, and they remained in use throughout the Victorian era.

Where did the name come from? Legend says the name was taken from a celebrated 17th c. French Jesuit priest named Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), whose sermons were so infamously long that ladies came to church prepared. Not many historians accept this explanation. Even given that people were more frank about bodily needs in the past than they are now, it's very doubtful a well-bred French lady would relieve herself in her pew. Though no one now seems to know for certain, it's likely to be either something garbled in translation, or one more sly English insult aimed at the French.


Top: Bourdaloue. Made by Andrew Stevenson Factory, Cobridge, Staffordshire, England; 1816-30.
Below: Bourdaloue with lid. Made in Jingdezhen, China; 1790-1820.
Both from the collections of Winterthur Museum & Country Estate

20 comments:

Miss_Tami_Lee said...

Is it weird that even before reading this I thought the first one was shaped like a maxi pad? haha

Undine said...

Poor Bourdaloue--no matter how much of a windbag the man may have been, what a way to go down in history!

I've seen that story repeated as fact, too, but it always seemed to cutesy to be true. Odd, though, that if you "Anglify" his name, it could come out as "bawdy-loo," which is as good a nickname for those devices as any.

Miss Kirsten said...

I always wondered how ladies did this in those big dresses! Thanks for explaining!

Rowenna said...

This reminds me of the "bean pot" that was passed down in my dad's family until someone finally picked up on the fact that it was a chamber pot.

Finegan Antiques said...

As much as I have an affinity for the past, please give me modern day conveniences especially on this topic.

Donna

Amanda C. Davis said...

This would have been so nice to have at my sister's wedding reception.

nightsmusic said...

They still sell plastic versions of these for campers and such. I guess great ideas never go out of fashion, huh?

Always Trista said...

LOL! That's exactly what I was thinking! When one of my friends got married last summer, she had so many crinolines under her gown that it took four of us to hold her skirts up for her in the bathroom. I guess the more things change, the more they really stay the same.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating! I had no idea these things existed. I knew about chamber pots.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

You just never know what Loretta and I will come up with here, do you? *g*

The bourdeloues were in the next case from the chamber pots. Many of these did in fact look like "bean pots", beautifully decorated with lids and handles. The ones glorifying military victories seemed particularly...ironic? There were also some peculiar urinals -- one in particular came in the shape of a reclining porcelain cat, with the cat's head the removable lid!

And yes, any of us modern ladies who have had to struggle with a very large formal dress (whether for evening, wedding, or prom) crowded into a very tiny stall have shared the struggles of our 18th c. ancestoresses. :)

Marian Pearson Stevens said...

Wow, I did not see that one coming! LOL! I thought it was a gravy bowl.

Wow. Another mystery solved!

Shannon said...

I can't imagine being able to neatly relieve oneself standing. There'd be too much risk of getting some of it on your skirts (yuck!).

Anonymous said...

Years ago I worked at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum where it is always 1627. When we threw our slops out into the street, we would cry, "Gardyloo!" This was supposed to be a corruption of the French "gare de l'eau"--beware the water. Could bourdaloue be something similar? Katherine Louise

MmeHistoire said...

When I was in Newport, Rhode Island a couple of years ago we were touring an old Quaker church. The Quakers were famous for their day long sermons! We were told that not only did the parishioners bring a lunch with them as it was considered rude to leave the boxed in pews during the sermon, but they also did their business right there in a chmaber pot or maybe a bourdaloue. Their servants if they had some would remove the contents from the pew. Not only that, but underneath your purchased boxed in pew were all your dead relatives!

Jeanne said...

Slight veer off topic, but when my Great Aunt was alive, she told us of a party where the hostess could not imagine why no one ate the popcorn--which was passed in a chamberpot. Must have been too many oldsters who knew what it had been!

Dean said...

I have seen them in at least six US and European musuems displayed and identified as gravy boats/bowls/servers.I have teased one curator innocently as to the lack of a spout for serving....On a related unappetizing note I often see clysters displayed and sold in antique shops as 'sausage stuffers'.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen the painting by Boucher that shows a French lady actually using a bourdaloue? Painted for some perv patron, no doubt!

http://lacontessa.tumblr.com/post/1002129722/francois-boucher-la-toilette-intime

Anonymous said...

That amazes me that there is actually a painting of someone using one of these!!

Pernilla L said...

It occurs to me that when you say "bourdaloue" out loud with an English accent, it does sound quite a lot like "porta-loo"... ;)

Ben N. said...

Re: That amazes me that there is actually a painting of someone using one of these!!

Personally I find it deliciously (almost excruciatingly) erotic to see a beautiful woman "relieving herself". Back in Boucher's time, I'd readily have paid him a good fee for a similar picture. Call me a "perv" if you like, but I wouldn't have it any other way ;)

 
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket