When it comes to utilitarian items for hygiene, "form follows function" is the dictate for modern designers, with sleek, unadorned (and often sterile) results.
But it hasn't always been that way. In the past, washbowls, chamberpots, and bourdeloues were often highly decorative pieces of porcelain and earthenware. (Occasionally they're highly amusing, too, such as this infamous chamberpot c 1805 with Napoleon in the bottom, from the Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton.)
The attractiveness of these pieces can obscure their original use to modern eyes. When this blog post first appeared, featuring a pair of elegant bourdeloues – one is even decorated with a Lieutenant's gilded coat of arms – many readers admitted that they'd thought they were serving pieces for some genteel dining table, instead of meant for a more private purpose.
This wild-eyed porcelain cat, above, is another example. Made in Jingdezhen, China, in 1830-50 for the Western export trade, the cat's fiercely amusing expression must have made it a favorite household piece, regardless of its use. And what was that? With the head removed and the tail serving as a handle, the cat becomes a urinal.
Above: Urinal in the figure of a cat, maker unknown, Jingdezhen, China, 1830-50, Hard-paste porcelain, Gift of Miss Gertrude Brinckle & Miss Gertrude Rodney, Winterthur Museum
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.