Continuing our week of reposts....This post was one of my first (from 2010!) but it continues to be among the most popular as well.
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
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.