Thursday, July 23, 2015

From the Archives: Useful & Necessary: The Bourdaloue

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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. 

Isabella 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

7 comments:

Lauriana said...

Just wondering: Were these things also in use with the sleek Empire line dresses from the early 19th century? Dresses made from white cotton, a fabric which would show drops of moisture quite easily...

Marnie said...

Thanks. Now I know. I asked women who ran the 1000 mile Iditarod dog sled race from
Anchorage to Nome what they did rather than wasting time by stopping their long teams.
They used a little dixie cup contraption. Worked really well, they said.
By now some crafty entrepreneur has probably designed something fancier and costlier.

Frances Evesham said...

Rather an elegant solution to a problem we've all known. The forerunner of the 'she wee' I suppose! These things are so much easier for men. The film star David Niven used a long tube leading to a bag strapped to his leg when sitting through long formal dinners!

Caroline Clemmons said...

From the name, do you suppose this is where the term "Loo" originated for the bathroom? Thanks for the information and photos supporting your post.

Helen Kerr said...

The long sermon legend is popular. I heard it on Antiques Roadshow a few weeks back.

Even if it was built on an element of truth, I imagine any lady worth the name was discreet enough to retire to a more private spot than an occupied pew.

Guilibility is often amusing.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "loo", I've heard that it's derived from the French word for water: l'eau.

SLK in SF said...

Saint-Simon in his memoirs tells of how a woman received an enema while entertaining company (she was, however, shielded by a folding screen). I don't know if the peeing in church story is true or not but honestly, it wouldn't surprise me.

 
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket