Abby Cliff/Graduate Student/SUNY Binghamton
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in polite conversation, whether in the eighteenth century or the twenty first, one does not talk much about chamber pots, privies, or any related topic. Chamber pots were an integral part of life in the 18th century—archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume estimates that over 300,000 were in use in London circa 1700—but are rarely discussed by historians, archaeologists, or museum curators perhaps because of a lingering prudish impulse or a dearth of information. For the past few weeks, I, a summer intern at Mount Vernon, have been compiling data from probate inventories, purchasing invoices and secondary sources, to discover more about these useful little pots.
The history of chamber pots dates to almost the beginning of time. According to the aforementioned Noël Hume, we can be pretty sure that whenever man discovered how to make pots he also discovered how they could be used at night and during illness to avoid having to do one’s business in the cold or rain or snow. While some Medieval woodcuts show handless basins under the beds of the ill and dying, it was not until 1519, in Portuguese West Africa, that vessels made specifically as chamber pots were recorded in a European context. The earliest earthenware chamber pot in Virginia, from about 1622 was found by Noël Hume at the Wolstenholme Towne site near Colonial Williamsburg. Settlers at this site not only used chamber pots for convenience, but as a way to avoid being killed or harassed by Native Americans during necessary night time excursions into the woods. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chamber pot manufacturers used a variety of materials, from stoneware and earthenware to pewter and porcelain to fashion these containers. My survey of over 200 probate inventories revealed that stoneware chamber pots were by far the most commonly used by colonists in the Mid-Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Out of 508 chamber pots recorded, 300 were listed as some form of stoneware. In particular, Westerwald stoneware pots, named for a region in present-day Germany, quickly became popular in early America because of their sturdy form and nature. The picture at the top of this post shows three examples of Westerwald or Rhenish stoneware chamber pots from the South Grove Midden at Mount Vernon.
George Washington ordered several batches of chamber pots during his time at Mount Vernon through his London agent, Robert Cary & Company. Most of his orders were for blue and white stoneware but in 1771 he did order 6 “Dutch stone” chamber pots, likely of Westerwald origin. From household manuals of the day, we know that it was the housemaid’s responsibility to empty and clean the family’s chamber pots every morning; at Mount Vernon, a slave woman, perhaps the enslaved maid Caroline, would likely have the job.
Probate inventories of the time indicate that chamber pots were not merely possessions of the wealthy but were present in all social strata. The inventory of a Mr. George Gant of York County, deceased in 1779 and worth over 23,000 pounds, lists two chamber pots at time of death. In 1723, a York County man, Robert Innis, is recorded to have one pewter chamber pot at time of death worth two shillings and six pence and his estate is only valued at 36 pounds. In my research I found that stoneware pots, the most commonly used type, were by far the cheapest pots with an average price reaching only one shilling and six pence, meaning that even Mr. Innis with his 36 pounds could afford to buy one for his household.
Although any talk of chamber pots is likely to elicit adolescent jokes, one friend accused me of having a “potty mouth” when I told him of my research, they serve to give us a fuller picture of life. They reveal that even though eighteenth-century life could often be “nasty, brutish, and short” in comparison to the twentieth century, our forbearers found ways to live with as much dignity and comfort as they could manage.