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A Matter of Convenience


[Drawing of Chamberpot NS.2.A56.2a from Port Royal]

The common alternative to a fixed privy has been some form of removable vessel. Unfortunately, the humble chamberpot is an item poorly represented in collections (Draper, 6). This has perhaps caused modern people to underestimate the popularity of this means of waste disposal. An example of this form of latrine was found at the 14th-century BCE Egyptian site at Tel-el-Amarna. A sand-filled vase was placed below a keyhole-shaped opening in a limestone toilet seat (Wright, 11). In ancient times, the invention of the chamberpot was attributed to the Sybarites, who were notorious for their luxurious lifestyles (Lambton, 3). A number of Roman glass "boat models" have now been identified as probably female urinals. Similar objects shaped like sauce boats were used for the same purpose in the 18th and early 19th centuries (Whitehouse, 133-35).

The chamberpot in something like its best-known form first appeared in the fourteenth century, and was commonly made of metal. Examples are known of tin, lead, pewter, copper, silver, and even gold. Earthenware models are recorded from at least 1418, although it is hard to distinguish them from cooking pots, which were of identical form (Wright, 122). The pots were often placed within a closestool with a hinged top and padded seat. Louis XIV had 264 closestools at Versailles (Colman, 45).

The chamberpots used in Colonial America were originally patterned after silver models, but pottery was of course the most common material. Earthenware chamberpots began to be mass-produced by the Staffordshire potteries in the mid-17th century. In fact, chamberpots are among the most frequently found items at colonial sites dated after about 1640 (Noel Hume, Guide, 145), including Port Royal. The most common materials were earthenware and delftware, although gray stoneware from the Rhineland appears in Eland and America about 1700.

Most chamberpots were made of coarse, lead-glazed earthenware. Although [Picture of Chamberpot]these vessels are "coarse" as compared to delft, they are actually of a fine, hard fabric with a little fine sand temper. They are much finer than the earlier ceramics that used large grit or ground shell for temper. Glaze was nearly universal on these vessels. The body of the pots is red, reflecting the oxidizing atmosphere of modern kilns, as distinguished from the black or dark brown products of sealed medieval kilns. The earthenware mass-produced by the Staffordshire potteries was so inexpensive and common that it is rarely even listed on English probate inventories (Draper, 7).

During the course of the 17th century, chamberpots tended to get smaller and flatter (Lambton, 12). Shapes varied during the century, but had settled down to a fairly common design before 1700 (see the Potomac Typological System). This was squat bodied with a flat rim about an inch in width angled slightly upward. Pots were frequently decorated with a small cordon about an inch below the rim. The single handle was attached to the underside of the rim, drawn out as a strap and anchored to the lower body with little ornamentation apart from reeding on the handle. The color of both the body and the glaze differed widely (Hume, Guide, 146).

Delftware chamberpots began to appear after 1650, and were originally very broad-rimmed and squat. By 1700, they were taller and the flat rim had been replaced by a gently flaring rim folded over (this style was later adopted for earthenware chamberpots). The cordon below the rim remained common until about 1735. The handles of delftware pots were generally anchored with a square thumbed terminal. Most delftware chamberpots were undecorated, with a slightly pinkish white glaze. However, some were elaborately decorated in cobalt in the Chinese manner (Hume, Guide, 146-47). During the 18th century, decorated chamberpots became very common, with a portrait of the king being a frequent subject.

Link to:

  1. A Matter of Convenience--Introduction
  2. A Matter of Convenience--Historical Background
  3. A Matter of Convenience--Dry Land Disposal
  4. A Matter of Convenience--Chamberpots (You are here)
  5. A Matter of Convenience--Jamaican Sanitation
  6. A Matter of Convenience--The Building 5 Privy
  7. A Matter of Convenience--Port Royal Chamberpots
  8. A Matter of Convenience--Conclusions

Revised: 1 December 1996

Christine A. Powell
Nautical Archaeology Program
Texas A&M University
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