Today’s new theme–archiving!

There are always new folks stopping by the blog and so I try to make sure that fun pieces from the archive get a second–and sometimes third!–posting so they don’t get missed. Once a month, I’ll be digging through the archives to repost something from the early days of the Blog A Go-Go. Those archival posts will always have an original date tag on them so you know whence they came, and I may occasionally put out a call for requests. Today’s piece was originally published in March 2009.

Well, someone had to. Reader Amanda messaged me on Facebook to ask about the hygienic arrangements at Grimsgrave Hall in Silent on the Moor. She was surprised at Portia’s reaction to finding a chamberpot under the bed because she assumed all Victorians used them. At the start of the Victorian Age, that would have undoubtedly have been true. But the Victorian Age lasted a VERY long time, and it was a time that saw probably the greatest change in domestic technology in history. When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, even the wealthy would have used chamberpots and had their rooms lit by candles or oil lamps. By the end of her reign in 1901, electricity had supplanted gaslights in most major cities, and the first Mercedes automobile had already been designed. (If you’re interested in the history of technology and its impact on society, Michelle Stacey’s The Fasting Girl has a fascinating section detailing the psychological ramifications of such rapid and extraordinary changes.)

Naturally, the March sisters would have been accustomed to the latest domestic technologies–except in the matter of heating Bellmont Abbey where the Earl resists modern convenience in favor of coal fires and candles. Their London homes would have featured water closets with running water, and they would view chamberpots as primitive and unsanitary. Their reactions to the arrangements reveal a little about Julia and Portia, but the arrangements themselves reveal rather more about the Allenbys who have been content to live in such conditions despite being landed gentry. Are they merely old-fashioned? Are they romanticists? Has poverty dictated the choice or are they simple content to live a simpler life, cut off as they are from most of the modern world?

And all this talk of hygienic arrangements reminds me that one detail I omitted when I was praising the Inn Boonsboro last week: the toilets are Japanese Toro devices, with warmed seats, cleaning jets, and a dryer. And when you walk up to them, they open automatically. A very far cry from chamberpots indeed. I wonder what Portia would make of them.

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3 Responses to Today’s new theme–archiving!

  1. artfox says:

    While researching ideas for the restoration of my early 20th C. bungalow, I came across some wonderful information about antique plumbing fixtures. Some of those late Victorian toilets were white porcelain with elaborate, colored underglaze transferware patterns inside and out. The seats were made of wood (usually oak); the water tanks were often metal or metal-lined wood affairs places high on the wall above the porcelain fixture. To flush, one pulled a chain and water flowed down a long pipe connecting the tank to the bowl. Since the March family were well-to-do, I imagine their toilets would have been fancy decorated styles from one of the premier 19th C. British porcelain factories.

    The fancy toilets at the inn you visited were probably made by Toto, a Japanese company that has manufacturing facilities in the U.S. well. I have one of their more basic water-conserving models in my home now — it’s one of the few that’s engineered to work well.

    • Was definitely a Toto! And there are no more elegant plumbing arrangements than those glorious Victorian/Edwardian fixtures. Apparently, one installed for a visit by Queen Alexandra was even painted with a scene of Windsor Castle! Unfortunately, she didn’t avail herself of the facilities and never saw it.

  2. Lynne says:

    Poor Portia…I’m pretty sure she would have shared one of her very tart remarks if she had been confronted by that Japanese toilet. I honestly didn’t know that most of the chamber pots were disappearing by the turn of the century but do remember seeing pictures somewhere of the decorated porcelain bowls, no doubt in a history book. Great article, Deanna. I always find these obscure little bits of history fascinating.

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