Elegant pooping
November 18, 2016 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Since I'm always struggling with plumbers here at my home, I realized that my home was just not built to have a water closet. And I have come to wonder how things worked back in the day. My apartment is clearly intended for the upper middle class. It is spacious and originally had a room for staff. But it was built without a toilet. There was a bath, but what is now the toilet was originally a storage space. Actually, the whole back part of my apartment was clearly not open for guests - the doors are lower and the decoration is more primitive. I can't bring in a normal fridge because the doors are too narrow. My question is: how did the people who visited my apartment during the early 20th century pee? There is a huge dining room and a den and generally the layout suggests tons of entertainment (very little space for private life). But these guests must have had bodily functions? Or what?
posted by mumimor to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
They used a potty or similar receptacle, which would be emptied by the maid and taken away by the night soil collector.
posted by TheRaven at 12:07 PM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Where are you located and when was your building built? Because plenty of residences lacked indoor plumbing in the first half of the 20th. My mother lived in town (as opposed to out on a farm) and didn't have indoor plumbing post war until my grandfather was killed and the family moved to a rental house. Baths were taken indoors but with water from a well accessed with a hand pump outside then hauled inside with bucket and heated on the stove.
posted by Mitheral at 12:08 PM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

IE: people used outhouses even in fancy residences.
posted by Mitheral at 12:09 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

When we asked an older woman why a small room in the house wasn't used for a toilet, she said that the idea of a toilet in the house seemed disgusting. So yes - cooker girl is right - chamber pots, outhouses, privies.
posted by FencingGal at 12:17 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

The farmhouse my parents moved into (northeast US) when I was a baby still had a functional outhouse in the back even though it also had indoor plumbing. Many apartment type places in the UK that have gardens in the back used to have privies out there.
posted by jessamyn at 1:00 PM on November 18, 2016

One Victorian-era house I lived in in inner Sydney in the early 2000s had a toilet in an outhouse (as well as one in the bathroom inside, which was a new addition).

My grandmother tells me that when she was a child in the 1920s/30s, city and town outhouses had a can under the seat, which was collected each day by the 'dunny man'. At Christmas time it was the custom to leave him a couple of beers next to the dunny can, to say thank you, and he would in turn leave a christmas card on the seat.
posted by girlgenius at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

We have a tiny 1910 house in San Francisco. The bathroom is very clearly a later addition, possibly from as late as the 1930s, like a flimsy shoe box glued to the side of a sturdy wooden crate. When we dug out the old foundation to replace it with a seismically-sound one, we found what looked like a latrine trench. It's now under the bathroom "shoe box" but would have been a deep trench (a good 6-ish feet deep below the top of the house's original foundation) just 6 or so feet behind the original "sturdy wooden crate" house. It was full of broken crockery, patent medicine bottles, glassware, even a few marbles and chipped chandelier crystals (and, we assume, a bunch of century-old piss and shit).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:04 PM on November 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

When we asked an older woman why a small room in the house wasn't used for a toilet, she said that the idea of a toilet in the house seemed disgusting.

Not just that, the public health experts of the day were all decrying the hazards of "sewer gas" (also mentioned in the article linked by cooker girl) which was held to be responsible for a wide range of maladies. Wealthy households might have avoided installing indoor plumbing not because of the expense, but because of the perceived health risk.
posted by contraption at 2:36 PM on November 18, 2016

Sewer gas would have been a risk before we all got a grip on the right water-trap P-bends and the venting stack.

My 1906 house, not I think built for live-in servants, hedged by having a room-with-a-tub upstairs and the water closet in a little corner of the back of the house, right off the back door from the kitchen but originally exterior (it had exterior siding and it looks like the top foot was an open grating. Brrr, but ventilated.)

Also, judging from how boardinghouses were built here, I bet people either urinated or poured their chamberpots into upstairs sinks, when defecation required a trip to the w.c. or outhouse.
posted by clew at 3:41 PM on November 18, 2016

Thank you all for very good info here.
I'm in Copenhagen, in an area that was late in introducing plumbing. My house was built in 1900.

I know for sure that former tenants used potties and also there were toilets in the yard. I think the people who lived here would use potties which servants would then bring to the yard.

My question is more about how things worked out day to day: say you had friends over for dinner and obviously, some of them would need to go. What happened then? Would they go down to the yard, or would a servant give them a potty in some off room? Where would they do this? It just seems so strange and also disgusting.
posted by mumimor at 3:50 PM on November 18, 2016

I know I've run across autobiographical references implying that people urinated into chamberpots *in the diningroom* AMAZINGLY late -- like, late 19th c -- but I don't know how widely true that was. I got the impression there was a lot of "can't avoid, don't mention" etiquette.

Also one suspects terrifying bowel control and UTIs.
posted by clew at 3:59 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I seem to remember something about people peeing into chamberpots in the dining room, as clew says, in a tour I took of Bronx NY mansions a few months back. I remember being really surprised and wondering if I had misheard. (Wish I had had the wherewithal to ask for clarification.) But that is my recollection.
posted by merejane at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2016

Follow-up to my post above: I just googled "dining room chamberpots" and found some references -- e.g., this post -- that support my memory from that historical house tour.
posted by merejane at 4:20 PM on November 18, 2016

I find the whole thread great -- there are a number of people with personal memory of no-indoor-plumbing, e.g. "TV time".

(Piss in the pot and poop outdoors seems to have been common, and the chamberpot in the dining or drawing room may be a pre-bourgeois thing. But existed.)
posted by clew at 4:27 PM on November 18, 2016

I decided a while ago that the horror of garlic and cabbage my grandparents were brought up with probably derived from laundry-drying-in-the-kitchen eras, when everrrrything you washed would pick up cooking odors. I know Ruth Goodman describes Approved Diet for post-Industrial-Revolution children as gummy and fiber-free; IIRC she describes it as an overreaction to cholera and other dangerous forms of the runs, but maybe it was also practice for just not pooping very often.
posted by clew at 4:33 PM on November 18, 2016

When I was teaching English in the Republic of Georgia a few years ago, I stayed over at another teacher's house with a bunch of other English teachers. She was living with a family that had a big fancy ole house, and no indoor toilet. I used both the outhouse and the bedroom chamber pot.
posted by aniola at 7:47 PM on November 18, 2016

When I was a child I went on a class trip to Bellevue House, former home Sir John A. MacDonald Canada's first Prime Minister (at the time he lived there he was a lawyer and a politician, but not yet Prime Minister). The Park Interpreter took great glee in pointing out to us an odd looking wooden chair in the Master Bedroom and asking us to guess what it was. It was an indoor "toilet" with a hidden chamber pot.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 4:33 PM on November 19, 2016

My c. 1920 house has no first floor toilet; the explanation I have read and heard is that for some time, toilets were unspeakable things, obviously needing to be kept well out of sight. It would have apparently been extremely embarrassing and déclassé to, say, have the vicar come to call and have to entertain him on the same floor as a (gasp!) toilet. So even where there were early-ish toilets, they were still rather shameful. I'm sure euphemisms were required to go upstairs. (How to pee here requires some explaining; the house is constructed in such a way that when you go to the 2nd floor, you get lost in a sort of L-shaped hall with five identical doors. I tend to think this was deliberate, to further obscure the bathroom, but that's just guessing.)
posted by kmennie at 10:25 AM on November 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Seeing the best of Buenos Aires?   |   Seeking Specific Steven Universe Fanart Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.