2017-03-23 / Editorial Page

The Humble Chamber Pot

Across The Savannah
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net


The humble chamber pot. (Photo by Tom Poland). The humble chamber pot. (Photo by Tom Poland). Rambling through woods I spot­ted a thing white. It lay in pine straw, the barest of white visible. Digging it free, I understood at once that I had stumbled upon a chamber pot. Truth be told, it had been rest­ing there decades, and nature, rains, and sunlight had sanitized it while weathering it a bit. This old pot is a veteran and it sure saved someone a lot of trouble once upon a cold night. Oh what tails it could tell.

Perhaps I should have titled this column “The Noble Chamber Pot” for I think of the chamber pot as a step forward, a transition alongside the outhouse that led in time to in­door plumbing. I can remember when chamber pots, ye blue-collar “slop jars,” were common beside as well as beneath beds. I may be wrong but it seems they were be­side the bed until used. Once used, they were stored beneath it, out of sight though not out of detection.

In the early 1960s—over half a century ago—I used one myself at my grandparent’s home in upper Lincoln County. I was just a wee lad. For me, using it was the occa­sional throwback to simpler times, not exactly a number one memory. For my grandparents it was doing business as usual. You’ve heard that saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Folks back then with­out the benefit of today’s toilets and running water probably thought they had it pretty good. Well, guess what. They didn’t. In the summer, hot nights and chamber pots made a poor pairing, even if the lid did fit snugly.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect chamber pots saw a lot more use in the cold nights of win­ter. Imagine a bitter night, one of those nights when stars shine with brilliance and the air is black, dense, and penetrating. It had to be a chill­ing experience sitting on an enamel rim, at say, three in the morning. And then you had to empty that pot several times a day or live with the smell. But that’s how it was before indoor plumbing civilized and sani­tized us.

What strikes me about the old pot in the photo is it looks exactly like the ones my grandparents used, white enamel with red trim. That seemed to be the basic model. Did white chamber pots lead to white commodes? Outside of fashion ma­vens with a flair for pink, blue, and tan commodes, most toilets remain white, so we we’ve been consistent all these years as color goes. But “chamber,” I learned, is a rather so­phisticated term for bedroom. “Step into my chamber, dear.”

Beds changed too. Back in old­en times beds were high. You just about needed a ladder to get into them. I remember my Granddad Walker’s four-poster bed seemed about four feet off the floor and you could have put a large lawnmower beneath it. I recall no chamber pot beneath it but in the other bedrooms they were common. Maybe Grand­dad didn’t mind a midnight jaunt to the outhouse. Maybe guests and kids did, thus the convenience of chamber pots in the other rooms.

Today, most beds today go all the way to the floor. No way a serial kill­er can hide beneath one these days. Good luck getting anything under most beds today, which makes me wonder if indoor plumbing affected the design of beds. No need to store pots anymore? No problem. Let’s make beds low to the floor.

The era of chamber pots, aka slop jars isn’t over. We still have chamber pots, albeit a much younger genera­tion uses them. Chamber pots put the word “potty” in children’s toilet training. And the diaper pail seems to be a variant of the chamber pot as well. The more things change the more they remain the same.

We owe the humble chamber pot our gratitude. It was one more innovation in a chain that led to where we are today. Some of you may recall that chairs with holes where pots served as seats were once used, and then the privy came along, its chief advantage being lo­cated far from the main domicile. It’s a stretch, but think of today’s modern, water-gurgling toilets as the evolutionary combination of pots, chairs, and plumbing. At its most basic, a toilet is nothing more that a seat with an easily controlled stream running beneath it. A flip of a handle or the push of a button and your troubles flow away.

The next time you are on the throne pondering which TV show to watch, give some thought to the lowly chamber pot. Had you been born earlier, you might be perched on one even as you ruminate.

As for the old pot pictured here, I’m not sure how it ended up bur­ied in straw. Perhaps the folks who used it moved on. Perhaps the ad­vent of indoor plumbing doomed it. Maybe it sprang a leak. Whatever the cause, its owners tossed it aside and ever since it has been patiently waiting for someone to come along and remember it. Consider the task done.

Visit Tom Poland at www.tompo­land.net

Email him at tompol@earthlink.net

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