Artifact Corner: Chamber Pots

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at two very necessary items in our museum, chamber pots. These two pots are made of porcelain, and each of them have their original lids. One is painted with flowers in blue, green and warm umber tones. The other is a straight white glaze, with the same cattail motif as the pitcher and basin set we featured in a previous video. This one likely came with the pitcher and basin as a bathroom set. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of bathrooms, but more specifically how people used the toilet.

The first known use of what we would recognize as a toilet dates to around 3200 BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia. In 3,000 BCE the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, which is on the Orkney Isles of Scotland, contains examples of internal small rooms over a communal drain, rather than just a simple pit. In the Indus city of Lothal (c. 2350 BCE), houses belonging to the upper classes had private toilets connected to a covered sewer network constructed of brickwork held together with a gypsum-based mortar that emptied either into the surrounding water bodies or alternatively into cesspits, the latter of which were regularly emptied and cleaned. The Romans had latrines that used flowing water. They had toilets that were elevated from the floor, that sat above a sewer system that was periodically flushed to remove the waste. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, there is not a lot written about toilets or how people did their business. In the Middle Ages, the upper classes had a room called a Garderobe. They were flat pieces of wood or stone spanning from one wall to the other, with one or more holes to sit on. These were above chutes or pipes that discharged outside the castle or Manor house. The garderobes were always kept away from the main living areas, so as to keep the smell at bay.

Chamber pots, similar to the ones in our collections, were already in use in the Medieval period. By the 16th century, cesspits and cesspools were increasingly dug into the ground near houses in Europe as a means of collecting waste. Urban population centers were growing and street gutters were becoming blocked with the larger volume of human waste. So, people took matters into their own hands, hence the digging of cesspools and cesspits. Cesspools were cleaned out by tradesmen, known in English as gong farmers, who pumped out the liquid waste, then shoveled out the solid waste and collected it during the night. This solid waste, euphemistically known as night soil, was sold as fertilizer for agricultural production. During the Victorian era, housemaids collected all of the homes chamber pots and carried them to a room known as the housemaids’ cupboard, where they would be emptied and cleaned. Outhouses were also very common, but if you live in our area, imagine having to go outside to use an outhouse in the middle of January at night. Not at all appealing! In 1826, a man named Isaiah Rogers installed the first indoor plumbing in the Tremont Hotel in Boston. But it wasn’t until 1891, when we have the invention of what we would consider the modern toilet. We owe that to a man named Thomas Crapper, who history would thank by turning his name into a euphemism for the toilet. Sorry Thomas, we really all are appreciative of your invention.

Our Chamber pots are in good condition. They both have minor chipping on them, which is unsurprising given the amount of use they both received. They offer us a glimpse into our past, and also a reminder of how lucky we are to have our modern conveniences, like indoor plumbing. We are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
Artist website: