Some subject matter was just too delicate to talk about in the old days. The days before indoor plumbing, running water and bathrooms posed significant problems as related to the most basic human functions. Polite company would never discuss such a private and personal problem. In a day when the word “pregnant” was never used in front of the kids and code words were used, like “PG”, or “Family Way”, bathroom subjects were even more taboo.
The house my grandparents lived in was built, we think, about 1860 by a fellow named Jake Long. Later, when my grandparents got married, they moved in this house and lived there their entire lives after that. It, of course, was built before electricity and running water.
Baths were taken in various ways. Sometimes it was using a wash basin and some hot water that had been heated on the kitchen stove in kettles. Other times it might be in a larger tub that had been filled with water and placed in the sun all day and some hot water is added at bath time. That water might have to be shared! Many guest rooms would have a wash stand, towels and cloths so the person could “bathe” in the room they were staying in. Nicer homes might have a separate room for the purpose of bathing but most houses did not have that luxury. Often, the back porch served as a place for baths, especially for the kids.
Cities got running water much earlier than the rural areas and primarily because there was no way to pump water. Some homes installed gravity flow systems and some of these ideas go back to Roman times.
In the rural areas, like where my grandparents lived, rural electric power arrived about 1946-47. But before that, they generated some electricity using a Delco Electric Plant enabling them to get piped in water before most people around them. See the article at https://sandypointtimes.com/2015/11/03/rural-electric-delco-power-and-jc/ . They had running water, indoor plumbing, and lights before a lot of rural people in the area.
Before that time, there was also the indelicate matter of going to the bathroom. Almost 100% of the rural homes of the day had out houses. It was situated nearby and hidden by hedge, a tree, or another out building, when possible. But if not possible, then there it sat for all the world to see. The old version of a modern day portable toilet.
Usually made of wood and a door that could be latched from the inside. Only the wealthiest people had one made of brick. Lots of old jokes about “brick out houses”.
If you were really lucky, it had some form of “toilet paper”. Sears Roebuck catalogs were recycled for the purpose in many situations. Other, too indelicate to mention, methods were used as well. A deluxe out house may have been a “Two holer” and these facilities required someone to manually remove the accumulated waste from time to time. They were unpleasant, smelly, necessities that attracted flies and other undesirables. Certainly not a place for company to have to visit if at all possible to avoid.
Out houses, for all of their bad attributes, did provide an answer to a common problem and were manageable in the daylight and in reasonable temperatures although no one wanted to be seen entering or exiting the facility and care was taken to avoid that when at all possible.
Outhouses were a place where practical jokes were played on people and firecrackers and other mean spirited tricks were sometimes played on someone inside at this vulnerable time. You probably have heard the expression, “caught with his pants down” and assumed it meant something else.
But, what did you do in the middle of the night when it was 20 degrees outside? Going to the out house could be an adventure! What did you do so that your sweet young wife did not have to humiliate herself traipsing to the out house in front of the world?
Well, that’s where the chamber pot, or more commonly in the South, the slop jar came into play. And, sometimes it was just referred to as “the pot”.
Made of ceramic, porcelain, wood, or metal these small containers with a nice lid could be kept inside, usually under the bed or “behind the bed” ready for immediate use. There might be one under every bed or in every bedroom. If more than one person was in a room, well, you might have to share.
Well to do English Manors and wealthy families with lots of hired help would have someone to come around every morning and empty and clean out the chamber pots and slop jars. In other families, someone would have that as their “chore”. And, some chore it was.
I suppose that most people today have never seen a chamber pot except at an antique auction and, I dare say, few have ever had to rely on one. But the system served people for hundreds of years.
Like all things in life, this “luxury” also had some drawbacks, aside from having to be dealt with every day. But, in some cases, that could be delegated.
If you were sharing a bed with your brothers and sisters, you did not want the side of the bed that the chamber pot was under. As far away as possible was best.
You hoped that all the activity involving the “pot” was only of the “Number 1” category!
And, you hoped that the person who last used it put the lid back on and put it back in the appropriate place so you could find it in the dark. It was best that you not have to feel around for it, only to find it by sticking your hand in an open container!
And, of course, stepping in one in the middle of the night or knocking it over would really rile someone up! But, modesty and convenience comes with a price!