History

When my mother in law was visiting, we went to a local tourist attraction which is a preserved/restored colonial village that is now the site of a world-famous boarding school where people like the King of Jordan send their children. The village part is amazing. You can walk an ancient footpath, past still-functioning dairy farms where the cows are milked by hand and laze around in a field all day lowing gently and swatting their nether regions with their weird gross tails. Ducks will quack loudly at you. There are 17th-century medicinal herbal gardens you can poke around in. You can go inside actual preserved homes that were built in the late 17th century, and walk around in them looking at the cupboards and furniture, all of which is fanatically era-appropriate. The kitchen fireplace bricks are scorched black as night from hundreds of years of broasting whole deers in there or whatever. The bedrooms all have period-specific bedsteads with straw mattresses and coverlets that were actually hand-embroidered in that very village, hundreds of years ago. It’s awesome.

In one of the houses we took a tour. Each house has a designated retired historian who hangs out in there all day and answers any questions you might have, or leads tours through the house. On this one tour our group consisted of a bunch of middle-aged couples, one of which also towed along a fantastically bored teen. My husband and I were so into this teen. First of all, he was literally at least six foot five. He was enormous. He was one of the tallest people I’ve ever seen in real life. But, he was probably only about fifteen, so he didn’t know how to live in his body yet, so he was running into stuff, and tripping, and he didn’t fit into some of the rooms, and he couldn’t find anywhere to slouch. He was also so bored. He was so bored that his boredom became like this violent energy that slowly suffused the whole group and raised everyone’s stress level by 65%. His boredom was unmanageable and fierce; he wanted to die and go to hell, or kill someone, or break everything in the house, screaming WHO CARES ABOUT THIS MUSTY OLD JUNK. He leaned against a piece of furniture that was built in 1636: “Please don’t touch that!!” cried the tour guide. He leaned against the kitchen wall, putting his huge foot up behind him, leaving a footprint on a wall that Benjamin Franklin had probably had sex against. His older brother, annoyed, hit him on the leg and made him put his foot down. Meanwhile, all the middle-aged nerds in the group are utterly mesmerized by the tour guide, and are interrupting one another to breathlessly ask things like “and where did they get the thread for this needlework?” and “are these floors pine?” and “is this paint era-specific?” and “this is the shade of blue that they made using arsenic, am I correct?” and “would this cupboard have been used to keep food warm?” and “what fiber are these baskets woven of?” and finally the teen snapped, he couldn’t do it anymore, he walked loudly across the room, directly in front of the tour guide as she was speaking, banged against a table, rattled some 400 year old pewter jugs, bent down to his mother and whispered something to her, then stumbled out of the room to the front door, which was locked (to keep non-tour-related people from wandering in), so he started desperately yanking on it and jiggling the handle and beating his hand against the door. “What’s he doing??” asked the tour guide. The mother, embarrassed, said, “he wants to get out.” The tour guide was VERY annoyed. She said “well, I have to go let him out, because the door’s locked.” She walked slowly out into the hall and let him out. When she came back in, she was shaking her head and chuckling. Then the rest of the group started laughing. I pictured the teen outside, clutching his head and rolling about in the grass in a rage. How infuriating it is when you are a teen and adults are so interested in things like needlework. How dare your mother make you go to this absurd insane thing, what is possibly wrong with her, how can you have the lamest most crazy mom on the entire earth, why does god punish you so??? How you swear you’ll never be such a stupid old fart. Well, I’ve got news for you kid.

We never saw him again. Periodically during the rest of the many hours we spent in this village we’d be like “dang, where’s that bored teen? I hope he’s okay.”

Anyway, the coolest thing that happened in this village was when we went into a house that was built during the Federalist period, and was ritzier than the colonial house (higher ceilings, bigger windows, fancy curved stairway). We poked around in it for a bit, and I eavesdropped on the resident volunteer historian–a cool-looking old babe wearing a denim skirt, who was perhaps 70–as she told another visitor about how the mural on the wall supposedly depicted a scene from a native American village but was quite obviously based on the frescoes of Ancient Greece, and that that’s really the definition of “neoclassical.” “This lady seems legit as hell,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if she will be the person to finally answer some of my questions about bathrooms.”

For years I have been fascinated with the aspects of history that are forgotten and lost simply because no one at the time thought they were worth recording. “History” is battle dates and composition dates, sure, but it’s also, like, how did people have sex when the whole family plus random visitors all slept in the same bed, and how did you have your period when there were no tampons, and WHERE DID YOU GO TO THE BATHROOM WHEN YOU WERE AT A PARTY AT SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE??? Specifically I have wondered this about 19th century opera-going. It’s 1830, there is no electricity or running water, and you’ve got 400 people sitting in a huge building watching an opera for four hours, swigging champagne by the bucket and eating horrible 19th century food. Where did they all go to the bathroom? Was there a room filled with chamberpots? Nobody seems to know, although there are historical documents that will mention things like a French visitor to an Italian opera house fainting from the smell. But nobody in history ever sat down and was like “Let me explain in detail how we all relieve our bowels, because surely one day in the future it will all be done quite differently and they will wonder about us.”

So, I sidled up to this historian, and after a few preliminary questions about where the wallpaper had been hand-printed, and whether or not glass-making technology had improved between the Colonial and Federalist periods, I cleared my throat and said, “I wonder if you can answer a question I have had for many years…” Her face lit up. She was truly a historian! I said “…if it’s 1703, and I come to your house for dinner, where do I go to the bathroom?” And she didn’t miss a beat! She had SO MANY THINGS TO SAY. I learned a lot.

First of all, there were of course outhouses at private homes, and people probably used those at least during the day/summer. At night, if you were sleeping in the house, you had a chamberpot, which you’d empty in the morning. I knew all this. But I specifically have always wondered about the social aspect of visitors using the bathroom late at night, or in wintertime, at someone else’s house. It’s the kind of thing that never is even alluded to in an Austen novel. Nobody’s ever like “Well, I must go use the outhouse, I’ll be back in a minute” or anything. These houses of course don’t have bathrooms–as you walk around them you’re really struck by it. It’s such a basic aspect of a house these days, but these preserved homes have no bathroom at all, no room that could have even served as a pretend old-school chamberpot room or anything. That’s why renovated ancient houses often have such weird floor plans, because people had to, like, stick a bathroom somewhere that used to be a bread closet or something. Back then you took a shit in your actual bedroom, or outside in the yard, and that was it. OR SO I THOUGHT!!!!

This lady said that actually, one thing that had really blown historians’ minds when they started actually delving into these kinds of old villages and houses and trying to really catalogue what went on in each room, etc., was that they discovered that it was very common for people to have COMMODES IN THE DINING ROOM.

I said WHAT! She said I KNOW!

She said in this village alone, in 13 of the 17 houses or something, they found commodes in the dining rooms. Meaning, a nice wooden chair with a tub underneath it, that you sat in to take a shit. IN THE DINING ROOM. I said, “what, behind a screen or something?” She said, “nope! Just sitting in the corner.” I could not even form questions. “So…..people would be eating dinner, and then you’d just get up and go sit on the toilet in front of everyone???” she shrugged and made a “WHO KNOWS!” gesture. She said her personal opinion was that it was probably semi-private. Like the commode was there, but you didn’t use it in front of everyone–rather, it would be more like, once you retired from the dining room into the parlor, for your brandy and pianoforte, then if you needed to relieve yourself you’d leave, go back into the dining room, and use the commode. Even so, this is beyond mind blowing to me. To think that when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and the Bingley sisters are verbally jousting ’round the dinner table there is a TOILET POSSIBLY FILLED WITH HUMAN SHIT three feet away from them, and that later, after Darcy has commented on Elizabeth’s competent but not flashy skill at the piano, there perhaps came a moment when Elizabeth was like “excuse me please,” and went through a door (which couldn’t be locked) and sat on a toilet in the dining room (while servants were coming in and out cleaning up?? What?). I know Austen is 19th century and this lady was talking about 17th and 18th century homes, and I shouldn’t be conflating eras, but the technology seems like it’d be the same regardless, like until you have running water, you’re just taking a shit in the dining room whether it’s 1703 or 1820.

The historian reminded me that conceptions of privacy and hygiene are profoundly cultural, and change dramatically with the times. I of course know this–I brought up Alain Corbin’s wonderful book about the history of smell in France, and we talked about bathing for awhile (“Why would you bathe, when it’s 10 below zero inside your house? It’s crazy!”)–but I don’t know, something about actually taking a shit more or less in front of other people just does not gibe with my impressions of the social life of these past eras. Like, women can’t show their ankles but they can take a dump in front of everyone? The Bingley sisters are scandalized that Elizabeth walks across a muddy field but they don’t bat an eye at her peeing loudly into a ceramic tub while they’re buttering their scones? That seems weird.

Anyway it was so delightful that this lady had so much specific, material evidence at her fingertips. It was like she’d just been waiting for someone to ask her about 17th century toilets.

I asked if any of the commodes were still in place in the village and she said yes, one of the houses still had the commode installed in the dining room. We rushed over there but it was locked and we’d missed the tour. We peered in all the windows trying to see the commode but were unsuccessful. “I WANNA SEE THAT TOILET” my husband yelled.

Tragically, I think even the bored teen would have been captivated by this whole sub-plot, but he wasn’t with us!

The wages of sin is death

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One Response to History

  1. Eileen says:

    In Regency romance novels, when there’s a ball, they always have something called the “ladies’ retiring room” down the hall from the ballroom (I say, as though the contemporary romance novel is an authentic historical source). They usually seem to be two adjoining rooms, one for grooming and having emotional breakdowns with your friends and the other with actual bathroom equipment which is never described. I would be shocked were there not this same type of commode, though.

    The dining room actually seems like a semi-reasonable place for such a thing, considering that no one is going to be sitting around hanging out in the dining room all day. They’ll clearly be receiving calls in the parlor or morning room or what have you instead. I’d be really curious to hear when exactly things were emptied and cleaned. Before dinner, I would seriously hope. Also in the case of “Oh shit, the prince regent is at the door! Empty all the commodes at once!”

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