Sunday, March 29, 2009

Commode or toilet?

Having taught English for nearly 40 years now, I have been surrounded by language and its quirks…and there are many! One of those quirky words relates to a piece of furniture I have in the shop…basically today labeled as a nightstand its origins are as a "commode."

What started me off on this post was the $37,000 commode that the Merrill Lynch executive had in his newly decorated office before the you-know-what hit the fan. Now, when we think commode, we usually process it as toilet…a word that usually turns into a euphemism in America…restroom…bathroom…

But, research shows that what is currently Pakistan was symbolic in the third millennium B.C. during the "Age of Cleanliness." This area had the most advanced toilets and sewers, and Mohenjo-Daro circa 2800 B.C. had some of the most advanced, with lavatories built into the outer walls of houses. These were "Western-style" toilets made from bricks with wooden seats on top. They had vertical chutes, through which waste fell into street drains or cesspits. (As a side note, Mohenjo-Daro translates to Mound of the Dead…I am sure everyone can remember a bathroom where that would be an appropriate moniker!)

Of course, historically the Romans are well known for their baths…does not look too bad once you get over the communal feel!
But, if you have to go, you have to go!

A night commode is a Victorian term for a bedside cabinet closed by one or paired doors, which offered an enclosed area below for storing a chamberpot that collected night soil and served as a washstand with a washbasin and water pitcher for personal cleansing after using the chamberpot. But, my Victorian commode is not close to that $37,000 mark up...not enough idle bankers coming through my shop, I fear.

A chamberpot enclosed in a cabinet of sitting height was called a close-stool; such convenience cabinets or commodes often furnished middle-class bedrooms before the days of indoor plumbing. If the cabinets were low enough, you would put the pot on top and have a seat! In the twentieth century commode continued to be expanded to signify toilet, and I am sure there are some folks left who still say commode and not toilet.

You have seen the ironstone chamber pots in stores and flea markets. They all originally had lids...good thing...but, usually what remains is the pot itself. Still these work so well for extra TP storage or a plant or small towels or other guest toiletry, and they are reasonably priced. What is key about an antique is that it grounds any decorating style. You do not have to be totally old...just a touch here and there keeps you connected to the past.

But, the next time you see a little nightstand for sale, you are going to have to think...hmmm...would it have held the chamber pot, the pitcher and bowl?

And a final thought...these folks had these elaborate pitcher and bowls sets that we display anywhere...they would have tucked them in the cabinet...which gives credence to why so many were broken, chipped, and dinged! They just did not realize that we would want everything mint even though it is over a hundred years old!


Just a bed of roses said...

I too have a few antique oak washstands for holding ironstone potties, love them and they are for sale, one is more ornate. shellies trip to mexico recently finds there are NO bathroom facilities for the mayans sad, just go potty anywhere. I at least love the row of rock seats...I would be to bashful to sit there with an audience wouldnt you? I actually have an outhouse in my backyard...husband insists! Of course its a two seater! Love your class today susan.

Anonymous said...

Susan, you have outdone yourself this time. I have had many days when the you know what has hit the fan. Very interesting information on the lowly commode and its equipment. Keep up the good work, it is most enjoyable!!

gail said...

Hi Susan,,, As usual,, a great post and history lesson. I love what I learn hear each week. Its like I get to be one of your students. :)
I have to say,,, Thank God I was born in the decade I was. I am so thankful for our indoor plumbing. You tend to take these things for granted, I think this should go in my gratitude journal this week. LOL
I hope your having a great week...
hugs, gail

Karen-CharmingsCollectibles said...

"They just did not realize that we would want everything mint even though it is over a hundred years old!"
LOL, Isn't that the truth!

Carolee Crafts said...

I agree with Gail, thank goodness for modern plumbing. Thank you for the information.

Marie said...

HI Susan,

I actually have a wash stand in my living room. It has been in the family for years. I always loved that piece of furniture even before I knew what it was. It has a marble top, too. When my mother had it in her house, she did have a pitcher and bowl on top of it. I use it as an end table. thnaks for the great information.

Cottage Flair said...

Great post. I have such a hard time having a chamber pot in my house even for whatever! I do love pitcher and bowl sets. Wow, $37,00!!!!

Lilli Blue said...

My grandma had a bucket upstairs. I wish I had her chamber pot now. I didn't like to use them when I was a child because they were cold to sit on...LOL

Patricia said...

I have a bedroom set I had gotten at a second hand store and the 'night stand' has a towel bar on the side-guess it's a commode!
Must be a bit older than I originally thought.
My grandmother had kept a chamberpot in her bedroom rather than venture down the stairs in the dark.
I don't think I would have been too comfy with those communual potties--yeck!
Patricia Rose-A Potpourri of Fabric, Fragrance and Findings

Sue said...

Susan I have the huge pitcher that matches that camber pot! I wish I had the bowl to go with it! Sue