Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Lucy Worsley and Jane Austen: Historical Toilet Etiquette

A historian who likes getting under the skin of our dirty, filthy ancestors - what's not to like! We just adore Lucy Worsley, who we may have mentioned once or twice before. Her blog features a survival guide for Georgian courtiers, including some pretty fascinating toilet-related information. We're taking the liberty of reproducing a section of the update:
1. What should you wear at court? Ladies have to wear the court uniform: the ‘mantua’. A coat-like dress spread out sideways over immensely wide hoops, this formal court dress has become trapped in a fashion time warp. Tightly-laced, uncomfortable, and immensely heavy because of the silver in the weave, its skirts get wider and wider as the eighteenth century progresses. Your arms descend from a requisite three rows of frills. (‘I am so incommoded with these nasty ruffles!’ says Fanny Burney.) You should wear your best jewels, and carry a fan.

Gentlemen should wear a wig, an embroidered suit and a sword, and under their elbows they carry a flat, unwearable version of a hat. Because you have to bare your head in front of the king, no one wears real hats at court. However, you can gate-crash a court party quite easily if you borrow the right clothes and slip a shilling to the footman on the door. You can even hire a sword from a booth at the entrance. ‘Dress is a very foolish thing’, declares the arch-courtier Lord Chesterfield, and yet, at the same [time], ‘it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed’.

Tip: you can’t be overdressed.

2. How do you walk in a dress like that?
It’s quite hard to walk in a mantua, and only grand palace doorways have the width to accommodate the hooped skirts without turning sideways. The whalebone hoops force you to take tiny steps, so court ladies are described as looking like they roll along on wheels. Ladies-in-waiting aren’t allowed to sit down, or to fold their arms. Before exiting the royal presence they have to curtsey three times, then back out of the room. But don’t worry: your dancing master will train you in how to do all this.

Tip: take tiny, elegant steps, and practice beforehand.

3. How on earth does one relieve oneself in such a dress?
It’s easier than it looks, as you won’t be wearing knickers (not invented yet). You may squat over a chamberpot, or else you use a ‘bourdaloue’. This is a little jug like a gravy boat that you clench between your thighs. Privacy is not essential, and the French ambassador’s wife annoys everyone with ‘frequency and quantity of her pissing which she does not fail to do at least ten times a day amongst a cloud of witnesses’.

However, if the queen doesn’t grant you permission to go, you just have to try to hold on. One of Queen Caroline’s ladies was once defeated by a bursting bladder. A humiliating pool of urine crept out from under her skirt and ‘threatened the shoes of bystanders’.

Tip: take a ‘bourdaloue’ with you.

(from Lucy Worsley's blog)
A very elegant early-19th-century bourdaloue. Image from Jane Austen's World

Our ancestors weren't as uptight about privacy and hygiene as we are. Generally, it seems as though prudery started sometime in the early Victorian era. Before then, it was considered perfectly acceptable to relieve oneself during dinner. And why not? Lavatories were generally situated outside, and were consequently often cold, dark and smelly. Much more conventient to bring the toilet to you!

18th-century lady showing how to use a bourdaloue. Image from Jane Austen's World

A gentleman demonstrating correct etiquette at an 18th-century English dinner party.
Image from Jane Austen's World

The Jane Austen's World blog explains,

[...] It was [the lady's] maid who brought the vessel in, for bourdaloues were compact and came with a cover. When a lady had to relieve herself she would, I imagine, retreat discreetly to a private corner [...] Her maid would then hand the vessel over to her mistress, who took care not to spill any liquid on her skirts. When the lady was finished, she would hand the bourdaloue to her maid to empty its contents.  When attending a play or opera at the theatre, I imagine she would again retreat to a darker more private corner of the box to urinate. Designed only for women, these bourdalous are quite beautiful. Made of faience or porcelain, they are decorated with flowers or painted scenes. Many are gilded. The portable pots, or coach pots as they were known in England, could be decorated inside as well.  They were quite small and compact, designed for travel, which made it easy to carry them and pack them for coach trips. They were also taken to long banquets, where ladies would scurry behind curtains when they needed to go. Bourdaloues were used throughout the 18th and for most of the 19th century. As water closets began to be built inside homes and buildings, the use of these chamber pots began to be reduced dramatically.

Watch Lucy Worsley demonstrating how to use a bourdaloue here:

Festive video: Lucy Worsley, Bathroom - History of the Home (1/4)

Related reading
Privy Counsel Pin-Up - Colin Firth
Pride and Prejudice and Plumbing
The Shewee.
Women's toilet troubles: The Historical Toilet Tour of York
Victorian Servants Have Taken over the Book Club
Victorian Morality
An impartial view of the Victorians.
A selection of bourdaloues and chamberpots can be seen at Christinehof Castle.

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