The Way To Go: Chamber Pots, Commodes and Careless Mistakes

How-to tips help collectors and antiques dealers identify chamber pots, commodes, thunder mugs and other portable toilets.
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By Dr. Anthony J. Cavo

When speaking about chamber pots, commodes and careless mistakes, the “careless mistakes” are probably not what you might imagine. These “mistakes” are not something that need to be cleaned up insomuch as corrected.

Brooklyn Toilet set

Brooklyn Toilet set

I’m writing about the latest antiques to be misidentified by online sellers and antiques dealers. It seems like something hardly worth mentioning except that when antiques are misidentified by the “experts” the incorrect information becomes credible and then a general belief. This happens with many antiques but this article will be limited to those old-time necessities known as a: chamber pot, commode, thunder mug, Texas teacup, potty, po’, guzunder, Jordan, jerry and the widely known, unrefined, piss pot. These are nicknames for the chamber pot that was once stored under the bed, in the washstand or privy cabinet. No doubt our readers could come up with a few more of these euphemisms.

Misidentifying chamber pots

Chamber pot.

Chamber pot.All images courtesy of Dr. Anthony J. Cavo

When you gotta go, you gotta go, but do antiques dealers really know where to go?

I have noticed a new trend in online selling sites that is misleading at least and deceptive at worst. Commodes are being sold as dough boxes and slop jars as chamber pots. One reason may be ignorance on the seller’s part, which is no excuse. If you call yourself an antiques dealer, you must educate yourself. There are literally tens of thousands of books online, both new and used, most very inexpensive or even free at your local library. These books will help identify furniture, glassware, art, carpets, textiles, and every type of antique and collectible.

I regularly see lift-top commodes, the pieces of furniture with a lift top, a drawer and a door in which a chamber pot was stored, listed for sale online as “Dough Boxes.” I can’t imagine where these dealers came up with this one. Is it out of ignorance or is it because furniture-size dough boxes are not easy to find and command higher prices than commodes?

Dough box front side views

This form, front and side view, is classic for an eighteenth to early nineteenth century dough box. All four sides slope, they are usually dovetail constructed and the lid typically lifts off completely, although later dough boxes can have hinged lids. They can be four to four and a half feet long, two feet deep, and over two feet tall.

Antique dough boxes look nothing like a commode and typically sell for as much as two to ten times as much for an eighteenth century piece. At the best it is misrepresentation, at worst, deception. These lift-top commodes can be found online in a price range from $130 to $595, which in itself shows just how arbitrary pricing can be. Do a search yourself for “antique cottage commode” and you can see the disparity in prices for the same quality piece. Admittedly, the person who bought such a piece at $130 got a bargain. On the other hand, the person who pays more than $300 is being gouged.

I may receive a slew of letters from dealers asking me, “Just who the #$#% do you think you are?” But I said it and I’ll stick by it; this Brooklyn-born boy ain’t backing down. I have also seen these lift-top commodes listed as “a commode or a dry sink.”

C’mon people, it’s one or the other. Are you or are you not an antiques dealer?

Many online sellers misidentify their items with conviction and assign prices apropos of nothing. It is apparent that many of these sellers do not research their item, even on the same website they are using to sell that item in order to determine how many of those items are being offered and at what price. I regularly see the same exact item listed by as many as ten sellers with a wide range of prices. Sometimes you’ll find a “Buy It Now” item and just below that listing is a similar, even identical “Buy It Now” item at three times the price. Many of the list prices are arbitrary with no basis in reality.

bowl and pitcher set

In addition to the bowl and pitcher (E), a typical bowl and pitcher set might include a chamber pot with lid (C), a two- to three-piece soap dish (F), a toothbrush holder (B), a cup, a slop jar with or without a lid (A), and one or two smaller pitchers for warm water (D).

My seventeen-year-old nephew recently purchased a carved scarab bracelet at an estate sale and decided to list it on that big internet selling site we all know. Prior to listing his items, he researches that website to determine if there are similar or even the same item being offered and for what prices. He will also do an advanced search to determine what the actual sales prices were for that item. He found the same exact bracelet on a current listing as a “Buy It Now, $7.50 or best offer,” with dozens of others for as high as $125; many being identified as “Egyptian Revival” (1820-1850 and again 1920-1930) when they are clearly brand new. eBay is not the place to educate yourself.

Excuse the departure, I’m back on the chamber pot, so to speak. There is some confusion regarding the difference between a chamber pot and a slop jar (slop bucket). Many online venues are offering slop jars for sale as commodes or chamber pots when they are completely different both in form and function.

About 'toilet sets'

To understand the difference, you need to be familiar with toilet sets, known today as a bowl and pitcher sets, which were used until the advent of indoor plumbing and even later in homes that did not have the luxury. Many people do not realize that a bowl and pitcher is usually not a stand-alone item but is typically part of a set that may have 6, 10, or 12 pieces (including lids) that could cost anywhere from $4.75 to $8.25. In addition to the bowl and pitcher, a typical bowl and pitcher set might include a chamber pot with lid, a two- to three-piece soap dish, a toothbrush holder, a cup, a slop jar with or without a lid, and one or two smaller pitchers for warm water.

The “Brooklyn Toilet Set” shown in the illustration (above) was offered in the 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue for $8.25, which, according to the Consumer Price Index, is equivalent in purchasing power to $555.06 in 2018. The set consisted of “basin and pitcher, mug, brush vase, hot water pitcher, soap dish, cover and drainer, chamber and cover and slop jar and cover.”

The chamber pot was kept under the bed or in a commode, washstand, privy cabinet or po’ cupboard (from the French pot de chamber). Contrary to popular and contemporary belief, people during the Victorian era, with the exception of the very poor, did not go without bathing for months or even weeks. They did not routinely immerse themselves in tubs or showers as we do, but they did take sponge baths similar to those given in hospitals and rehabilitation centers everywhere today.

The large pitcher was filled with water, usually cold or room temperature if filled the night before, and smaller pitchers could be filled with warm water heated on a stove. This water was poured into the bowl from where the actual washing was done. When washing was complete, they did not carry the water-filled bowl outdoors to be emptied, such an attempt would leave water everywhere. Instead, they tipped the used water into the slop jar and cleaned the bowl for the next use. The slop jar was also used as a receptacle for waste from brushing teeth. For this reason, the chamber pot was never emptied into the slop jar. The slop jar was taken outdoors to be emptied and the chamber pot was emptied into a cesspool or outhouse.

Misguidance on the internet

Lift-top commode

Lift-top commode

Even Wiktionary has an incorrect definition for a slop jar – they define it as “A container used for urinating or defecating…” This is a perfect example of how the internet is as misguiding as it is useful. Because something is stated in Wikipedia or Wiktionary doesn’t make it correct. When these “educational” sites misinform, they are, in a sense, guilty of malpractice. Why would a chamber pot or commode also be called a “slop bucket” or “slop jar”? Why would a bowl and pitcher set have two different types of vessels for bodily wastes? The “slop” referred to in the term “slop jar” is the waste from washing and tooth brushing.

Although we are all familiar with the phrase “Caveat Emptor,” I believe there is a certain standard that people in the antiques business must maintain. If you are going to sell something, research it, but consult a reliable source. Know your antiques, know the years, know the way in which it was used, and know current market value. Knowing this information will not only make you a better antiques dealer but being well-versed will make your items more interesting to potential buyers.

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