Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Pot To Piss In

Pardon my words, but the title of this post is from an old saying, the entire phrase being: "We were so poor, we didn't even have a pot to piss in." That, of course, implied that the speaker was not just poor, but rather was very, very poor, or as it might have been said: dirt poor. The phrase, and its sentiment, came from a time not so long ago, perhaps only one hundred to one hundred and fifty years ~ when few families had indoor plumbing, and mostly everyone had to walk (or run, as the case might be) from the house to an out-building, aptly named the 'outhouse', to empty their kidneys and bowels. At night, a trip to the outhouse might be dangerous because of wild animals prowling around, so everyone owned one or more chamber/piss pots. If you didn't have even one in your house, you were indeed poor.

There was one aspect of a chamber pot being kept and used in the bedroom that everyone instinctively thinks of when the subject is brought up ~ the smell of urine.
 In a day and age before the producers of television commercials began to convince everybody that what they were selling was less intended to make them money than to benefit the viewers' lives, people put up with many things that were natural and ordinary. Ordinary smells were accepted as natural; they weren't considered offensive. They just were there and you had to deal with them. In those pre-industrial-age days, people rode in carriages or wagons pulled by horses ~ those beasts of burden who gave off certain smells. They resided in houses warmed by fireplaces or furnaces that burned wood, kerosene or coal, and coincidently produced the smells of wood smoke or kerosene and coal fumes. And those people bathed themselves and washed their clothes with unscented soap made from lye. Television commercials for products that a few entrepreneurs decided everyone needed (or could be convinced to need) changed all that. Few people grasped the fact that the sale of a particular product was the primary motivation of the television commercials that told us that teeth of any color other than pristine white was the horror of all horrors, and that we should buy toothpaste-XYZ in order to be able to function in society. Few people realized that it was simply a company trying to make millions of dollars when they pushed soap detergent-XYZ, which promised to make dingy red teeshirts more brilliant and redder with each washing. And when the television commercials dwelled on the fact that BO (that thing that was too terrible to even speak its name aloud) was so offensive that a single whiff of it would drive mankind insane, shelves and shelves of products reeking of 'lavender potpourri' or 'vanilla-rosebud' appeared in stores. And as technology advanced, all things natural and ordinary became taboo. The chamber pot, which harbored the natural and ordinary smell of urine, became taboo after plumbing (and television commercials for air fresheners) made that smell unfashionable.

Suddenly there was running water being piped into houses ~ plumbing; and the next thing you know, water closets ~ renamed commodes in later years ~ were hooked up to the pipes of running water. There suddenly was no need for outhouses ~ or chamber pots. And that smell that emanated from the thing pictured in this post became a thing of the past.

The chamber pot was a standard item found in all houses for centuries prior to the introduction of plumbing in homes throughout Europe and the United States of America. They tended to be kept in the bedroom, usually under the bed, within easy reach, but they might also be kept in other rooms for handy use. Emptying the chamber pot was a daily chore usually assigned to one of the children of poorer families, or by a maid in a wealthier household.

Chamber pots were predominantly made of ceramic, including white ironstone china such as the one shown here, but they were also constructed of metals, such as tin and enameled tin. Richer households boasted of chamber pots made of silver. Chamber pots to be found in antique stores today often are missing their lids, but originally all of the pots would have had lids to prevent the odor of urine from constantly wafting into the room. As one of the photos shows, the lid was formed with an inner ring that helped in trapping any smells within the pot, sort of like how the "s" trap in a sink's plumbing works. Ceramic chamber pots tended to have one handle, but ones with two handles existed. The two-handled style was sometimes called a 'marriage pot'; the two handles supposedly facilitated handing the pot from one spouse to the other. The metal chamber pots often had a wire handle and resembled nothing more than a metal bucket with a lid.

My father, Bernard Smith, often told the story of how, after he had gone off to army training in Florida during the Second World War, he had written to his mother. In his letter, my dad noted that the one thing he missed (i.e. or rather wanted, but couldn't have), being in the army, was the chamber pot. Jennie, his mother, wrote back and simply said: "The floor shows that you often missed it when you were home too."

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