My Favourite Artifact: The Commode

By Jennifer Goodine-Beenen, Visitor Host

There’s always room for a bit of potty humour, even at the museum.

When visiting Henry House, our guests are delighted and educated with a tour through various rooms including the study, parlour, dining room, kitchen, and of course, Lurenda and Thomas’ bedroom, but something always seems to be missing. On countless tours, a shy, or not so shy, child blurts out, “where’s the bathroom?!?!”. This is always one of my favourite topics of discussion, though most might find it a bit uncouth. Where, indeed, is the bathroom in Henry House?

Outhouse by Little Miami River
Outhouse by Little Miami River

Throughout early history, and continuing well into the Victorian Era, indoor plumbing was a luxury few enjoyed. Early Canadians made use of everyone’s favourite outdoor room, the Out House, to relieve themselves. The Henrys and other Victorians would likely have had several out houses throughout their time; when one hole was filled up with, well, you know, (along with other household waste that couldn’t be burned or reused) they would simply dig another hole and move the outhouse. In fact, there have even been archaeological excavations of historical outhouse sites! That’s a whole different blog post right there, though.  But, when you think about Henry House, located in the picturesque Lake View Park, a constant breeze, or down right wind blowing in off the lake at all times, major storms, snow and ice above your knees… Well, heading to the outhouse in mid-January doesn’t seem that appealing. In order to avoid the elements, Chamber Pots were used so people could still complete their, ahem, business, without donning several layers and facing the elements.

970.48.8abc, Chamber Pot, Royal Semi-Porcelain: AJ Wilkinson
970.48.8abc, Chamber Pot, Royal Semi-Porcelain: AJ Wilkinson

A chamber pot is an indoor toilet, of sorts. People would “make water” into the pot (located in the bedroom, or “chamber”) and then one lucky servant or younger member of the family would have the responsibility of pitching the waste. Here at the OCM, we have several chamber pots in our collection. Each piece is worthy of display in your grandmother’s china cabinet, even though you really wouldn’t want them anywhere near your tea set. Like many Victorian possessions, Chamber Pots are a work of art. Each piece features delicately hand-crafted china work with intricate painting decor. Some key pieces of our collection feature paintings of various flowers, and one even has a hand-painted image of the Taj Hahal!

Sitting pretty on the Commode
Sitting pretty on the Commode

But, one piece in the collection stands out above all others in the realm of early indoor toilets. Let’s call this one the Rolls Royce, or better, yet, the Golden Throne of Chamber Pots. Let me introduce you to, drum roll please, the Commode. Crafted of mahogany and featuring a needle-point decorated lid, the commode dates to c. 1860. It’s inventive design allows users to sit while they take care of business, and offers a removable porcelain bowl with a metal handle for easy emptying and cleaning. While not currently on display, this commode was featured in the Henry House bedroom for some time. It was always a favourite moment of the tour, pointing out to the younger visitors that they would have had the privilege of emptying the pot. Discrete as all proper Victorians were when it comes to personal matters, the commode simply appears to be a decorative foot stool in the corner of the bedroom. Unsuspecting museum guests always get a chuckle when we point out the Victorian version of an en suite bathroom!


So there you have it; there really is a bathroom in Henry House! Several, really, if you count our variety of chamber pots. I guess cleaning your bathroom at home doesn’t seem that bad now.

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