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Come Clean: Potty Tales & Collectibles for the Smallest Room

Updated on October 11, 2013

We've come a long way, Baby!

We are accustomed to the conveniences of the modern world: bathrooms with running hot water, flushing lavatories, scented soaps and shampoos. But the standards of sanitation and expectations of hygiene, which we take for granted today, are relatively new luxuries - it was a very different story in earlier periods. As recently as the 1940s, the census recorded that less than 50% of US households had indoor lavatory facilities and a large percentage of rural households in continental Europe continued with primitive facilities into the 1970s.

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1. Potty: Adjective - 1. foolish or slightly crazy. 2. trivial or insignificant. 3. very keen (about/on)

2. Potty: Noun - a child's word for chamber pot

Picture: Pia's Antique gallery on Ruby Lane

Ruby Glass Victorian Silver Gilt Scent Bottle Vinaigrette
Ruby Glass Victorian Silver Gilt Scent Bottle Vinaigrette

Revive to Survive (the whiffs)!

Used to waft reviving odors under the noses of swooning Regency and Victorian ladies, made faint by tight-laced corsets and delicate sensibilities, the vinaigrette developed in earlier periods as a portable air freshener to relieve the malodorous city streets, made almost unbearable from the press of unwashed bodies, rotting organic matter and open sewers. The earliest-known example of a vinaigrette dates from 1492 but they are found in almost endless variety of shapes from the time of their increased popularity in the C18th. The basic form is a small receptacle with an inner hinged grill, retaining a small sponge soaked in scented vinegar, to be sniffed at times of stress - or extreme pong!

Limoges French Enamel Portrait Gilt Ormolu Vinaigrette

Limoges French Enamel Portrait Gilt Ormolu Vinaigrette
Limoges French Enamel Portrait Gilt Ormolu Vinaigrette

'These exquisite creations were for holding smelling salts or a similar astringent concoction to ward away the obnoxious odours from Georgian streets.

Clean, smooth and sweet - reading to while away a trip down memory lane

Sterling Silver Soap Box with Repousse Art Nouveau Daisies
Sterling Silver Soap Box with Repousse Art Nouveau Daisies

Sweet Scent of Progress

Until manufactured soap arrived on the scene in the early 1800s, most households made their own from a mixture of animal fats and alkali. This unlikely combination produced a cleaning agent of variable quality and coarseness but the basic recipe had been know from early Roman times when

they discovered that animal fats produced a more effective product than the mixture of vegetable oils and herbs used by the ancient Mesopotamians. It is believed the Latin word 'sapo' for soap derives from the Celtic or early Germanic languages. William Colgate set up his New York factory manufacturing bars of soap in 1806. The addition of perfumes made the enterprise an instant, and fragrant, success!

Soap-y collectibles on Ruby Lane

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1945 Swan Soap for BabyVintage Jack & Jill Jungle Jinks Travel Set - California Perfume Co.Vintage Brass and Glass Roses Soap DishGorham Repousse Sterling Soap BoxMatson Ormolu Pedestal Soap Dish Bird & Dogwood
1945 Swan Soap for Baby
1945 Swan Soap for Baby
Vintage Jack & Jill Jungle Jinks Travel Set - California Perfume Co.
Vintage Jack & Jill Jungle Jinks Travel Set - California Perfume Co.
Vintage Brass and Glass Roses Soap Dish
Vintage Brass and Glass Roses Soap Dish
Gorham Repousse Sterling Soap Box
Gorham Repousse Sterling Soap Box
Matson Ormolu Pedestal Soap Dish Bird & Dogwood
Matson Ormolu Pedestal Soap Dish Bird & Dogwood
Medieval Chamber Pot 1300AD - 1500AD, York Museums Trust
Medieval Chamber Pot 1300AD - 1500AD, York Museums Trust

Flushed with Success

Gazunder Thunder

The 6thC BC Babylonians employed gravity to use the downward flow of water to wash away waste. The ancient Romans had a system of sewers and

built simple communal latrines sited directly over the running waters that poured into the Tiber River. In the Middle Ages, castle inhabitants relied only on gravity and a long drop to move waste from the garderobe (a small room projecting outside of the castle wall). By Tudor times, the sanitation for the royal palaces had become relatively sophisticated, certainly there was general awareness of the dangers posed by problems of adequate waste disposal. The problem remained enormous, of course, but they achieved remarkable standards within the limitations of the knowledge and invention at the time - a success marked by castle moats (below the garderobe 'drop') clean enough to use as fish ponds!

Sir John Harrington, courtier and poet, although of debatable quality, is best remembered for a less noble and romantic reason: his invention of the first flushing lavatory in 1596. Harrington installed his invention in his own house, where it was visited by his godmother, Queen Elizabeth who was so impressed by this wonder that she commanded one for herself. The Queens enthusiasm for her new facility is said to have waned when it was discovered that opening the leather valve also released the aromas from the cesspit below - a problem which presumably had been overcome with the previous method.

The general populace continued to reply on the chamber pot, in continued use from medieval times to the C20th, and still often in use today. The chamber pot became popularly known under various names, most familiarly as a gazunder (because it gazunder the bed), and would often be housed in small pieces of furniture especially designed for the purpose, even a rocking chair. Town dwellers learned to be prepared to take swift evasive action on hearing the cry 'gardez l'eau!' as a housewife emptied the contents of the chamber pot into the street below.

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Medieval Chamber Pot 1300AD - 1500AD: Rather worryingly, the description in the Yorkshire Museum's database for this medieval Chamber Pot says: "Greenish glaze on upper two-thirds of body. Internal deposit."

Minton pottery bordaloue - private collection © RubyLane
Minton pottery bordaloue - private collection © RubyLane

Oo, la la!

The Perils of Preachers

Louis Bourdaloue, a 17th century French priest was so renowned, or perhaps notorious, for the excessive length of his sermons that ladies' maids accompanying their mistresses to church would be equipped with small pots especially designed to be slipped discretely under their ladies' voluminous skirts to relieve themselves. It is difficult to be sure if this tale is apocryphal but the pot, known as a bourdaloue, continued in use well into the late 19th century. Whatever their precise origin, they are charming items often beautifully decorated with hand painted or transferware designs and form an attractive collection, where they can be a talking point and do duty as posy vases or containers for small plants such as African Violets.

Original Arrow Razor Made in Germany L. Herder & Son. Ca 1850
Original Arrow Razor Made in Germany L. Herder & Son. Ca 1850

A Cut-Throat Business

Early man, more than 30,000 years ago, removed body hair with sharpened flint blades. Alexander the Great began the custom of shaving in ancient Greece, his insistence on going clean-shaven into battle becoming synonymous with aesthetic fashion and accepted standards of hygiene. Grand Roman households included barbers, both skilled slaves and freedmen, to shave them. Men from lowlier households made daily visits to the tonsor, or barber, to be shaved with a novacila. Cuts were frequent from this iron razor which rapidly became blunt as the metal corroded, and the barber would soothe the wounds with a perfumed ointment made from spiders' webs steeped in oils and vinegar.

Steel Razors were produced in Sheffield, England, until the late 19thc. Like the Roman novacila, these razors quickly dulled and needed to be honed and stropped frequently for re-use. A patent for the first safety razor was filed by the Kampfe brothers n 1880. This was a one-sided blade with a wire guard along the edge which prevented the cuts of the straight blades but still needed to be regularly re-sharpened.

King C. Gillette filed a patent for an entirely new design of safety razor in 1904. It was an entirely new concept - a razor with a safe, inexpensive, and disposable blade and the Gillette Safety Razor Company began operation. Gillette safety razors were issued to the entire armed forces by the US government during the first World War.

Hair today, Gone tomorrow! - A selection of shaving-related collectibles in Ruby Lane shops

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Ceramic Barber's Chair Razor Blade BankRare 1900 Wood And Glass Barber Sterilizer Cabinet
Ceramic Barber's Chair Razor Blade Bank
Ceramic Barber's Chair Razor Blade Bank
Rare 1900 Wood And Glass Barber Sterilizer Cabinet
Rare 1900 Wood And Glass Barber Sterilizer Cabinet
Photo Post Card Antique Doll French Washstand
Photo Post Card Antique Doll French Washstand

Wash and Brush-Up

The Medieval nose must have become desensitized to the stenches all around them. It is reported that Queen Elizabeth was sensitive to unpleasant smells but it was a schoolchild's favourite history joke that Queen Elizabeth had a bath every year - whether she needed one or not! Certainly, whether annually or, like the monks, as rashly as five times a year, bathing was not the part of daily routine it is today. The Roman's public baths are well-known and, while the Roman Empire declined, so did the prevalence of public baths throughout its empire, they did not disappear completely and they remain the only source of bathing facilities for many people in some parts of the world today. In 13th century Paris, public criers were employed to patrol the streets announcing when the water was hot in the baths. In the Georgian and Victorian periods, manufacturers were producing matching suites of chamber wash sets, in pottery and more rarely in porcelain. These would typically include a large bowl and a ewer, for transporting the hot water, a soap box with drainer and cover, a beaker and toothbrush holder, a chamber pot and various other small containers for customized use.

The variety of Chamber Sets in Ruby Lane shop

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Antique Homer Laughlin Bowl Pitcher Bath SetEnglish ironstone chamber set. Brown-Westhead Moore & Co.Masons Ironstone Hydra Jug and Basin Set in the “Flying Bird” Pattern C. Mid 19th CenturyAntique Blue and White Ironstone Pitcher and BowlRoyal Doulton Huge Slop Pail
Antique Homer Laughlin Bowl Pitcher Bath Set
Antique Homer Laughlin Bowl Pitcher Bath Set
English ironstone chamber set. Brown-Westhead Moore & Co.
English ironstone chamber set. Brown-Westhead Moore & Co.
Masons Ironstone Hydra Jug and Basin Set in the “Flying Bird” Pattern C. Mid 19th Century
Masons Ironstone Hydra Jug and Basin Set in the “Flying Bird” Pattern C. Mid 19th Century
Antique Blue and White Ironstone Pitcher and Bowl
Antique Blue and White Ironstone Pitcher and Bowl
Royal Doulton Huge Slop Pail
Royal Doulton Huge Slop Pail
English Coromandel Betjemman's Fitted Vanity
English Coromandel Betjemman's Fitted Vanity

Have Vanity, Can Travel!

The original meaning of toilet, or toilette, derives from its early C19th French origin, meaning the 'act of washing, dressing, and preparing

oneself.' In wealthier households, the lady would also own a vanity case which held all the requisites for her toilette and which would accompany her on her travels, each lotion, scent or cosmetic in its individual glass or silver container and each fitted in its tailor-made place inside the case. These boxes were expensive luxury items and are desirable, quality objects for the collector.

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Illustrated above is a stunning Victorian English travelling compendium, probably a wedding gift to a couple with contents for both a lady or gentleman. The top of the box and most of the pieces with their original monogram.

The box is top-notch made from exotic Coromandel with polished brass edging . What makes this one very, very special is it's mechanical cantilever trays which swing to the sides once the lid is opened and the front comes down, beautifully crafted with rounded edges, this box would have been for a very wealthy family when made.

Mid Century Pottery Tiger Toothbrush Holder
Mid Century Pottery Tiger Toothbrush Holder

Toothsome Tales

Dental hygiene has come a long way since the chewing sticks used by the Babylonians several thousand years BC. A thousand years later, the

Chinese were using similar sticks from aromatic plants, which freshened the breath as one end of the stick was chewed into a brush and the

other, pointed, end could be used as a toothpick. European traders brought back the first properly bristled brush, in a form we would recognize today, made from wild boar's hair tied to a bone handle. In England, William Addis invented the world's first manufactured toothbrush in 1780. Designed originally for his own personal use, the toothbrush went into production from Whitechapel in East London. Abrasive tooth powders developed by doctors and chemist appeared in 18thC England. The addition of borax powder produced a foaming effect and glycerine was added to the mix in the early 19thC to make the powder into a paste. Mass produced toothpaste did not arrive on the scene until the following century, in 1873, in America.

Quirky, Luxury and Practical Toothbrush Holders - Toothsome collectibles on Ruby Lane

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Japanese Porcelain Purple Lustre Playful Puppy Toothbrush HolderTiffany & Co. Silver Toothbrush HolderLate 1800's English Aesthetic Toothbrush HolderWhimsical Puppy Dog Toothbrush Holder19th Century Toothbrush Holder ~ Cora 1882
Japanese Porcelain Purple Lustre Playful Puppy Toothbrush Holder
Japanese Porcelain Purple Lustre Playful Puppy Toothbrush Holder
Tiffany & Co. Silver Toothbrush Holder
Tiffany & Co. Silver Toothbrush Holder
Late 1800's English Aesthetic Toothbrush Holder
Late 1800's English Aesthetic Toothbrush Holder
Whimsical Puppy Dog Toothbrush Holder
Whimsical Puppy Dog Toothbrush Holder
19th Century Toothbrush Holder ~ Cora 1882
19th Century Toothbrush Holder ~ Cora 1882

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    • profile image

      aktreasures 24 months ago

      This is a well written bit of info I bet most people didn't know. Beautiful piece of info about the "Limoges French Enamel Portrait Gilt Ormolu Vinaigrette" and a bonus photo too! Well good! I enjoyed reading this even though I already knew a bit about it. You should never stop learning!!

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 6 years ago from California

      Fascinating....I had no idea there were so many collectible items dealing with Potties or hygiene.