After giving it a great deal of thought, I have decided that I was born into exactly the right time period. Do you want to know why?  Because after learning so much about the past–the people and the objects they used every day–I have decided that I really appreciate indoor plumbing.

One has to imagine that people in the past did not enjoy having to go all the way outside to the outhouse for their necessary functions. One can imagine this because there are a great many things from the past that represent how people did their business inside their houses.  From the well-known chamber pot to the lesser known close stool, all sorts of furniture was created to make the necessities of life a more comfortable indoor experience. Though one has to imagine the smell was not too desirable…

So what is a close stool? Well it is best to consider the close stool as the offspring of a chair and a chamber pot and as a precursor to our modern toilet.  Instead of flushing though, a chamber pot would catch the refuse and then you, your family member, servant, or slave would empty it the next morning. Sounds nice right?  Maybe that outhouse is sounding a bit nicer right about now, rather than just leaving the full chamber pot to set overnight in your bedroom.  So why use a smelly close stool or chamber pot? To answer this question let’s consider a material culture example from the New York State Historical Society: a close stool from the mid-eighteenth century.

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“Corner Chair,” ca. 1760, Unidentified Maker, Mahogany, Cherry, and Russian Leather, H 31” x W 29 7/8” x 28 ½”, N0002.1996, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

This particular close stool was used in central New York, and do you know what central New York is like in January? Yep, that’s right, it is really, really cold!  So one can then imagine that going to the bathroom in the relative warmth of your home was better than running out to the privy in the backyard when it was below zero out!

Now let’s examine this close stool because this particular one is a pretty fancy. This particular close stool was owned by Sir William Johnson who was a large landholder in the Mohawk Valley, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and Commander of the Colonial Militia in the Seven Years War, so pretty much he was the wealthiest guy around. According to a silver plaque attached later, he purchased this close stool in England and brought it to a very rural part of New York.

This close stool shows the increasing specialization of furniture during the 1700’s and is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The chair was functional in several ways: designed to fit perfectly into a corner, hold a chamber pot, and be covered with a seat so it could be used as a chair when not in use as a potty. Furthermore, this was a statement piece designed to show wealth. The chair is in perfect rococo style: with ball and claw feet, gentle sloping curves, and pierced back splats.  We know this is a close stool because the two large decorative elements at the bottom of the chair rails concealed a chamber pot within.  This chair would have been shown off and admired.

Think showing your wealth where you go to the bathroom is strange? Well consider how nice the guest bathroom is in your house.  Don’t have a guest bathroom? Think of your parent’s house, aunt’s house, or grandma’s house.  I bet you know one person with that really fancy bathroom. Where one goes apparently has been and still is a place to show wealth.  Though I must admit Sir William Johnson’s commode is nice, I think I will stick with the more modern porcelain model.

Mary Bryn Alexander CGP 2014

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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