Contributed by Quinn Rosefsky (Phillips Academy Class of 1959)
As a Peabody Museum volunteer for the past 6 ½ years, I have had the rare opportunity to help staff members with a variety of unique and exciting tasks. Today, I was introduced to a bit of our Colonial history. The object in question is a rather attractive example of its kind, a chamber pot that survived intact from early Colonial days, preserved in a drawer in the Peabody’s basement storage. See the full catalog record online at http://bit.ly/1XVnQd3. Aside from the intrigue of its nearly pristine condition, there is the question of date of manufacture. The Boston City Archaeologist, Joe Bagley, points out that the chamber pot may be from a 1630s well on Boston’s Congress Street. Several avenues of inquiry are open, including details of the well’s exploration and if the well was ultimately used as a privy and refuse dump, a common trajectory for such a feature. But in order to take a stand on the dating issue we need to have an appreciation of the phases of use and manufacture of such pots.
The earliest chamber pots date from at least the sixth century B.C. in Greece. In the past four to five hundred years chamber pots were found in nearly every household, usually stored under beds but sometimes in dining rooms. English and Colonial lead-glazed earthenware chamber pots came in a variety of colors: brown, green, red, orange, tortoiseshell, gray, and black. There were also stoneware pots, and some of the more striking ones are known as Westerwald or Rhenish Gray (1575-1725), followed by Debased Westerwald (1725-1775), and then American Westerwald (1730s). In the eighteenth century, these pots were mass-produced.
Not to be ignored were chamber pots made of metal, the earliest example being from 1545. It was possible to assess a person’s wealth by whether or not they had silver or pewter chamber pots. But the English Civil War of the 1640s temporarily spoiled this method because the Royalists conscripted silver and pewter to make silver coinage to fund their war efforts, a practical, if unhygienic way to pay off debt using dirty money without resorting to taxes.
A chamber pot might have a tame inscription, “Break Me Not I Pray in Your Hast for I to Non will Give Destast.” Some showed less decorum, “Oh Dear Me What Do I See.”
The chamber pot at the Peabody is gray, salt-glazed stoneware with cobalt blue cordons beneath the rim and above the base. In remarkable condition, the pot measures 6 ¾” wide at the opening and 6” high. There are no pithy inscriptions, but two cobalt blue bellicose lions, each one crowned, and three stamped rosettes, each filled with four spades and a central diamond, are eye-catching. These lions and rosettes have been “sprigged on,” meaning attached with separately molded designs. The rim tapers upward to a narrow “seat.” For dating purposes, it appears that mid-eighteenth century pots had wider rims. Extending out from the rim is a ribbed handle attached in a manner so that the pot won’t tip. There are no “makers” marks or dates. But comparing the chamber pot under examination with a very similar Westerwald example dated 1632 found in Ivor Noël Hume’s 2001 book, If These Pots Could Talk: Collecting 2,000 Years of British Household Pottery, we see many similarities, including the tapering of the opening, rosettes, and the sprig-applied crowned lions. A valid case can be made for a 1630s date given the similarities with Noël Hume’s text and its preservation in the Congress Street well. But there are other dating possibilities that need to be considered.
With the accession to the throne of England of William and Mary, whose reign spanned the years 1689 to 1702, they brought with them a passion for what was called the Rhenish or Westerwald chamber pot, originating in the Rhineland district of Germany. The style and patterns were very close to what we have at the Peabody, examples of what were called “grès-de-flandres.” By 1710, large supplies of these gray stoneware chamber pots with their sprig-mounted lions and rosettes were being shipped to England. Over the next fifty years, this style of chamber pot was found in most British and Colonial homes. Eventually variations were produced on both sides of the Atlantic, satisfying a combination of hygienic, commercial, and political needs. Later versions of Colonial chamber pots had variations in the rosettes, including a profile relief of George III sprigged onto the side. What better way to pay daily homage to the monarch?
So which date do we choose? In order to settle the debate, I would be happy to fly to Amsterdam with the Peabody’s Westerwald chamber pot tucked under my arm (in bubble wrap) to compare it with the one from Noël Hume’s book. As there is no inflammatory profile of George III, I doubt I would have any difficulties in case the plane had to make an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport. But budget constraints are likely to apply to such a trip and less costly research methods would pertain, such as having a debate amongst archaeological scholars. Whatever the outcome, we have the satisfaction of knowing that this chamber pot, however humble and utilitarian, played a role in the origins of Congress Street prior to its transformation into a thriving financial district.