Bourdaloue. What IS that thing?

Bourdaloue. What IS that thing?

François Boucher (1703-1770), La bourdaloue

Modern museum visitors viewing these porcelain vessels in a display case would assume they were serving pieces. While certainly decorative enough for an elegant 18th c. table, they would NEVER be anywhere near the food!

Necessity has always been the mother of invention, and often of design that’s both handsome and useful, too. Visualize the hoops and voluminous skirts of an 18th c. lady, and then consider maneuvering all that yardage each time nature called. This was the solution.

Bourdaloues were chamber pots designed specifically for women wearing such garments. With the assistance of a lady’s maid, they could be slipped beneath skirts and petticoats, employed while standing, and then discretely carried away. Some versions were more practical and fashioned of tin or leather. Many included a lid, perfect for use during a long journey by carriage. Even when skirts shrank in size towards the end of 18th c., the bourdaloue was deemed too practical an item to abandon. They remained in use throughout the Victorian era.

Legend says the name was taken from a celebrated 17th c. French Jesuit priest named Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), whose sermons were so infamously long that ladies came to church prepared. Not many historians accept this explanation. Even given that people were more frank about bodily needs in the past than they are now, it’s very doubtful a well-bred French lady would relieve herself in her pew. Though no one now seems to know for certain, it’s likely to be either something garbled in translation, or one more sly English insult aimed at the French.

Bourdaloue 1741




13 Comments for Bourdaloue. What IS that thing?

  1. I could not stop laughing…..can you imagine if someone had one and was using it as a gravy bowl? LOL

  2. This is incredible. That picture had me staring for a moment trying to figure out the, uh, angle. You know that bodily functions haven’t changed in the ensuing time so they had to be taken care of, but we (or I) don’t generally put any thought into how it happened. Those things don’t tend to make it into novels. LOL

  3. Bourdaloue! Do you suppose that is where the word “loo” for current UK bathroom comes from???

  4. On December 16, 2014, I posted the following on Facebook. It’s a true story:

    Last night was a stellar moment on Antiques Roadshow. This so could have been ME! A woman brought in a set of gorgeous silver pieces from circa 1820 (yes, Jane Austen era). She found out that the punch bowl that they took out and used for special occasions was, in reality, a chamber pot. I felt so sorry for the woman. Could you imagine all of her friends and family anxiously watching for her appearance only to find out what she had been serving them out of? I laughed so hard that I woke John up out of a sound sleep. I’m still chuckling. It will be on again this coming Sunday on PBS. The woman handled the information really well. I can’t imagine that I would have been that poised. But, then, when am I ever?

    Needless to say, Sharon, the pictures of this post are even more decorative than her silver pot. And, how you find such photos is beyond me. You are truly skilled. The portrait? Who would have posed for that? Yet, I am grateful because I couldn’t help but try to figure out the contortions needed to use one of these things. I definitely need to be more appreciative of our flushable porcelain bowl.

    Thank you so much for the laugh. You are a hoot, Sharon Lathan!!!

  5. How funny. I never would have guessed. It looks like a gravy boat. My mom has an old chamber pot that she inherited from my grandmother. It’s so gorgeous she can’t part with it.

    • This was a recent Ah-Ha moment for me too, Rebecca. I’d heard of such traveling urinals, and seen the pictures on Pinterest, but hadn’t clicked the two together. They look so much like fancy serving dishes that I didn’t pause to dig into it! Like you mentioned, chamber pots were often very fancy. Odd when you consider they were typically hidden away. Today our toilets are right there for all to see, and unless the lid is covered with a pretty fabric, “fancy” isn’t a term considered in the design. LOL!

  6. Brilliant! Makes perfect sense when you know. Thanks for the info. A lot more decorative than similar things today!!

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