How to Pee In Regency England

Francois Boucher "La Toilette"

Francois Boucher “La Toilette”

There is nothing that demonstrates the change in etiquette over time like the etiquette around bodily functions. To a great extent, this is because of practicality. It is only the technology that allows us to distance ourselves from our excretions that allows us to be squeamish about them, in the past they were a fact of daily life that people had to see up close.

For example: during a dinner party, once the men and women had separated, a man might pull out a chamberpot and use it without even breaking the flow of conversation.

The French were appalled at the uncivilized behavior of the English.

The French were appalled at the uncivilized behavior of the English.

What did people use?

There was actually quite a variety of privies (what toilets were called). Some London houses had a kind of toilet like we have today, with water that flushes the waste. However, they didn’t have the technology to trap the smells, so they could be a bit unpleasant. Some homes had ‘earth closets’ which used a fine dirt to contain smells.

Most common people used a privy/outhouse, a hole in the ground with some kind of seat over it. These emptied into cesspools, which were ideally emptied regularly by “night soil men,” but in poorer areas, they were allowed to overflow and were a large contributing factor to disease.

Of course, at night, you wouldn’t want to go too far from your warm bed, so people would use a chamberpot. A chamberpot is a bowl or container (as plain or fancy as your circumstances would allow) that is kept under the bed (or sometimes in a special stool to conceal it and provide a seat) to be used during the night. You (or your maid) would empty it in the morning.

But what about when you were out and about? Many places didn’t have public toilets back then, so a well of lady would travel with a bourdaloue, a very small chamberpot that she could discreetly put under her skirts and then hand to a maid for disposal. Of course, men could always use a handy wall or alley.

Bourdaloue (don't mistake it for a gravy boat in an antique shop!)

Bourdaloue (don’t mistake it for a gravy boat in an antique shop!)

How did they go?

If you’ve ever helped a bride to the bathroom, you know that it can be difficult to maneuver when you are wearing a fancy dress. However, we have difficulties because we don’t do it every day! Women in the Regency period didn’t wear underwear (well, they didn’t wear confining underwear like we do), so they didn’t have to futz around under their skirts. And with a chamberpot, you could just move it under you rather than trying to fit yourself around a stationary toilet.

For wiping, there might be scrap fabric, moss, or straw. That one ply toilet paper in public restrooms doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Wear Nude Hose Anymore But I Still Do

It used to be a fact of life that when women wore skirts and dresses, they wore nude panty hose or stockings. Even to the point during WWII when there was a shortage of stockings, women drew the seam (because stockings had seams back them) up their leg in eye liner so that they would at least LOOK like they were wearing them. I confirmed this with my grandmother who worked as a secretary in New York City during the war. My mom started working in the late 60s and wouldn’t have dreamed of going to work with bare legs and wouldn’t have dared prooooobably until the 90s?

In fact, it was so ubiquitous that the original 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette even addresses them. Even my 1967 version of Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette only says:

A woman is well-groomed when she looks fresh, neat, clean, and well-pressed. This means a daily, and often twice daily, shower or bath, fresh underwear and stockings daily or twice daily, competent home or professional hairdressing at least once a week, well-manicured hands, no chipped nail polish, runless, wrinkless stockings, and shined shoes at all time, even for housework.

I do have a book called How to Be a Lady published in the year of our lord Two Thousand and ONE that says, “If a lady expects her legs to be seen, she either shaves her legs or wears hose.” Granted, a book called How to Be a Lady is probably a little bit behind the times, but I can’t imagine a modern etiquette book insisting that it is de rigeur to either be freshly shaved or wearing hose. And thank goodness for that! There is absolutely no reason for anyone to insist on that and I think a large portion of the US at least is coming around to it. Outside of a few extremely conservative and stuffy offices, you NEVER see employee dress codes that specify that women must wear hose with skirts and dresses. And to think, pantyhose was a HUGE improvement on wearing a girdle with garters and stockings.

However, you can pry hose away from my extremely pale, cold, dead legs. I LOVE them! Like I said, I’m very pale with very sensitive skin so bare legs take me straight to chafe city. And I hate sweaty, bare feet inside my shoes. I think the key to understated hose is to try to match your skin color- so I don’t have Rockette-suntan legs clashing with my Irish white arms and face, and to try to get anything that is labelled something like “silky sheer.” The sheer helps your natural color come through even more and the silky has a tiny bit of sheen so your legs aren’t weirdly matte, plus they feel nice.

Anyway, the great thing about the modern world is that we have options and we can rock our legs au naturale, shaved, or clothed in nylon prisons (to hear some people tell it). Tell me all your preferences in the comments!

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Be So Strict About Wedding Anniversary Gifts

The paper anniversary?

I’m coming up on my second wedding anniversary this year. We didn’t get each other gifts last year and it’s likely not a tradition we’re going to follow (though we DID see Mad Max: Fury Road that night and a yearly viewing sounds like a fine enough tradition to start). However, were we to be traditional this year, we’d get each other gifts of cotton. Or paper if we’re going by other conventions. Or iron if we’re going by really old conventions. Or China if we’re going by the modern conventions suggested by the Chicago Public Library.

I can’t be the only one who finds these gifts puzzling. What about the tenth anniversary suggests tin? Why should I be supporting the ivory trade for the 14th? What about paper seems romantic? Where the hell did these come from?

Most sources suggest that giving certain gifts for certain anniversaries revolved around the luck-bringing properties of those gifts. A few sources also point to the trend beginning in Central Europe. “Among the medieval Germans it was customary for friends to present a wife with a wreath of silver when she had lived with her husband twenty-five years. The silver symbolized the harmony that was assumed to be necessary to make so many years of matrimony possible. On the fiftieth anniversary of a wedding the wife was presented with a wreath of gold,” according to one source. The other anniversaries probably trickled down from there, and by the 20th century less valuable and durable materials–crystal, tin, wood–represented fewer years. There are also theories about what each one represents, from “paper is a blank page” to “iron is a symbol of a sturdy foundation” blah blah blah.

Many older etiquette guides mention these gifts not as ones the couple should exchange between themselves, but gifts guests should give the special couple on “anniversary weddings,” or celebrations on their anniversary. Invitations to the first anniversary, the “paper wedding,” “should be issued on gray paper, representing thin cardboard,” according to The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette of 1877. The tin anniversary was supposed to be printed on oxidized tin cards, which is some hipster bullshit. The author also notes, “it is not unusual to have the marriage ceremony repeated at these anniversary weddings,” though notes a repeat ceremony is usually reserved for the silver or gold anniversaries.

Golden anniversaries could be somber occasions, according to The Home Manual of 1889, “too often fraught with sorrowful memories of the dear ones who have passed into the shadow-land.” The silver one is much more fun, with the couple “still in life’s prime instead of being near the end of their earthly pilgrimage.” You could also celebrate the twentieth anniversary as the linen wedding, but not if you’re Scottish, as they “have a superstition that one or the other will die within the year if any allusion to it is made.” Or maybe it’s unlucky for everyone.

According to Social Life: Or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society, there is a particular protocol that must be observed when celebrating a golden anniversary. Anniversary poems are read (whatever those are), telegrams from those who couldn’t attend are announced, and there is a recitation of Longfellow’s “The Hanging of the Crane.” It is noted, however, that “good taste” would keep anyone from repeating the original wedding ceremony, so Social Life and The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette can duke it out over that.

Even though having specific silver embossed invitations and gifting conventions for an anniversary seems overly complicated, there’s something about it I like. It’s elaborate, but contained. Keep the celebrations to the milestones. I’m not saying the couple can’t choose to celebrate every anniversary themselves–they should! Get gussied up and go out! Just that families don’t need to be throwing parties every year. Can you imagine if, in addition to the seven weddings you’re invited to this year, you had to go to anniversary parties of all the weddings you were at last year? I’d die.

Thank Goodness, Wait, Worrying About Reputation Is Still A Woman’s Responsibility

Joan-Jett-4The more I read old etiquette books, the more I realize just how much was in the wheelhouse of etiquette. I never thought that “leaning awkwardly when sitting” was a matter of manners, but at its broadest, etiquette is just about how to live your life as nicely as you can. In a lot of ways that’s good, but of course, we are all products of our time, and etiquette rules are always heavily influenced by prejudice and respectability politics.

Take this chapter in No Nice Girl Swears, called “You’re The First Man I Ever Kissed.” It’s a cheekily-written guide for women on how to flirt, date and socialize with men while maintaining one’s reputation. Author Alice Leone-Moats at least recognizes that “petting” is a pretty natural part of human interaction, and that doing it well is a matter of what you can get away with. Still, the fact is that it’s something you have to “get away with.” “Anyone will admit that in the long run a reputation for being a heavy necker doesn’t really add to a girl’s popularity,” she writes, striking a clear difference between giving into romance and “petting for petting’s sake.” Of course, a man’s reputation is never sullied no matter how much he pets or for whose sake.

The etiquette rules here become a woman’s line to walk, finding a way to “keep a man on the string and yet never let him get an opportunity to make a direct pass.” She goes on to explain how to defer a physical pass in the back of a taxi, to rarely dine with married men (even if you have the wife’s permission), and to always act like it’s your first time in a man’s apartment, no matter how many times you’ve been there. Which seems like it would inspire more awkwardness than anything. “Ooh what a lovely home!” “Janet you’ve been here at least a dozen times before.” “HOW YOU JEST, DEAR BOY, MY WHAT A FETCHING RUG.” But it is the woman’s job to ensure nothing bad happens. She is the enforcer of boundaries. A “no” must be pressed rather than a “yes” offered, and if something does happen it’s on the woman. She either should have fought harder or not gotten herself into that situation in the first place. And if this sounds familiar, well, not much has changed.

There’s a wistfulness to the chapter, as if Leone-Moats wishes she didn’t have to write it. “Of course it seems all wrong that in this world appearances count for more than actions, but it has always been so and we can do nothing but accept it.” It’s the ultimate double standard–consent to making out in the back of a cab and your reputation is ruined, don’t consent and you get taken advantage of, and your reputation is still ruined. Better to hold in your desires for the sake of propriety than not and subject yourself to judgment and, possibly, violence. It’s a decision no woman should have to make, and certainly should not be a matter of etiquette. Unfortunately, it’s still a matter of survival.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: The Guest Card

Things that are only possible with this many servants.

Back in the day, for a certain level of hostess (ie with a huge house and a lot of servants), guests would have quite a lot of options during their stay- whether they would have breakfast in their rooms (if you haven’t noticed, on Downtown Abbey, it is only married women who are allowed to have breakfast in bed), what they would like for breakfast, etc. Usually the hostess would ask these questions naturally during the first day of the stay. But the truly chic hostess would leave a little card in the guest’s room for them to fill out before dinner:

What time do you want to be awakened? …………………..
Or, will you ring? ……………………………………
Will you breakfast up-stairs? …………………………..
Or down? …………………………………………….

Underscore Your Order:

Coffee, tea, chocolate, milk,
Oatmeal, hominy, shredded wheat,
Eggs, how cooked?
Rolls, muffins, toast,
Orange, pear, grapes, melon.

At Bedtime Will You Take

Hot or cold milk, cocoa, orangeade,
Sandwiches, meat, lettuce, jam,
Cake, crackers,
Oranges, apples, pears, grapes.

That’s even nicer service than any hotel I’ve ever been to! Of course, this sort of thing was super rare and in no way would be expected today.

In a related note, grand houses also used to have “guest books” just like you would see in a fancy B&B or a historical site, in which all the guests would write their names, the date of their visit, and some comments. This was a way for the family to look back on who had visited them and when (a must for frequent hosts!) and a nice momento. These are great resources for historians today, as well.