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?

Important People of Etiquette: Beau Brummel

So back in the day, in the 1700s, (rich) people were all about piling on ALL the fancy clothes. By wearing pounds of expensive stuff like lace, silk, brocade, gold, silver, wigs, hats, high heels (for dudes!), and so forth, you showed you were rich. But then in the 1790’s, along comes this guy named Beau Brummel, who changes men’s fashion radically and whose influence is still felt in those black tie wedding invitations you receive.

Beau was a middle class chap, so he actually couldn’t wear the fancy breeches and coats so popular back then as it would have been above his station. However, his family was fairly well off and he was able to attend Eton and then Oxford before joining a prestigious army regiment led by the Prince of Wales (future George IV). There he became good friends with the Prince and was able to join high society. Instead of the frilly frocks that other gentlemen wore, Beau focused on very simple and elegant clothing. He preferred very tight, light pants tucked into tall black boots, tail coats, and very very white neck cloths or cravat. For nighttime, it was similar but with all black clothing and white linen- the standard for mens evening dress even continuing today. Part of Beau’s schtick was extreme cleanliness. He would take more than two hours to bathe and shave, and then would be particularly fussy about tying his cravat. His fussiness inspired the rhyme about a dandy:

My neckcloth, of course, forms my principal care

For by that we criterions of elegance swear;

And it costs me, each morning, some hours of flurry

To make it appear to be tied in a hurry.

Obviously he was all about the unstudied coolness that takes tons of time and energy to pull off. He even claimed to never eat vegetables and polish his boots with champagne. He was so focused on himself and his image that he had no romantic relationships and even cut ties with his family.

Unfortunately for Beau, all of this elegance couldn’t stand up to even his large fortune. His debts piled up and he had to escape to France. Where more debts piled up and he spent the last years of his life running around trying to avoid them, eventually going slightly mad and dying in prison.