This image of a bourdaloue might be somewhat confusing to the uninitiated. Could this small and elegant vessel be a gravy boat? Or a blood-letting container?
This image by Francois Boucher says it all. A fully dressed lady is relieving herself into an object called the bourdaloue or bourdalou, careful not to soil her skirts. Her maid, no doubt, stands nearby, waiting to receive the small chamber pot in order to empty it. The lady (or woman of ill repute) is in a public place – a theatre or tavern, perhaps – but certainly not a church. Wherever she is, the place has no public toilet. And so she must relieve herself standing up, taking care not to soil her skirt and petticoats.
According to legend, the name of this porta potty comes from Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), one of Louis XIVs Jesuit priests. His oratorical skills were reputedly so accomplished that people felt they could not miss a single word of his sermons. It is said that women sat through his masses with a bourdaloue placed under their dresses, whose skirts were held out by panniers. Since the priest’s sermons were somewhat longwinded, the chances that ladies would need to relieve themselves were almost certain. As a rule, churches and theatres had no toilets, and there were no breaks given during sermons. Ergo these portable urinals, which were ergonomically designed to accommodate the female body.
The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape. A slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other allowed the woman to relieve herself from a squatting or standing position. The edges curved inward to avoid hurting her tenderest parts.
It is a little hard to distinguish truth from fiction, so I am a bit skeptical about this apocryphal tale. Were the priest’s sermons in the early 18th century so truly awe-inspiring that a lady would squat in her pew, however discreetly, to relieve herself in front of her family and other parishioners so as not to miss a word?
In truth it was her maid who brought the vessel in, for bourdaloues were compact and came with a cover. When a lady had to relieve herself she would, I imagine, retreat discreetly to a private corner of a tall pew or to a back or side room in the church. Her maid would then hand the vessel over to her mistress, who took care not to spill any liquid on her skirts. When the lady was finished, she would hand the bourdaloue to her maid to empty its contents. When attending a play or opera at the theatre, I imagine she would again retreat to a darker more private corner of the box to urinate.
Designed only for women, these bourdalous are quite beautiful. Made of faience or porcelain, they are decorated with flowers or painted scenes. Many are gilded. The portable pots, or coach pots as they were known in England, could be decorated inside as well. They were quite small and compact, designed for travel, which made it easy to carry them and pack them for coach trips. They were also taken to long banquets, where ladies would scurry behind curtains when they needed to go.
Bourdaloues were used throughout the 18th and for most of the 19th century. As water closets began to be built inside homes and buildings, the use of these chamber pots began to be reduced dramatically.
Gentlemen had it a little easier, although this satiric French cartoon, which I have shown before, depicts the disgust that Frenchmen felt towards Englishmen who freely pissed in a pot in the dining room. In this instance, the man misses the chamber pot and hits the floor. There seems to be a lack of modesty among these men, which largely holds true today.
Modesty is also lacking in this cartoon of ladies relieving themselves inside a public restroom at Vauxhall Gardens. Four are arrayed on a long latrine against the wall. One lady is refreshing her make up and another is tightening her garter. If such scenes were common for upper class women in public spaces, perhaps many felt no modesty relieving themselves in church as well.