What’s a chamber pot? Bathroom history

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Woman using chamber pot (Athens, Greece, ca. 480 BC. Now in Berlin)

Woman using chamber pot (Athens, Greece, ca. 480 BC. Now in Berlin)

Imagine if you had to leave your house and walk to a nearby field or forest every time you wanted to go to the bathroom, even if it was raining or in the middle of the night! That’s what people did when they first started living in houses. In North America, central Africa, and Central Asia, where there weren’t too many people, they kept right on going out to the fields until modern times.

But in places where people began to live closer together, in larger villages, they found another way – they used chamber pots. This might seem yucky to you, but imagine what a great new technology it must have seemed like to kids who were used to having to go outside in the cold and dark when they had to go. Most chamber pots were made of clay pottery, which was a new invention about the time that people began to live in villages. Pottery was a good thing to make chamber pots out of because pottery was cheap and it was waterproof.

Chamber pot from China (ca. 300 AD)

Chamber pot from China (ca. 300 AD)

When you needed to go to the bathroom, you just pulled the chamber pot out of the cupboard or from under the bed, and used that. In the morning, you could carry the chamber pot out to the field and dump it out there (or, if you had slaves, you made them empty the chamber pots). If you lived in an apartment building in the city, you emptied your chamber pot into a barrel on the ground floor – or, if you felt lazy, you just dumped it out the window into the street!

Medieval chamber pot from York, England

Medieval chamber pot from York, England

In the morning, people came by with carts or wheelbarrows or buckets on long poles and collected the “night soil” (the poop) and took it out to the country to compost it into fertilizer for farmers to buy. It’s risky to use human poop as fertilizer for vegetables and grain, because dangerous disease germs like cholera and dysentery in your poop can get on the food you eat, and then a lot more people will catch the disease. But in the ancient world, people didn’t know that, and until the invention of modern fertilizers made from oil, farmers needed human fertilizer anyway in order to grow food.

Learn by doing: make a clay pot
More about ancient pottery
More about the history of sewage

Bibliography and further reading about Greek history:

Greek sewage
Roman sewage
Chinese sewage
Aqueducts
Pottery
Quatr.us home

By |2017-09-05T02:55:25+00:00September 5th, 2017|Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What’s a chamber pot? Bathroom history. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 5, 2017. Web. September 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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