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Privy Business Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by Mary Ellin D'Agostino

[image] In Before (left) and After (right), Hogarth's titillating warning against illicit sexuality is expressed in heavy symbolism, from the fallen curtain of privacy and broken mirror and chamber pot, to the worldly books outnumbering The Practice of Piety. In the paintings within the painting, also entitled Before and After, a cupid figure first fires up a rocket, then points to its spent cartridge. (S. Shesgreen, ed., Engravings by Hogarth NY: Dover Publications, 1973)
[image] Hogarth's A Rake's Progress portrays a more disorderly scene. In this depiction of mixed company, a mood of revelry is palpable, clothing has been shed, and, notably, the chamber pot is spilled (lower right). (S. Shesgreen, ed., Engravings by Hogarth (NY: Dover Publications, 1973)) [LARGER IMAGE]

In addition to their obvious utilitarian function, chamber pots played a dual role in colonial life and carried two sets of meanings and associations. The first was public--pots were used openly, during or after dinner, in all-male company. The second was intimate--the chamber pot was a metaphor for female sexuality. For years I have been studying household inventories, exploring how colonial people recorded their own material culture. As I analyzed seventeenth-century probate inventories from Plymouth, Maryland, and Bermuda (inventories taken upon the death of a head-of-household to forestall disputes among heirs) a strange and persistent pattern emerged. I reasoned that the sequence of objects listed by an assessor as he walked from room to room would reflect the spatial layout of household goods. Forks and plates would be listed together, for example, and pillows with sheets--and they were. Again and again, however, chamber pots were associated with tablewares (eating, serving, and especially drinking vessels) and not with the bed. Given the common depiction of chamber pots in association with beds in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European and English art and literature, it was troubling to me that probate inventories do not list beds and chamber pots together. How could I reconcile this with my theory that the sequence of the list reflects the layout of the house as recorded by the assessor? Is it possible that the probate deliberately averted its eyes from the chamber pot beneath the bed? Looking underneath for a chamber pot may have been too severe an invasion by the community (in the guise of the assessor) into the privacy of the family because of the sexual symbolism of the pot in the bedroom context.

Mary Ellin D'Agostino is a post-doctoral fellow at the Archaeological Research Facility at Berkeley.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America