Thursday, November 7, 2013


Some people have weapons named after them – Colt, Gatling, Molotov. Some have devices to record their names for posterity – Guillotine, Hoover – and some have inventions and developments: Morse, Pilates, Salk. And some have . . . well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

The above items are not gravy boats or other elegant servers from a classy historic house.

They are known as bourdaloues and were smaller, portable feminine versions of chamberpots, pos, or as they were once colloquially referred to in Australia, a gazunder, so named because it goes under the bed. 

Back in the days when women wore hoops and had large billowing skirts, answering the call of nature was a major exercise. This is where Louis Bourdaloue comes in. Louis (1632-1704), a Jesuit priest at the court of Louis XIV, was reputed to be such a spellbinding speaker and orator that people did not want to miss a single word of his sermons. Another version says that his skills were not the relevant factor, rather his sermons were extraordinarily long. Furthermore, churches and theatres in those days did not have toilets. There were no breaks during sermons. Legend has it that women used the above porta pottys under their panniers and voluminous skirts to relieve themselves in church without missing any part of the service and sermon. Hence these items became known, and remain known, as bourdaloues. 

Louis Bourdaloue

Some historians are skeptical and point out that a more likely manner of use was that m’lady’s maid would bring the bourdaloue to m’lady, who would use it in a discreet manner or in shadow, with the maid then taking it away again. Sort of like a 17th century Downton Abbey procedure.

Bourdaloues were oval in shape with a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other. The edges curled in to prevent damage to delicate body parts and to prevent spillage. They often came with a lid. Bordaloues could be used while squatting or standing as demonstrated in this painting by Fran├žois Boucher called La Bourdaloue:

Bourdaloues were used throughout the 18th and for most of the 19th century but as plumbing improved and toilets were developed, their use declined. 

Some more bourdaloes:

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