S.C., who works at a Ventura thrift store, sent me a photo of a mahogany box with paneled front and sides that is raised on turned legs with 'tipt' feet (the legs are lathed and taper to a fine point). The lid is hinged and can be lifted, and the top exterior is fitted with something warmer than wood, perhaps leather. The case piece is mortise and tenon joined, which means it is pre-1840 if it is American or pre-1820 if it is English.
Under the lid there's a white ceramic pot inside a commodious wooden platform. S.C., this is a toilet, circa the second quarter of the 19th century.
Although S.C.'s toilet does not flush, the technology was known to ancient civilizations such as the Indus Valley (2600-1900 BCE), which had sewers and flushing toilets. The Minoans of ancient Crete (2000-1500 BCE) had drainage systems and water toilets. The Roman goddess of the sewers was Cloacina, "The Cleanser," who watched as citizens perched over the Cloaca Maxima (Greatest Drain), the main trunk of the Roman sewer system. Regrettably, the Middle Ages saw a reversal in waste management.
Fast forward to 1596, when Joseph Harrington's novel idea of a flush cistern sadly languished; the idea was revisited and patented in 1775 by Alexander Cumming. Modern society continued to eliminate in a wooden box with a porcelain insert like S.C.'s until the late 19th century. One had either a water or an earth closet (with granulated clay), and if you were lucky and rich, you had servants for that sort of thing.
Many of my clients present me with lovely floral decorated bowls with one handle and tell me that although it is old, it has always been their family's favorite popcorn bowl. Old chamber pots were finely decorated and treasured as an invaluable piece of the family's hygiene for years. And when the wood boxes that housed them decayed, the bowl remained for a new life after plumbing, although how the popcorn feels about this we can only surmise.
S.C.'s toilet was the latest in waste management until 1884, when the first pedestalled toilet — made of porcelain — was invented.
Indeed, inside toilets in the late 19th and early 20th century were a design-build luxury, and until 1890, American toilet paper rolls had not been thought of. In Europe, rolled toilet paper did not exist until 1928, one year before my mother was born. If you were around before those momentous dates, you would have saved a newspaper for a more personal use after finishing it. Because folks were accustomed to saving newsprint for future use, the first "toilet paper" was about the size and shape of a newspaper.
If you were not lucky enough to have a plumbed toilet in your home in 1892, you could have visited a public lav in London, thanks to John Nevil Maskelyne, who patented the penny lock. When you tell your boss that you have to leave the meeting to "spend a penny," you can thank John Nevil Maskelyne.
Because most homes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had such thunder boxes as S.C.'s, not surprisingly, they are not valuable in the antiques market. As the craze for indoor plumbing took hold in the early 1900s, people were quick to ditch their old commodes. But not all of them. When I see them used, proudly, as an article of furniture today, I sometimes see a potted plant, and am told they are plant holders.
They are not. They are simply old heads. (By the way, a "head" was a toilet on a ship, a plank that ran outwards of the bow hanging over the water; the "head" of the ship.)
S.C.'s thunder box and porcelain chamber pot, although amusing and old as far as potties go (1840), is worth $200.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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