My Museum Monday: 3

Hurry up!

I think we sometimes fail to realise that people in the past shared every one of our present-day foibles. Ribald senses of humour were just as prevalent as today, as much ancient graffiti can attest. People in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were certainly not po-faced. In 2004 Paul Mullins discussed the occurrence on archaeological sites of miniature figurines of people using chamber pots, and again with Lewis Jones discussed miniature chamber pots in a 2011 paper, pointing out that they were jocular references to a major concern at the time – lack of sanitation.

Here are a couple of similar examples from my museum. In the first a woman bursts in (deliberately?) on a partly-clothed gentleman who was in the process of washing. The ceramic was seemingly intended to be a container, and may have been meant for a bathroom (toothbrushes?).

“Modesty” figurine.

In the second, a rather crude bisque figurine, a man opens a privy door on a seated lady. This was probably a souvenir figurine, made in Japan. Dating the object is difficult — suggestions range from 1920s to 1950s. Privies would still have been in use during this period, though in diminishing numbers, and the humour of this piece may have been coloured by nostalgia. Many examples feature a black man and woman, which may be a racist joke or represent a wry comment on the continuing use of “outhouses”, as they were called in the US, by poorer people, and therefore support Mullins’ papers.

Bisque figurine of man opening privy door.
Bisque figurine showing women disturbed by man opening privy door

Privy ornaments are still offered for sale online, though it is unlikely that many buyers will have ever used one. Privies also, of course, a necessary nudge-nudge-wink-wink exhibit at museums that look at the lives of working people. We continue to be fascinated by, and to joke, uncomfortably perhaps, about the less desirable aspects of the past (cf the latrines prominently displayed on Roman sites such as Housesteads fort), but should remember that they were held to be equally amusing at the time.


Mullins, Paul R., 2004. Consuming aspirations: bric-a-brac and the politics of Victorian materialism in West Oakland. In Praetzellis, Mary and Praetzellis, Adrian (Eds). Putting the “there” there: Historical archaeologies of West Oakland. Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University. pp 85-115.

Mullins, P. and Jones, L. 2011. Archaeologies of Race and Urban Poverty: The Politics of Slumming, Engagement, and the Color Line (Historical Archaeology 45/1: pp 33—50).

Author: ralphblog

I am a historical archaeologist, writer and editor. I live in Saanich, Victoria, British Columbia.

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