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Child's Chamber Pot and Washbasin

Child's ceramic toilet set used by Elizabeth Marshall of Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin,
c. 1905.

(Museum object #1947.909,A-B)

The early twentieth century middle-to-upper class American child was born into a society that offered a vast array of novel goods designed specifically to fit his or her needs. One such example is this young girl’s coordinated three-piece toilet set with stand, washbasin, and chamber pot. Submerged in a culture still influenced by Victorian morals, many of these products served more than one function. While on the surface they were designed to be pleasing to a child’s taste, they often also existed to teach manners, reinforce good habits, or direct children in their future roles as adults. This toilet set was used in the early 1900s by Elizabeth Marshall, the only daughter of William Marshall, a professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The set is representative of the mass-produced and inexpensive ceramics readily available during the early twentieth century. "'Ware" — short for toilet ware — came in a variety of qualities and breakages were frequent in less expensive pieces such as these, as evidenced by the large cracks and consequent repair in the set’s chamber pot.

Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of the set is its playful imagery, the direct result of a growing trend among manufacturers who aimed to delight small children with familiar pictures. Exceptionally popular among children in the late nineteenth century were the whimsical images of illustrator Kate Greenaway, which were the inspiration for the drawings reproduced on the toilet set. The Greenaway images ranged from frolicking children to relaxing pastoral scenes to industrious little boys and girls busy with cooking pots and ironing boards. These delightful images helped mask the less than pleasant connotations of these items; that even well-bred people get dirty and need to relieve themselves.

In addition, the small scale of an otherwise "adult" product displays another attempt to appeal to children. Not only would a product of this size seem less daunting than its adult equivalent, it was necessary for independent use. American society in the early twentieth century took early training and discipline of small children seriously. While mothers may have adored certain aspects related to the innocence of infancy, changing diapers appears to have not been one of them. Childcare manuals of that time suggested techniques to encourage regular bodily functions for the sake of helping the nurse and to ensure regularity. While it may seem unusual by today's standards, these manuals often advised the start of such toilet training as early as two months of age.

A seeming culmination of remaining Victorian propriety and the dawning of a more scientifically conscientious era, the pot and basin indicate this society’s need to both manage waste and keep clean in an orderly fashion. Since most middle-class urban families had indoor toilets by the early 1900s the chamber pot probably represents a training device much like a modern-day toddler’s potty. Even though these items themselves are child-sized, the larger scale of the handles in both the basin and pot indicate that an adult was still responsible for emptying them.

In accordance with popular social expectations of girls at the turn-of-the-century, both these products themselves and the images they contain reflect the contemporary mainstream social expectations for appropriate girlhood pastimes and habits. On one hand a middle or upper class girl was afforded time for leisure and play, on the other hand this time often revolved around training for her role as a future wife and mother.

Early twentieth century society continued domestic stereotypes, depicting "good" girls learning skills like proper hygienic bathroom cleaning from an early age. Even the ritual of grooming as dictated by this set was training for future habits and acceptance in polite society. While a child of this era first won some of the important freedoms we associate with childhoods of today, this chamber pot and washstand indicate such freedoms for the middle to upper middle class American girl at the turn-of-the-century were often mixed with strict training and social requirements.

[Sources: Clark, Clifford Edward, Jr. The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986); Gilman, Elizabeth Hale. Things Girls Like to Do (Philadelphia: Uplift Publishing Company, 1917); Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983); Heininger, Mary Lynn Stevens, et al. A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920 (Rochester, New York: The Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, 1984); Greenaway, Kate. Kate Greenaway's Book of Games (London: Grange Books, reprint 1993); Holt, L. Emmett. The Care and Feeding of Children (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904); Macleod, David I. The Age of the Child: Children in America, 1890-1920 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998); McClinton, Katharine Morrison. Antiques of American Childhood (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970).]


Posted on February 01, 2007

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