19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore for research, my husband and I toured the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. (You can see it in the third image on this page.) The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my special interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so unexpectedly encountering her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than just a hazy historical figure.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun (Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome gave it to Betsy after they married—or bought it for their home.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp sense of humor, I feel certain she would have been amused.

205 Bourdalou mit Blumenmalerei Frankenthal c1756-1759
A Sample Bourdelou (not Betsy’s), Photograph by Austin Towers, via Wikimedia Commons

11 Comments

Filed under 19th century life

11 responses to “19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

  1. Hah, yes, I do think most people leave bathroom functions out of novels, historical or otherwise. It does kind of look like an outsized, misshapen gravy boat, doesn’t it? A little?

  2. yubahome

    I had to laugh at this one. I’ve seen people mistake chamber pots for casseroles!

    • Oh dear. That could be a disaster. Thanks for reblogging this one.

      • yubahome

        I should clarify. When I was a young girl, I once visited the home of a well-to-do lady with my aunt. The lady had an extensive collection of old china. A large, rimmed porcelain bowl with handles sat on the lower shelf of one cabinet. She told my aunt the piece must be an odd casserole dish and thought it would be “impractical.”
        After we left my aunt explained the purpose of the object. 🙂

      • Sounds like an enlightening visit. Too bad the woman didn’t know quite as much about china as she thought she did. 🙂 Thanks for sharing the story. I enjoyed it.

  3. Pingback: Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Period Furniture | Ruth Hull Chatlien

  4. Pingback: Betsy’s Circle: Marianne Caton | Ruth Hull Chatlien

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