I do a lot of school visits, and one question I often pose to kids is: How did these women go to the bathroom?
I’ve heard some extremely creative responses. But sometimes the truth is weirder than anything kids can guess.
Before the 19th century, most women just wore nothing beneath their chemises. There’s a scene in Othello where Desdemona bids her maid to unpin her. The Elizabethans would have known that this was no small task on the part of her maid. That farthingale she’d have been wearing made her a walking pincushion. If you were pinned into your dress, the last thing you’d want to do would be to hike it up to pee–you’d simply do it standing up, and move on.
By the 19th century, women were no longer pinned into their dresses, but trying to pee was still a challenge. By the time the huge, mid-19th century crinolines showed up on the fashion scene, something had to be done about what they were wearing–or not–underneath. These crinolines, you must understand, were racy. They were meant not to cover up the leg, but to show it off. They swung like bells when a woman walked, and could reveal shocking amounts of woolen-stocking.
As a result, pantaloons became de riguer. A lady had to wear those, because think about the challenges she faced entering a stagecoach while retaining her modesty (it was the conductor’s job to look the other way while pushing down on the front end of a crinoline as his female passengers mounted the stairs). There were even reports of crinolines flipping inside out in stiff winds,* like one of those five-dollar umbrellas you buy in New York.
So at my school visits, I show the kids these:
They’re pantaloons. I got them on Ebay. I hold them up, and then pull them apart a bit to show that they’re. . .crotchless. A woman in voluminous skirts, petticoats, and crinolines would not have been able to yank down her drawers. She’d either pee standing up, or her maid might supply her with something resembling this, called a bourdaloue, which was a chamber pot designed especially for women.
One unsubstantiated story is that this female chamber pot was named after a long-winded 17th c. French Jesuit priest named Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704) whose sermons went on so long, a lady might need to use this chamber pot, discreetly, in her pew. Although people used to be much more open about answering the call of nature in front of others, I think it’s unlikely that a proper lady would have used a chamber pot in her church pew. After all, ladies were taught the “virtues of control” from an early age.
But the “open” pantaloons are for real. Check out this ad from an 1898 magazine.