Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Strange English Dining Customs & Furniture

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Loretta reports:
~~~
There are some customs here not quite consistent with that scrupulous delicacy on which the English pique themselves.  . . . Drinking much and long leads to unavoidable consequences. Will it be credited, that, in a corner of the very dining room, there is a certain convenient piece of furniture, to be used by any body who wants it. The operation is performed very deliberately and undisguisedly, as a matter of course, and occasions no interruption of the conversation. I once took the liberty to ask why this convenient article was not placed out of the room, in some adjoining closet; and was answered, that, in former times, when good fellowship was more strictly enforced than in these degenerate days, it had been found that men of weak heads or stomachs took advantage of the opportunity to make their escape shamefully, before they were quite drunk; and that it was to guard against such an enormity that this nice expedient had been invented. I have seen the article in question regularly provided in houses where there were no men, that is, no master of the house ; the mistress, therefore, must be understood to have given the necessary orders to her servants,—a supposition rather alarming for the delicacy of an English lady.
Louis Simond, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, During the Years 1810 and 1811, Volume 1 (1817 edition).

Seventeen years later, Prince P├╝ckler-Muskau writes to his beloved Lucie about “one strange custom . . . a relic of barbarism which is extremely repugnant to our notions of propriety.
“This struck me especially today when an old admiral who, clad in his dress uniform, probably on account of Lord Melville’s presence, made use of this facility for a good ten minutes, during which period we felt as if we were listening to the last drops from a roof gutter after a long past thunderstorm.”

Illustration:  James Gillray, A Voluptuary under the horrors of digestion, 1792. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

11 comments:

Hels said...

You have to read this twice or 3 times to grasp what they were saying: why was this "convenient article" not placed out of the room?

Guarded language made the answer even trickier: in "former times, when good fellowship was more strictly enforced than in these degenerate days, it had been found that men of weak heads or stomachs took advantage of the opportunity to make their escape shamefully, before they were quite drunk; and that it was to guard against such an enormity that this nice expedient had been invented."

Poor blokes :( what a nightmare it must have been.

Jenny Girl said...

:) I needed a laugh this morning and that last line "listening to the last drops from a roof gutter after a long past thunderstorm.” provided exactly what I needed.
I would like to say I'm surprised by this custom, but for some reason I'm not. As prim and proper the English can be at the time, they allowed some really odd practices.

Alyssa Everett said...

I had always assumed this was a custom practiced only after the ladies had withdrawn to the drawing room, but M. Simond's final sentence makes me wonder.

Mike said...

Dining room furniture was even designed to take a chamber pot i.e. there was space in the dresser for a gazunder. Remember: before flush loos there was no separate "room" for such matters, and privacy simply was not a concept people recognized or valued.It was often a communal activity!
The tradition has echoes in today's army Mess Dinners - formal occasions where the diners are not expected to leave the table until the end of the meal. Heaven help anyone with a weak bladder!

Keira Soleore said...

Performing this in front of everyone or rather within obvious earshot of everyone on one hand, and then not being allowed to dance with a woman twice or hold her hand over-long or look at her too much on the other hand, are so incongruous--it's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that both of these are part of the same society.

By the way, I, too, thought men did this when the women left the room. Which begs the question, did the women go do this in the drawing room when they were by themselves?

Kate Dolan said...

I always wondered if I was somehow misinterpretting this description because it seemed so uncivilized. Simond probably exaggerates a little, but not too much overall. So now I really have to take it at face value...

Candice Hern said...

There was a famous 18th century French woman, whose name I can't recall, who was notorious for using a chamber pot beneath her skirts while dining, without interrupting her conversation.

I doubt many of us in the fastidious 21st century would last long in thre 18th or early 19th century!

KWillow said...

And no hand-washing afterwards. Ick.

Julia said...

I'm in two minds. On one hand: I'd probably be tempted to run from the room if some men started to use a chamber pot a few yards away from me.

On the other: I just returned from a country where people wash after using a toilet (yes, every time) and probably think our paper wipes pretty unsatisfactory. Now I'm back in a "civilised" country where half the people don't have much of a problem wiping their delicate behinds with lovely soft paper made from rain forest trees.

And then of course I can just imagine what our 18th century ancestors would think of people who have no problem discussing sex with acquaintances, allow their 16 year old daughters to be out looking to meet interesting boys late in the evening (supervised by other girls with exactly the same aims) but then get all fussy about a perfectly natural process. Which is, and that the crucial point, done in a polite, delicate way: don't show any skin to the others, don't stare, and don't use indelicate words like "chamber pot".

Cara King said...

Sorry to join the discussion late, but it's a fascinating one!

In the Simond quote, I still take it to mean that this item was only used by men, and only when there were no longer ladies present. It seems to me this is why he points out that the lady of the house must in this case "have given the necessary orders to her servants" -- if this item was used in front of ladies, then surely there would have been no shock at a lady telling her servants to have one, right?

So I deduce that this was one of those items that men used, and ladies pretended not to know about...and its presence in an all-female household (presumably for the use of visiting gentlemen) then violated that pretense of ignorance.

Does that make sense?

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