What was a Bourdaloue?

Ok, so we have finally lowered the tone of our blogs posts, but a question frequently asked is, ‘how on earth did women relieve themselves when wearing those enormous 18th-century dresses’. Let’s face it when nature calls then there is little choice and public toilets were very limited in the 18th century, so here is how they solved the problem!

Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum

Women of the 18th century didn’t wear knickers, they hadn’t been invented, which may have been something of a blessing when you find out that hanging around at court for hours necessitated the need for women to relieve themselves where they stood. Today, when needs must, we have a modern equivalent, the ‘she-wee’, and of course, those Georgians were no different. Just prior to the Georgian era they did had the chamber pot, but that was not very practical to be used in public so they devised an object known as a ‘Bourdaloue’. Personally, we think that the Bourdaloue would have been more discreet, to be honest.

Rumour was (as no proof seems to exist) that the name of the object evolved courtesy of a Jesuit priest, Louis Bourdaloue who gave such long speeches that could last for hours that ladies needed to relieve themselves.  Another school of thought is that they came about as a result of women not wishing to miss a second of his amazing sermons, either way, whether true or not the ‘Bourdaloue’ evolved.  Certainly, he gave his name to part of a hat* which seems far more acceptable. It also seems feasible that the modern word ‘loo’ came from this term, but again we have no proof of this – maybe one of our readers would be able to assist with this?

It was a boat-shaped vessel with a raised lip at one end and handle at the other, a bit like a gravy boat and the maid would be expected to carry this for her mistress and likewise empty it after use. If you didn’t have a maid then you dealt with this yourself. Apparently, it was designed to be used standing up, possibly not that easy to use then!

So with that, we thought we would take a look at a few – and yes, these really were used for that purpose. If you couldn’t afford a china version then tin and leather ones were available, although it’s doubtful that any of those survived!

c1811. Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum
Courtesy of Langeloh Porcelain
Courtesy of Langeloh Porcelain
Bourdaloue Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1735-1745
Bourdaloue dated 1735-1745, courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Tin-glazed earthenware painted with in-glaze colours, enamels and gilding Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Sevres – 1757-58 Courtesy of LotPrivé.com
Tin-enameled earthenware Met museum
Tin-enamelled earthenware courtesy of the Metmuseum

And finally, courtesy of the artist François Boucher ‘La Toilette intime (Une Femme qui pisse)’ – we will make no comment as to why Boucher would have chosen to paint such an intimate scene.


Belle Assemblée: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine 1823

32 thoughts on “What was a Bourdaloue?

  1. I’ve been working on the assumption that “loo” stemmed from “gardez l’eau,” that old Parisian heads up warning for chamber pots being emptied from upper story windows into the streets. Maybe that’s complete fabulation, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All Things Georgian

      Hmm, your explanation of its origin seems equally as plausible, maybe someone out there will be able to help establish the truth once and for all 🙂


    2. segbaillie

      I have also believed that ‘loo’ is from gardez l’eau – which I have heard was also used in the UK – particularly Edinburgh. It occurs to me that Bourdaloue may have been jokingly referred to as gardez l’eau in the same way that I’ve been known to refer to Sacha Discord and Charles ‘As-no-voice. Thus the two terms may have become conflated.


  2. Actually, there were some places that had public toilets in the 18th Century. Vauxhall Gardens for instance had a (very) public rest room as can be seen in the satirical print “The Inside of the Lady’s Garden at Vauxhall”, 1788 by SW Fores.
    And I love Boucher’s painting of the lady using her bourdaloue. Such intimate paintings help us better understand the times. 🙂 TY for sharing these wonderful images of such a useful and quite beautifully decorated, and most necessary, female receptacle! 🙂


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for your comments – we learn something new everyday, we hadn’t seen the Lady’s Garden at Vauxhall, definitely one to store for future reference 🙂


  3. OK, so it seems like a reasonable answer to an un answered question about how women went to the bathroom while wearing such voluminous skirts. And, thanks to the artist we have proof. What I still can’t believe is that they hiked those skirts up in public. As my kids would say, “Really?”


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for your comment and yes, apparently they did hike their skirts up in public or perhaps they disappeared to a side room or similar. according to historian Lucy Worsley ‘Privacy is not essential, and the French ambassador’s wife annoys everyone with the “frequency and quantity of her pissing which she does not fail to do at least ten times a day amongst a cloud of witnesses”.’ 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Dealing with Toilets, or the Lack Thereof, in the Regency | ReginaJeffers's Blog

      1. Lol, it’s okay just to say ‘vulgar! If you are ever in Suffolk I’ll show you our garde de robe remnants, which would once have required you to hang your behind over the stream. We’ve also uncovered a doorway in the outside wall to what the architectural historian thinks would have been the entrance to a two storey wooden lavatory block. Your port-a-potties seem quite sophisticated by comparison. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Katherine Teschner

    Women also have bowls, how was that delt with? & if no underware, what about incontinence??? Thank goodness we have Poise & Always!!


    1. Sarah Murden

      That’s a really good question and not one for which we have an immediate answer, but we will try to find out. In the meantime perhaps one of our lovely readers will have a suggestion:)


  6. segbaillie

    Two points that may be of interest:

    In the C15th there were similar items and you can buy reproductions from Trinity Court Potteries (http://www.trinitycourtpotteries.co.uk/trintiycourt_home.htm). Sadly no photo on their site and my own is in storage so I can’t photograph it for you at the moment. However, I can report that they’re very chilly on the thighs at three in the morning.

    On the subject of peeing in public – most historic reenactors will tell you that a common place to get saltpetre for making gunpowder was from churches, where people had relieved themselves where they stood/sat during long sermons.


  7. Big Roly

    The origin of the word “loo”, as I understood it, came from the nautical practice of peeing to leeward (pronounced “loo’ard”) as opposed to peeing to windward – which was a patently bad idea.


  8. Victoria Simmons

    Re: ‘loo’, according to Etymonline,

    “loo (n.1)
    “‘lavatory,’ 1940, but perhaps 1922 (based on a pun of Joyce’s); perhaps [Dictionary of American Slang] from French lieux d’aisances ‘lavatory’, literally ‘place of ease’, picked up by British servicemen in France during World War I. Or possibly a pun on Waterloo, based on water closet.”

    So not a very old word, wherever it came from.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: How did 18th century society women go to the toilet? - Tim's Fun Facts

  10. Pingback: Bourdaloue: The Man, the Myth, the Chamber Pot

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