Monday, May 9, 2016

A Bedroom Necessity

QUESTION: I found and fell in love with and bought this nightstand from a thrift store for $60.00. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: What you have is a nightstand which probably dates to the 1930s or 1940s. Nightstands are a new type of furniture. Back when people used didn’t have indoor toilets, they sometimes kept a porcelain potty in a cabinet in the lower part of a similar piece of furniture. This came to be known in America as a commode. It allowed a person who had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night to use it in the privacy of their bedroom and not have to go out to the outhouse. When indoor plumbing became more common, furniture manufacturers kept the piece of furniture but replaced the cabinet in the lower portion with drawers.

But to fully understand how the nightstand evolved, we have to go back to the Middle Ages. During that time, people used a simple setup consisting of a tripod stand or stool that could hold a washbasin. They would have placed a chamber pot either under the tripod stand or inside the stool for easy access.

By the 18th century, the washstand, also called a basin stand or washhand stand, had become more a necessity in the bedroom, not just for washing up, but for storage of a chamber pot to be used in the middle of the night when necessity called.

Cabinetmakers made some to fit in a corner, with a bowed door in front and flaps extending upwards from the sides to protect the wall from water splashes. These were simple pieces. By the 19th century, they had increased in size, becoming heavier and more substantial that often came with a marble top and drawers in front and a cupboard below in which to store a chamber pot.

More high quality washstands appeared in the second half of the 19th century. These were usually a part of a bedchamber suite, consisting of a bedstead, dresser, wardrobe of some sort, and bedside commode.

Wealthier people with servants could also use their bedroom for bathing. First, there was the convenience of a commode near the bed, a washstand with warm water supplied by the maid or even a nice hip bath set near to all the bedroom furniture and accessories that a person would have used for grooming and dressing. By heating the bedroom and perhaps an adjoining dressing room, a person could take care of all of his or her bathing needs at once in one warm area. This was especially true in big houses in cold weather.

The washstand, itself, became an essential piece of bedroom furniture. It came in varying designs which could easily accommodate a large basin, a pitcher, a toothbrush jar, and various other toilet accessories, frequently including a chamber pots housed in a cupboard at its base. Furniture makers usually used white marble for the top and the “splash back” set into a wooden frame. Sometimes, they cut a hole in the top so a basin could be suspended in it. They often used a special type of French marble known as “St. Anne’s,” as it resisted the action of the alkali in soap.

Basic washstand accessories included a seven-piece washstand set, consisting of a ceramic bowl and pitcher, chamber pot, toothbrush holder, shaving mug, soap dish, and comb and brush tray. People would often hang a mirror on the wall behind the washstand. Another common accessory was a wooden towel rail known as a “towel horse.”

Commode washstands served the same purpose as a simpler table washstand, made like a chest with a bottom cupboard to hold the chamber pot and a jar for dirty wash water.  Furniture makers added drawers in some models to store a razor, soap dish and towels. The top of some washstands could be lifted to reveal a well in which the wash basin and pitcher could be stored when not in use.

So how did washstand evolve into the nightstand? These convenient pieces of furniture are part of every modern bedroom set. Before indoor flushing toilets became commonplace, the main function of a nightstand was to store a chamber pot. As a result, early nightstands often had small cabinets below with a drawer above them. The enclosed storage space below may also have been covered by one or more doors. Americans eventually started called this bedside cabinet a commode, which after the installation of indoor bathrooms, they also called them.

1 comment:

Roger Price said...


The chamber pot I liked best I saw in Vermont. Painted in the bottom of the chamber pot was a picture of a man that was running for office that the owner of the chamber didn't like.