Not everyone may have been able to rest their buttocks on a receptacle padded with velvet and studded with gold nails to ‘do their business’ as Henry VIII did (at a cost of £80 – a fortune in those days), but everyone – counts and marquesas, popes and bishops, saints and sinners – would have used a potty, jerry, or, as it is known in Spain, an orinal.
Since time immemorial until the invention of the flush toilet (and even well after that) a receptacle has been used to gather the most intimate of bodily functions. The Greeks referred to it as a ‘friend’; the Romans, if possible, would keep the contents separate as urine was regarded as the bees knees for keeping all those patrician togas sparkling white; Juvinal and Petronio wrote of them, and in the first century A.D., Saint Clement harangued against those that used the ‘refined’ version made of silver, (although it would appear that Queen Victoria ignored him as she had one made from the very same material). Emperor Heliogábalo went one step further and lined his golden bowl with freshly cut flowers.
Unlike body actions such as eating, dancing, or walking, defecation is considered very lowly. Despite the fact that it is recorded that in 2500 BC the Harappa civilisation in India, at a place called Lothal, had water borne toilets in each house which were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks, very few scholars documented precisely the toilet habits of our predecessors, so a pottied history of the subject is hard to discover. The Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (1913), Charles Richet, attributes this silence to the disgust that arises from noxiousness and the lack of usefulness of human waste – although not as far as the Roman’s were concerned it wasn’t.
Whereas the British have the limited vocabulary of ‘chamber pot’ or ‘bed pan’ to describe this highly personal piece of equipment (the colloquial ‘potty’, ‘jerry’ or ‘gozunda’ slightly extending the vocabulary), the Spanish have no less than 13 names for each different type of waste product recipient; fifteen if you count the Cuban tibor or Aragónese tiorba. Chata, galanga, the terrifyingly named tigre (tiger), and the elegantly titled dompedro (which seems to have taken it’s name from its usage by some quality gent), each describes the different use to which it was put, or as the Spanish delicately refer it “el abandono de caulquier otra suerte de humores excrementicios”.
In 1994 when José Maria del Arco’s collection reached 600 hundred orinales hanging from the beams of his basement den, he decided to remove them for fear that they would bring his home tumbling down around his ears. He didn’t stop collecting though, and now, with around 1,320 of them, he is thought to have the largest collection in the world, on display at the Museo del Orinal in Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain.
“My first jerries came when a friend from my home town of Ciudad Rodrigo in Salamanca was knocking down an old hospital in 1980. He found a box containing some old military uniforms and potties from the War of Independence. He asked me if I wanted them, knowing that I was an inveterate collector, so I said, yes. ”
Having the odd potty around the place was part of the eighties kitschy culture – they made fancy flowerpots – but by 1996 José Maria had 700 hundred of them from 29 different countries, including Mexico, Hong Kong, China, the UK and Argentina. Every one different and made from tin, wood, brass, ceramic, porcelain, earthenware, glass and gold.
“Most of my collection came from friends,” says José Maria, (well, you wouldn’t expect a Potty Swaps Club, would you?), “But after my first small exhibition in Málaga in 1996, which appeared on television and radio, the national newspaper ABC did a feature on me and my collection and I had potties sent from all over the world.” People were so intrigued with the idea of a collection of jerries that over 20,000 visitors passed through the doors of a 16th Century palace in Salamanca when his collection was exhibited there.
A saunter around José Maria’s collection (no longer hanging on his basement ceiling) is a drift through the lowly levels of history. “What people forget is that these pieces were fundamental furniture in almost every house for thousands of years and so are as much a part of our cultural history as any ornate archaeological artefact.” And not only for the use to which it was put, but also as part of social ritual, as with the example of a French chamber pot inscribed ‘Vive la Marie’ (Long live our marriage). As late as the 1930’s in France, the bride and groom would be given a potty on their wedding night from which they would drink champagne – probably for the first and last time! (The ‘cultural significance’ also accounted, it is said, for the wide brimmed Spanish sombrero – as protection from the ‘night-soil’ hurled out of a bedroom window into the street below.)
The collection comes in all shapes and sizes, from one the size of a chickpea (not for functional use, of course) to a ceramic monster 45 centimetres high. “Spanish jerries tend to be of thicker material and be much courser than the English variety, more like cooking pots” he says. “They are usually wider at the top than the English designs, which are more feminine and elegant.”
The early British travellers brought their own equipment on visits to the Iberian Peninsular. “A potty was a very personal item,” explains José Maria, “And would only usually be used by one person. When they travelled they used models encased in wood or tooled leather.” And when in the comfort of their own home they would use the dompedro, or ‘commode’ as it was know in Britain, a potty hidden in a piece of furniture often cunningly disguised as a chair or footstool. If the potty was made of rough material, comfort would be enhanced by covering the seating area with velvet or by using cushions. And this in a time before washing machines!
“The English potties were the best in the world,” enthuses José Maria, “Very fine quality ceramics, particularly in Victorian times.” The English chamberpot became the toast of Spain when a Victorian industrialist by the name of Pickman started a ceramics factory called La Cartuja in 1835. His factory made the plates for the Infanta’s wedding, but it isn’t recorded as to whether he also supplied their Highnesses with their ‘gozunda’s’.
The English enhanced this ‘culturally significant artefact’ (although they probably didn’t think of it as such in those days) with ornate decoration, fancy handles and gold paintwork on the rim. José Maria lovingly handles a twelve-sided little number; extols the beautiful decoration of another featuring a hand-painted design of mountains, water, boats and windmills working its way from one side of the handle to the other; and positively drools over a pale blue ‘modelo Ingles’ from the 1860 nouveau period, painted in green with flowers and scroll-work in relief (which it probably provided a great deal of in its working life).
José Maria’s collection encompasses the intimate oddities of hospital life, with unusual looking objects that would allow patients to complete their personal movements with a modicum of privacy. The galanga for example, a bottle-like affair with an open lip for the ladies, or the Boots slipper bedpan for ladies and gentlemen, that looks like a baby bird with its mouth open waiting to be fed. He also has some fine examples of escupidera’s, spittoons to the British, which, despite their usage being even more ill regarded than the jerry, were equally as ornately designed.
With around 1,300 of potties et al on display at the Museo del Orinal has José Maria del Arco’s collection reached it end? “There is no such word as ‘end’ for a collector,” he grins. “There’s always one more.”
The interview for this article was made shortly before José María del Arco passed away in June 2011. The collection can be seen at Ciudad Rodrigo’s Diocesan Seminary San Cayetano in Plaza Herrasti.