J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

“Pewter Dish (?) with Handle”

Smithsonian Magazine’s website featured this object back in August, saying:
An 18th-century bedpan isn’t all that different from one today. Then, it was round and made of pewter with a handle. In an era before plumbing and bathrooms, the bedpan could be gently heated and slipped under the covers of a sickbed.

The elderly, ill, and women recovering from childbirth could use the bedpan without having to risk further injury by leaving their bed. While healthy adults could use a chamberpot, which might be kept in a cabinet or attached beneath a hole in a chair seat, the bedpan was designed for the immobile.

This particular bedpan was made by a New York pewterer named Frederick Bassett in the late 18th century.
Why did it merit that attention? Because this particular bedpan can be traced to George and Martha Washington.

Or at least to the descendants of Martha’s granddaughter Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon. Around 1900 they inventoried and numbered all the household items that family lore said had come from Mount Vernon after Martha Washington’s death in 1802. This was identified as a “pewter dish (?) with handle.” In the 1930s one heir sold it to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as a “plate warmer.”

Apparently, however, no one used this container in any commemorative banquets before a material-history expert recognized it as a bedpan. And that’s how it’s been catalogued and occasionally displayed at Mount Vernon ever since.

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