Prague boasts unrivalled collection of chamber pots and toilets at new museum

Photo: Martina Schneibergová

A rich, and certainly idiosyncratic, museum has joined Prague’s list of attractions. The collection devoted to, let’s say answering the call of nature, is the result of a Czech couple’s trawling of junk shops, antique stores and auction houses for chamber pots and toilets. The result ranges from the most humble clay pot to those designed and used by presidents and emperors.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
Since the start of the year, Prague has a new addition to its panoply of museums. And the subject matter should be familiar to all of us. Yes, it’s the history of chamber pots and toilets.

The director of the private collection in Prague 2’s Vyšehradská Street, Renata Sedlácková, says the collection is the biggest in the world. “At the moment we have around 2,000 thousand exhibits on show. Of these, around 1,700 are chamber pots, around 120 are sit down toilets and water closet chests with the rest being curiosities, postcards, catalogues, and other smaller items. We started buying first of all in the Czech Republic, for instance when we were travelling around by car and stopped off at junk shops and antique stores and asked if they had chamber pots and so on.

“Gradually as time went on and as things changed, we started a lot to use Internet sales sites which allowed us to get these items from around the whole world. Today we have chamber pots, mainly from Britain, but also from the United States, from Australia and, of course, items from Asia. It is the biggest collection in the world. We know of two similar museums in the world, both of which we have visited. One is in New Delhi, India, and the other is in the Spanish town of Ciudad Rodrigo.”

The collection started by chance back in 2003 when the family was carrying out reconstruction work on an old fortified building on the southern outskirts of Prague and uncovered an old stone toilet. Daughter Tereza takes up the story. “My dad found an old house from the 9th century and he reconstructed it. And he found an old toilet in a wall and he realized that he could reconstruct it. So he made a really good replica which is here now because the exhibition is not now in the old house but here in the centre of Prague. ”

With interest sparked the collection quickly snowballed. Tereza continues: “After that it was a sort of joke on behalf of my parents. My mother gave my father a chamber pot as a Christmas or birthday present and after we collected around 100 pieces, my dad realized that we should exhibit them because two pieces were valuable antiques and that is how the collection started. ”

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
The downstairs collection of the museum is devoted to an impressive collection of chamber pots in all its shapes and sizes. The oldest, a pretty plain clay piece, dates from the 15th century and was bought from a Dutch collector. |But there was an explosion of designs and models from the seventeenth and eighteenth with clay being replaced by porcelain and even silver as the raw material.

Some of the French designs have a particular history. |There are, for example, the so called bordelu chamber pots. Their history goes back to the era of Louis the fourteenth and the ban on women absenting themselves for the call of nature when in church or on other court occasions. Some decided to take a sauce bowl to such events just in case the need arose and the curious sauce bowl shaped chamber pot began to be produced as a result.

Another French special chamber pot began to be produced at the same time with newly married couples but not the tradition purpose in mind. Tereza again: “We have a collection from France and it’s called chamber pots for marriage. It was a tradition that these chamber pots were not used but they were made for the married couple so that they could eat sweets and other delicacies from these chamber pots. It was a tradition. ” Eerily these pots usually have an eye painted in the bottom and a message for the newly-weds on the side.

Portraits of politicians were, especially in the nineteenth century, pointed on the bottom of chamber pots as well to express the buyers’ views. One example at the museum portrays former British finance minister and Liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. The pot in question was presumably owned by a Conservative or Tory. Small pots were produced during the Second World War portrayed Adolf Hitler for a similarly unflattering purpose.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
There are also chamber pots from hotels and those used by the famous European cruise lines, such as the White Star Line, made infamous by the sinking of the Titanic. The cruise line pots were used more for sea sickness than the conventional purpose since flushing toilets were obviously part of the luxury shipping experience.

The museum also boasts a series of celebrity chamber pots. Perhaps the most prized was produced in Britain as part of a porcelain collection for the former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who had already been packed off to exile at St. Helena for disturbing the peace of Europe again at the battle of Waterloo. Tereza explains the circumstances of its acquisition. “After a few months, my mother read a little article in the newspaper that there was an auction to be held in London and that there was a chamber pot from Napoleon Bonaparte. And she decided that she should go there and she did. And that is how we have one of the most specific and rarest chamber pots in the world. ”

Unfortunately, the chamber pot in question and the imperial posterior never became close. The British censor charged with checking everything to do with Napoleon took a dislike to the design on the pot because it looked like a victory garland and banned its departure to the lonely South Atlantic island. History does not tell how the former emperor dealt with the loss.

The chamber pot of a Chinese emperor and one pot that graced the White House during the era of US president Abraham Lincoln are also on show. The latter was offloaded by the wife of former president Harry Truman to a long serving member of the White House household when she was carrying a makeover of the premises.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
Toilets take pride of place on the floor above with models varying from the travelling coach toilet, first flush toilets without mains water supply, and the sort of toilets that we would be familiar with from the mid-nineteenth century. Most examples are from Britain, reflecting the fact that the country was the global leader in toilet technology at the time and exported its innovation to the four corners of the globe.

The history of one Czech toilet has a particular twist. It comes from the site of an apartment bloc originally sited on Prague’s Národní Třída which was demolished to make way for the metro entrance built there. The owners’ saved the toilet and took it away with them to their new accommodation. With the metro entrance now demolished in its turn for an office and shopping complex, the toilet has finally ended up a couple of kilometers away from its original site at the museum.

Renata Sedlácková continues with the story of another of the exhibits: “We have the first chemical toilet from the United States. It basically looks like a metal barrel with wooden boards and base. The barrel had a metal interior in which some antiseptic mix was put in, most often chlorine or lime, which smelt a lot. And a pipe was attached, a bit like the pipes you have for heating stoves, and it was put through the wall so that the smell was taken out of the room. This type of toilet was mostly used where there was no possibility of using water to flush and so for hygiene reasons the chemical mix was used instead. ”

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
Toilet paper and toilet chains and handles also have their place in the collection with the latter providing some assistance if gremlins got into the toilet technology. “We have a collection of toilet handles. They are made from wood, iron or porcelain. What is interesting is that the plumbers wrote their numbers and names [and addresses] so this was in a way the first contact at hand for people who had problems with their toilets because they weren’t used to using water closets yet.”

It’s probably too early to say whether the museum is flushed with success. Renata Sedlácková says she’s hoping to attract a mix of locals and tourists. A cautionary word perhaps, the entrance fee amounts to more than spending a penny, or few crowns, but the facilities on show are perhaps unrivalled in Europe and the world.