Precursor to the Porcelain Throne: The Chamber Pot Lid from Saints’ Rest

The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus.  Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the second building erected on campus for the new school and was known as “the House”, “the hall”, or “old hall” [1].  The building acted as the primary dormitory on campus until 1870 when Williams Hall was built.  Unfortunately, Saints’ Rest burned down in the winter of 1876.

The site was originally excavated in 2005 as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration and has been revisited for excavations in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2012.  Throughout these digs, CAP has uncovered numerous artifacts relating to early campus life including items of personal hygiene, such as the lice comb that Lisa described in one of her earlier blog posts.  Another item relating to hygiene found at Saints’ Rest was a fragmented, but reconstructed, chamber pot lid (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Saints’ Rest chamber pot lid. A: exterior surface; B: interior surface

Figure 1 – Saints’ Rest chamber pot lid. A: exterior surface; B: interior surface

Close up of raised floral design on chamber pot lid.

Close up of raised floral design on chamber pot lid.

Measuring about 12in in diameter, the ceramic chamber pot lid has some kind of floral motif on the exterior surface; however, it is unclear as to what it exactly depicts (if you have any suggestions or recognize the pattern let us know – it’s previously been described as a thistle and leaf pattern). The dark blue color of most of the fragments is a result of burning during the fire.

Evidence for the use of chamber pots stems all the way back to ancient Greece, dating to the 6th century BCE [2, 3].  The use of chamber pots became more common, and more necessary, as areas of the world became increasingly urbanized.  With settlements becoming larger and more organized and planned, sanitation became a major concern for many densely populated areas [3].  Although extensive plumbing systems were installed in ancient Rome, indoor plumbing did not become readily available for small-scale buildings and for residents until the 19th century with chamber pots being used even into the 20th century [4].

Figure 2 – The Saint’s Rest dormitory (c. 1857) with students on the roof and in the foreground. The building was later destroyed in a fire in December 1876. Image source.

Figure 2 – The Saint’s Rest dormitory (c. 1857) with students on the roof and in the foreground. The building was later destroyed in a fire in December 1876. Image source.

The presence of this chamber pot lid in an early campus archaeological context highlights some of the realities of life on campus.  These first students did not have the (then) luxury (but now commonality) of using a restroom inside the dorm that is separated from other rooms or is regularly sanitized; their only options were to use the privy just south of the building or to use a chamber pot inside their room.  Chamber pots were often stored under the bed or in cabinets, and then emptied into designated dumping areas [5].  Even with a lid covering the pot (and its contents), exposure to pathogens and diseases that travel through fecal matter was exponentially higher than it is today.  Of course chamber pots were not the only reason that diseases relating to poor sanitation jumped easily from person to person, but the use of these vessels didn’t truly help to eradicate the problem.  In 1886, there was an outbreak of typhoid fever (which is directly linked to fecal contaminants) on campus which resulted in one student death.  It wasn’t until the 1890s that the college had modern plumbing installed after epidemics of diphtheria and measles, and after numerous student and parent complaints [1].  These outbreaks even resulted in the college creating a 7-room hospital building to quarantine infected people as soon as possible.

Although we recognize that our lives as MSU students today are different from those of 150 years ago, sometimes we don’t realize by just how much.  The presence of the chamber pot lid at Saints’ Rest highlights one of these aspects that may have contributed to serious health crises that broke out on campus.  Books and movies have a tendency to romanticize the past as formal and proper, but studying this chamber pot lid, while fascinating, has only reinforced my gratitude for modern amenities and hygienic practices, e.g. indoor plumbing.



[1]       Kuhn, Madison. Michigan State: the first hundred years, 1855-1955. Michigan State University Press, 1955.

[2]       Kravetz, Robert E. Chamber Pot. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2006, 101: pp. 1414-1415.

[3]       D’Agostino, Mary Ellin. Privy Business: Chamber Pots and Sexpots in Colonial Life. Archaeology, 2000, 53(4): pp. 32-37.

[4]       van der Linden, Huub. Medals and Chamber Pots for Faustina Bordoni: celebrity and Material Culture in Early Eighteenth-Century Italy. Journal for eighteenth-century studies. 40(1): 23-47.

[5]       Cunningham, Zac. “Of Chamber Pots and Close Stool Chairs”. Web blog post. Lives and Legacies Blog. 15 July, 2015.

Ten Years Since Saints’ Rest… A Brief History of Campus Archaeology

For those of us who have been involved in Campus Archaeology for a while, it is hard to believe that it has already been almost a decade since the first MSU excavation occurred. In honor of this, we are beginning the 2015 year by looking back at some of the major finds and events for the program!

2005: Saints’ Rest

Saints Rest in 1857, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Saints Rest in 1857, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

In 2005, MSU was celebrating its sesquicentennial, its 150th year that it was a university. As part of this celebration, Dr. Lynne Goldstein proposed the excavation of the first dormitory on MSU’s campus. Saints’ Rest was built in 1856, but burned down in 1870 over winter break. Since its demolition, the site had remained open grass and sidewalks, marked only by a small cornerstone. Research into the site revealed that there was a chance that the foundations of the building were still there, and that we could learn more about this early era of campus life. The Saints’ Rest excavation took place in June 2005, and over six weeks, the archaeological team discovered foundation walls, a sand floor and cobblestone floor basement, original stoves that heated the dorm, barrels and buckets of building materials used to maintain the dorm, and dozens of historic artifacts like ceramics, bottles and more. It was a highly successful dig that demonstrated the importance of conducting archaeology on MSU’s campus.

2007-2008: MSU Campus Archaeology Officially Begins with major excavations of  Faculty Row and College Hall

With the importance of conducting archaeological work demonstrated to the university, Campus Archaeology began as a small program dedicated to the protection and mitigation of MSU’s archaeological resources. The goal wasn’t just to excavate known sites, it was also to work with construction crews to prevent destruction of the archaeological record everywhere on campus, as well as to educate the campus community about the importance of these resources in learning more about our university.

The foundation of College Hall. Photo courtesy of University Relations.

The foundation of College Hall. Photo courtesy of University Relations.

Two of the first major digs that occurred in this earliest stage of Campus Archaeology was the excavation of  Faculty Row and College Hall in 2008. New utilities were installed underground near the West Circle dormitories in this year. It was known that the first faculty houses, called Faculty Row collectively, were once located in this area. Prior to replacement of the new utility lines, Campus Archaeology excavated and tested the area around the West Circle dormitories in order to determine if any of the original buildings or materials from Faculty Row remained in this area. Excavation revealed glass bottles, bricks, construction materials, trolley rail spike, and a wooden water pipe, and the stratigraphy revealed a number of landscape and structural modifications from the destruction of Faculty Row

College Hall was the first academic building on MSU’s campus, and after it came down in 1918, its foundations were used to create an Artillery Garage. This didn’t sit well with alumni who had fond memories of this important and historic building, so money was donated to create Beaumont Tower. In 2008, when construction was being completed to update the sidewalks around the tower, Campus Archaeology got the opportunity to find the foundations of College Hall, still beneath Beaumont Tower.

2010 + 2011: First and Second MSU Campus Archaeology Field Schools, and First Prehistoric Site

2010 Field School

2010 Field School

During 2010 and 2011, the MSU Campus Archaeology program had its first archaeological field schools on campus. These field schools gave students the opportunity to do archaeology in their own backyard, and learn archaeological methods without having to travel too far. The field schools revealed a lot of new information about the area within West Circle Drive known as the Sacred Space. They located some of the earliest sidewalks, and found a major trash deposit on what would have been the banks of the old river that used to run through campus. Most important, in 2011, members of the field school discovered the first prehistoric site on campus. While we had found some evidence of prehistoric peoples, it was limited to a few flakes and small stone tools. In 2011, an actual prehistoric fire pit and site was discovered.

2012 + 2014: Morrill Hall Boiler Building and Veterinary Lab Found

Mapping the west wall of what we believe was the Vet Lab.

Mapping the west wall of what we believe was the Vet Lab in 2014

Over the past few years, we’ve made more exciting discoveries, like finding a building that wasn’t on any of the historic MSU maps below East Circle Drive. This building turned out to be a boiler building that provided heat to Morrill Hall and a dairy building when it was first erected in 1900. The boiler was only in use for a couple years, and then was torn down when a newer heating system went into place on campus. The building was forgotten until construction crews revealed it in 2012 digging up the old road to replace the steam tunnels. Another exciting find was last summer, when our archaeologists found the foundation walls of the first Vet Lab under West Circle Drive. The team discovered foundations to the building, as well as some really cool artifacts like keys and metal labels for specimens, as well as animal bones.

2015 and Beyond: Third Field School and More!

This upcoming summer, we are very excited that we will be having the third MSU Campus Archaeology field school, which will teach students proper excavation techniques and archaeological methods on campus. It is an exciting opportunity to excavate our campus and learn more about how our university developed and changed over time. In the past decade, Campus Archaeology has done a lot to improve our understanding of the development of MSU, and it is exciting to look ahead- imagine how much more we’ll learn about MSU in the next decade!