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.

 

References:

[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.

Lice Lice Baby

For my personal research I study issues related to health and disease, so whenever I see something health related in the CAP collection I jump at the opportunity to do a blog post about it. That happened recently when I came across this seemingly simple comb recovered from excavations at Saints Rest in 2012, but I knew immediately that this was more than an average comb, this is a lice comb.

Comb recovered during 2012 Saints Rest excavations.

Comb recovered during 2012 Saints Rest excavations.

Now I’ll give you a moment to stop your skin from crawling when you think about lice. While lice aren’t something we tend to think about regularly today (unless you have young children), that wasn’t always the case.  Dealing with pesky varmints in the home and on your body was just a part of life.

Lice have been bothering humans for a long time. Humans are parasitized by two genera of lice: one shared with chimpanzees and the other shared with gorillas. By using DNA to figure out when the lice diverged between the species, scientists are working to piece together part of our evolutionary history (Reed et al. 2007). Researchers have also looked at clothing lice to reveal when they may have diverged from head lice, giving us a better idea of when clothing when first used by anatomically modern Homo sapiens (Toups et al. 2011).

Combs recovered from a Roman Fort. Image Source.

Combs recovered from a Roman Fort. Image Source.

Archaeologically lice have been found in Greenland, Iceland, on Dutch combs, Egyptian mummies, and in Israeli cave deposits (Bain 2004). The oldest direct archaeological evidence of head lice are from a human louse egg recovered in Brazil dating to over 10,000 years (Araujo et al 2000). Lice combs (and the lice that come with them!) have been recovered all over the world, in including from sites in Egypt (c. fifth-sixth century AD (Palma 1991)) and Israel (c. first century B.C. – eighth century A.D. (Zias 1988)). They are also routinely recovered at historic archaeological sites.

Today to get rid of lice you wash all of your linens in hot water, apply a medicated shampoo to the unlucky individual, and use a very fine-toothed comb to remove any bugs/eggs from the scalp. This comb style is the epitome of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” as the general form has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

1895 catalog advertisement for India Rubber Company Comb. Image Source

1895 catalog advertisement for India Rubber Company Comb. Image Source

Our double sided fine tooth comb was produced by the India Rubber Company. “I R Co Goodyear 1851” can be seen stamped on one side of the comb. A similar version is found in the 1895 advertisement seen to the right. 1851 is not a production date, but rather is the patent year for the Goodyear hard rubber vulcanization process (see Amy’s blog post on the comb from the outhouse for more info!). Combs were some of the earliest products made of hard rubber that were produced on a large scale (Fox 1899).

Manufacturers mark on Saints Rest lice comb - lower image enhanced by author

Manufacturers mark on Saints Rest lice comb – lower image enhanced by author

This tiny comb provides a glimpse into the health and hygiene routines of MSU’s earliest students.  Campus records and diaries/correspondences in the archives discuss larger health related issues on campus (like diphtheria, measles, or typhoid fever outbreaks), the minutia of everyday hygiene habits tends to go unrecorded, but of course, this is where archaeology comes in.

 

Sources:

Reed, David with Jessica Light, Julie Allen and Jeremy Kirchman
2007 Pair of lice lost or parasites regained: the evolutionary history of anthropoid primate lice. BCM Biology 5(7) – https://bmcbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7007-5-7

Melissa Toups with Andrew Kitchen, Jessica Light and David Reed
2011 Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa. Molecular Biology and Evolution 28(1):29-32.

https://www.licedoctors.com/blog/history-of-head-lice-treatment.html

Palma, Ricardo
1991 Ancient Head Lice on a Wooden Comb from Antinoe, Egypt. The Journal of          Egyptian Archaeology 77:194.

Zias, Joseph
Head lice, Pediculus humanus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae) from hair combs excavated in Israel and dated from the first century B.C. to the eighth century. Journal of Medical Entomology 25(6):545-547.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/cootie-catchers-say-lice-reveal-lots-about-early-humans-34883996/

Bain, Allison
2004 Irritating Intimates: The Archaeoentomology of Lice, Fleas, and Bedbugs.   Northeast Historical Archaeology 33:81-90.

Araujo, A. with F Ferreira, N Guidon, N Serra Freire, Karl Reinhard, and K Dittmar
2000 Ten Thousand Years of Head Lice Infection. Parasitology Today 16:269.

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/of-lice-and-men-an-itchy-history/

Mumcuoglu, Kosta
The louse comb: past and present https://watermark.silverchair.com/ae54-0164.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAbswggG3BgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggGoMIIBpAIBADCCAZ0GCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQM_PXl7w2JzGNcRujgAgEQgIIBblHIP7oC0UV__MYXk1ngxxH_mfI1Om7WjPa2ymveG4sEef7kE8KxycNlII2jRePwEKddbmMNzviLhWvWL5a_AckqfWODGLegXbp5VJ9csuSjkMmeFSUJkQJPp6NO45y_UhAKhlv-Q7Q351kBnnhhYBj_YzPmlcGMmnwZ_HEy1Px_REs4M4992RVH-c6oaXUghJ-rOC5YghpM-NzaYto9E-BurLp516x5-1fzFQu-t_bl_AHKy-TNwAoDCgR-nhPIgplNJqvAkWJbGU23oEgpfgzNtZf9KXInccVoYYxmX3ZCq0KXhnLrTzA5vUrPSAwWmqO5HHxU5pSYpaKZMHl1FLpNHVksDRxntJFucPgz5NfoBJ1y_z-6JD901x2c7xarbsEoR9pRXULxLTZClop8wO1q3vQ8EJQtF__r0J2xU2j6usWZGuCID54C3i94JCbwaHUpJSaKCr5pdtA00DSNjW4x4IjoPX9cBX3yqCWBnA

Fox, Irvine (editor)
1899 The Spatula Volume 6 (https://books.google.com/books?id=FhhOAAAAMAAJ)

 

From Surgical Theater to Trash Pit: The Resurrection of a Listerine Bottle and What It Can Tell Us About Campus Activities

Listerine Bottle from Admin/Gunson Level B

Listerine Bottle from  Level B

Lisa Bright, the reigning Campus Archaeologist, wrote to me recently to say that she had discovered a Listerine bottle in the Admin/Gunson assemblage that was excavated during the CAP field school this past summer. While a Listerine bottle may seem like a fairly innocuous item (especially when found in the context of the extremely large Admin assemblage), the bottle actually tells us quite a bit about past activities on campus. Or, rather, it gives us a clue about the past activities. Part of the fun of archaeology is detective work, and this bottle is a great example of how historical archaeologists can use a blend of archival information and historical advertisements in their assessment of artifacts.

 

Vintage Ad

Vintage Ad

What makes this bottle particularly useful for interpreting past activities is that the hand blown maker’s mark indicates that it was made by the Obear-Nester glass company of East St. Louis in Illinois between 1895-1914. According to the Listerine website (www.listerine.co.za), Dr. Joseph Lister entered the history books as the first surgeon to operate in a sterilized chamber; following this operation, sterilization became a critical component in surgical theaters, leading to a significant reduction of infections and deaths. Having been inspired by Dr. Lister’s work, Dr. Joseph Lawrence formulated a compound in 1879 that could be used as a disinfectant for surgical rooms as well as a wash for abrasions and wounds. Named after Dr. Lister, Listerine was used for surgical and dental purposes until around 1914 and could be attained only through prescription. After 1915, Listerine re-branded their product and changed their marketing focus to combatting bad breath, enabling sales of the solution over the counter (a first for a prescription product in the United States). We can even thank Listerine for coining the term, “halitosis” (www.listerine.com.za/history/brand-heritage).

Listerine Ad from 1950s

Listerine Ad from 1950s

So, what does a surgical and bad breath antiseptic mean for archaeology (and for early MSU students)? Because of Lisa’s research, we are able to position the Listerine bottle from the Admin/Gunson assemblage within that first wave of prescription Listerine products. The fact that it was found in this collection of materials is interesting – and its presence makes us question what activity (or mishap!) led to need for the prescription. In contrast, CAP has found another Listerine bottle at People’s Park that was made after 1915. Because Listerine was widely available then as an anti-bad breath agent, we can confidently infer its usage. The Admin/Gunson bottle, however, will have to be understood within the context of the rest of the assemblage. It will be exciting to see if more medical bottles are located in the artifacts excavated this summer.

A Google search for historical Listerine ads will result in a many images of advertisements that center around a common theme of women looking forlorn that they have such horrible breath. In modern context, they are quite funny. Imagine a student at MSU viewing one of these ads then rushing out to buy Listerine! If anyone has access to Listerine ads that ran earlier than 1914, please let us know.

 

Vintage Listerine Ad

Vintage Listerine Ad