Sitting Pretty – A Short History Of Bedpans
Posted by Martin Hewitt on September 10, 2020
They say you can tell a lot about a person from their toilet – how clean it is, what kind of reading material is, or isn’t on offer and how accessible it is based on fittings like grab rails and raised toilet seats. However, did you know that we can tell a lot about a lot of other things – historically, sociologically, biologically — from the smaller and often less celebrated cousin of the toilet, the bedpan?
Google ‘Most Expensive Toilets’ and the results are jaw-dropping. The International Space Station Toilet tops the list at $19 million. The price is understandable, given how difficult it must be to sort and process human waste in outer space, without having a major accident!
Less sensible, but just as real, is the Hang Fung Gold Toilet, the property of Hang Fung Gold Technology Group. This lavish lavatory sits in the company’s Hall of Gold. It is valued at $5 million – enough to make anyone feel obliged to spend a penny!
By comparison, Google ‘Most Expensive Bedpan’ and the results are much more functional. You’ll be shown a range of products aimed at different markets. There are no “Top 10” listed or headline-grabbing articles. Dig a little deeper though, and you start to realise the humble bedpan has proven its value throughout the pantheons of history, you just might not have realised it yet.
The Science Museum in London has a green glazed earthenware bedpan on display dating back to 15th or 16th Century England. It is among the everyday items that allow us to understand society and medicine of a particular era. Although usually used in healthcare situations, bedpans were considered household staples for much of history, and so they also provide an important link to people of the past. At least, that’s the view of the Smithsonian Magazine.
An article entitled ‘The Strange Saga of George Washington’s Bedpan’ retells how said pewter dish went through many hands, and for some time was confused (but hopefully never used) for a kitchen bowl, before finally being housed in Mount Vernon’s museum. Its significance is defined in terms of ‘tangible connections not only with the Washington’s but also with the house servants who were responsible for emptying the bedpan.’
In 2017, another US museum, The Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, hosted an exhibition which was chillingly prophetic of today’s COVID-19 nightmare. Focused on the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in the city, curator and writer Jane E. Boyd, PhD penned a very insightful blog for the institution; ‘What can a bedpan tell us about a pandemic?’ It’s a fascinating read if you have a moment. However, perhaps the most important takeaway is the fact ‘there’s no timeline of bedpan design.’
To put that another way, bedpans were so every day, they rarely carried a maker’s mark, so accurately dating them can be difficult.
Nevertheless, the materials bedpans are made from, and the varying patents for specific designs of bedpans have changed over the years — from ceramics to metals to the various plastic bedpans Ability Superstore stocks. As a result, they loosely mirror the march of technology, improvements in medicine and our approach to treating different conditions.
We’re not the only ones who think bedpans are important and find their history surprisingly interesting, either. Collector’s Weekly published an article on the ‘World’s Foremost Bedpan Collector’, a guy called Eric Eakin. He lays claim to around 250 bedpans in his collection, alongside a host of memorabilia connected to bedpans, including greetings cards, bedpan poems, bedpan jewellery, and even bedpan salt-and-pepper shakers! It’s certainly a far cry from your average horde. Still, given the variety and, in some cases, the craftsmanship, we’re actually most amazed this isn’t a more commonplace pastime!
Mr Eakin’s hobby began when his ‘bit of an eclectic’ mother was given an antique bedpan as a joke present after visiting friends in Europe. Having carried the bedpan through airport security and onto the flight home, she proceeded to hang it on display in the family bathroom, filling it with fake flowers. As her son’s expansive stash now proves, she’s not the only person to have thought outside the box when it comes to the aesthetics of bedpans!
Eakin has bedpans that look like guitars, bedpans with dog themes and ornate sealed bedpans that really wouldn’t look too out of place in an art and design museum, rather than as part of an exhibition focused entirely on social, or medical history.
The point being, whether we’re looking at their practical use, often-unsung craftsmanship or the many stories bedpans can tell us about significant events and influential characters in history, as with so much in life, you should never forget how important the small things are!
Bedpans are a staple mobility aid, and we sell hundreds each year, so if you need any help or advice on which one would be best placed to suit you or a loved one, just get in touch!