The Unprivate Privy – Part One

Though visiting historic homes is a favourite leisure activity of the Great British public, what it really wants to know – when it descends on a stately home – is how the owners went to the toilet. Most of us who plead guilty to this are amazed to discover that in the past spending a penny was rarely a private experience.

Take Roman times. Doing your business then was usually a communal affair. Sharing a low wall of three or four holes carved out of the top, once you’d preformed, you’d wipe your arse with a handful of fig leaves. Or, you might opt for a sponge attached to a stick resembling a modern pan scrubber. While patrons sat side by side, trying to ignore the stench, servants kneeling at their master’s feet in an open gutter, would rinse out the soiled sponges. Some even carried theirs with them;

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A Hundred Things to do in Bed

As comic genius Groucho Marx once remarked, ‘Anything that can’t be done in a bed isn’t worth doing at all’. Turns out, there’s a hell of a lot you can do in your bed – much of it downright whacky.

Fancy yourself a twenty-first-century Picasso? No need for an easel – just hop into bed. You wouldn’t be the first: when the elderly Matisse became confined to bed, he took to sculpting there. Meanwhile, his contemporary, Fantin-Labour, sketched in bed. Insulated from the cold with an overcoat, scarf, gloves and top hat (he couldn’t afford a fire), he’d draw for hours. Thanks to bed-side visits paid by his friend Whistler, we have a record on canvas. Bed-ridden Mexican artist Frida Khalo also painted in bed. An easel was fixed to her four-poster, and a mirror to the inside of the canopy so she could paint self-portraits.

Famous composers – including Puccini – penned some of their best works from a horizontal position.

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Are you a ‘Sheddie’?

Now that we no longer have a private closet to which we can decamp to find peace and seclusion from other family members, it seems like the humble shed has jumped in to fit the bill. Worth more than £5 billion to the British economy, over 20 million ‘sheddies’ admit to spending half a year of their lives in their garden haven. Obviously, they’re not put off by the Slavic superstition that sheds are to be feared because an evil witch called Baba Yaga lives inside, and gets her kicks flying around kidnapping children.

To begin with, sheds were clearly gendered – and, according to shedsdirect.net, they still are to a certain extent a dad-den. Around 77% of men claim access to a man-cave; put another way, that’s three-quarters of the British male population. When surveying a prospective home, as many as 62% of male buyers are put off if there’s no shed in the garden.

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Vicars and Tarts

If William Chiffinch – Keeper of His Majesty’s Backstairs – was alive today, he’d have probably sold his story for a king’s ransom. As Charles II’s spymaster and general goafer, Will was privy to a host of salacious secrets which, if they’d been leaked, could have destroyed the monarchy.

In 1660, Charles returned from European exile. His father Charles I had been executed and replaced with Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanical regime. The people were immensely relieved to find the Merrie Monarch on the throne in place of the dour Lord Protectorate, who hated parties and anything closely resembling fun. Everyone sought access to the ebullient Charles who found it difficult to get a moment’s peace. The royal bedchamber was a crowded venue, forcing Charles to decamp to his private closet, guarded and protected by his faithful factotum Will Chiffinch.

Nobody could gain private access to Charles (or his closet) without Chiffinch’s consent.

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Girl Power (Eighteenth-century-style): Strong Tea, Scandal…and Your Own Private Space

Millie’s no milksop. Her wedding’s just round the corner and she’s drawn up a pre-nup with the following demand: Mike – her husband-to-be – can’t enter her study unless he knocks first, and if she wants to, she can shut him out. Not that unreasonable, you might think, in this day and age. After all, if Mike wants to spend time alone in his man-cave (AKA his shed), no one would bat an eyelid. Except that Millie (her real name’s Millimant) is not alive in 2019; she’s a character in a play written in 1700 when women were still their husband’s property, and demanding your own closet, in some men’s eyes, was tantamount to treason.*

But things were beginning to change for middle-class women entering the 1700s. Not only did they feel entitled to their own ‘snugitude’, they could become quite indignant if it was not forthcoming upon marriage.

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Bundling – Love in a Cold Climate

Modern-day dating is fraught with angst for the average teenager, but none of it compares with the traumas of being a loved-up youngster in seventeenth-century Scotland. You’ve found the guy you want to marry but to prove to your parents he’s the one, you and your mate have to submit to a humiliating ordeal known as ‘bundling’.

This is roughy how it went. You invite your boyfriend home to meet your parents. Next thing you know, your mother’s tying you up from feet to waist (and even to the neck) and placing you in a sack. Just to be on the safe side, she gets you to put your legs inside a large stocking tied securely above the knees. You and your bewildered boyfriend get into your family’s best bed – always in the main reception room – where you spend the night under your parents’ watchful eyes.

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