America’s first president had achieved a mythic status by the time of his death in late 1799, and the prized possessions of George and Martha Custis Washington were treated akin to sacred relics. His furniture, swords, clothing, tableware and more were passed down through his family and proudly displayed in their homes for visitors. But it was not only the attractive, decorative pieces that his descendants treasured: as mundane an object as George Washington’s bedpan stayed in the family for over a century.
An 18th-century bedpan isn’t all that different from one today. Then, it was round and made of pewter with a handle. In an era before plumbing and bathrooms, the bedpan could be gently heated and slipped under the covers of a sickbed. The elderly, ill, and women recovering from childbirth could use the bedpan without having to risk further injury by leaving their bed. While healthy adults could use a chamberpot, which might be kept in a cabinet or attached beneath a hole in a chair seat, the bedpan was designed for the immobile.
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