Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Lack of Toilets

There were hardly any toilets at Versailles and with a court counting several thousand people it turned out to be more than a little problem. The servants, the commoners who came to look at their monarch even the aristocrats would occasionally relieve themselves in corners and courtyards though this was not as often as has later been implied. Visitors - including Horace Walpole - complained about the awful smell that hung over everything; even the gardens were not free for the hideous odour. Thanks to the many reports of ambassadors and foreign visitors the splendid palace became known as one of the filthiest in the world - not exactly what had been expected. The problem became so acute that Louis XIV put a new rule in place according to which the hallways were to be cleansed for faeces (if there was any) and dirt once every week. Also, many of the King's beloved orange trees were put into vases inside the palace in an attempt to mask the smells.

However, there were other alternatives since - after all - relieving yourself in a corner was far from being socially approved. During the many parties held at Versailles it was not uncommon for the guests to bribe the servants of the courtiers to let them use their masters' chamberpots and if this was not possible there were "commodes" where the toilets are currently located. So at least something was done about it but as you say no smoke without fire!

The Queen's toilet
Courtiers who lived at Versailles would often have their own "commode" which was a seat with a chamber pot underneath; it was brought when needed and then taken away when you were done. It is estimated that there were 300 of these at Versailles but it was not near enough. Th ruthlessly honest Duc de Saint-Simon once said of the Princesse d'Harcourt that she would often urinate while walking making her hated by the many servants who had to clean up after her. It was even said of Louis XIV himself would go to the toilet while driving a carriage! When at Fontainebleau the courtiers would normally hold their water until dusk at which time they would rush to the lawns and simply do their business then and there.
No one thought of training the many pet dogs of the courts to go outside so occasionally these would urinate indoors to the embarrassment of their owners. Consequently, the animals would contribute as well to the "delicious" smells everywhere.

Just like in the city servants threw out waste from night pots into the inner courtyards; a story goes that once the Dauphine Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law the Comtesse de Provence were headed for the apartments of Madame Victoire when they stopped at an inner courtyard for a moment. Just at that time a servant threw out such a night pot out the window nearly hitting the two princesses - some might think that it was done on purpose considering that the window belonged to Madame du Barry! The only people who had actual toilets were the King, the Queen and the Dauphin and these were not installed until 1768. It seems strange though that iron pipes could be dug to provide water for the fountains in the gardens but not to carry away waste...


  1. I just love this site!! :D I was just wondering, how did those toliets of the king, queen and Dauphin work?

    1. Hi Frida, I'm no expert but I believe that they were simply seats with a sort of bowl underneath that would later be emptied

    2. Hello Frida! Thank you so much! Up until 1738 the toilets resembled the old fashioned chaise percée but then a new sort of flushing toilet was invented. I was inspired by your question to write a little post about this which you can find under "Hygiene and Facilities"

    3. I was wondering the same...I'm writing a report on versailles for my history class and this was one of the resounding questions bouncing around in my mind.

    4. You wrote this Louise? It's amazing!

    5. Hi Nicole. Yes, this is my blog and I hope you will do well on your report. Feel free to write if you have more specific questions

  2. A few years ago my wife and I visited Versailles and I asked the question 'where were the toilets in the days of Louis XIV. The well informed guide said she had no idea but guessed that people just did whatever was necessary in a corner of room! Or ducked through a hidden doorway.
    Very interesting articles- much appreciated.

  3. well jeez there was no toilets