A bevy of earthenware pots fit for a garden
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    Auction Finds

    Privy to slop jars, chamber pots and the past

    “Maybe they cleaned it,” I said to the buyer slightly to the front of me as she hugged the slop jar/chamber pot she’d just gotten at auction. “They” were the previous owners who had once used this slop jar, hidden it under the bed for that midnight rush to the toilet.

    It was a lovely pot, ceramic or maybe porcelain, with what resembled a Staffordshire pattern but without a lid.

    “I doubt it,” she replied in good humor. The slop jar was one of about a half-dozen in an auction of items by a couple who had engaged in 50 years of collecting – as the session was billed by one of my favorite auction houses.

    slopjar350 

    And they weren’t off. The pretty Victorian-style home had three floors and the auction house had spread out long tables of antiques – from scales to wicker lamps to pottery to sewing items, ephemera and dolls. In the maze of a basement with its too-low ceilings were rounds of ammunition, old jars, wooden planes and tools.

    Slop jars and chamber pots were being sold on the first floor – the necessities of another era that you don’t mention in polite company. We buyers played along, though, as the auctioneer first called them slop jars, then chamber pots and then planters. He wasn’t sure which was which (they are used interchangeably), but he was trying mightly to sell them tastefully and went for the best description. He described the pot in the photo above as having a Dresden flower pattern.

    These looked to be authentic: the painted flowers appeared to still be in good condition, although the gold leafing was marred on some. In fact, they would make beautiful planters. In one oral history I came across on the web, one writer told of his aunt being aghast when she learned that he was using her old slop jar – a toilet! – as a planter in his living room.

    They looked like soup tureens with one ornate handle. From my Google research, the one-handle pots were chamber pots and the two-handle were slop jars. The writer of the blog That Old House offered details about pots from her childhood, ones she’s collected and what she says is the difference between a chamber pot and a slop jar.

    Some were part of a set that also contained a bowl and pitcher for wash-up. Several sites said the slop jars held dirty water from bathing or waste from the bowels, and were emptied in the morning (if you were lucky, by a chamber maid). 

    slopjardouglass

    Slop jars are nothing new. The British Museum has a 17th-century round white crackled glaze piece from the Japanese that was likely a kensui or slop jar, according to its website. The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC, has a nice slop jar with lilac flowers and gold leaf, along with a matching toiletry set and chamber pot. It dated to the 1880s. The slop jar above is from the Douglass site.

    The slop jars at auction sold for less than $50, but I came across some retail sites on the web that had ones selling for more. More Than McCoy was selling a circa 1800s pot – 14 inches tall – for $465. Ruby Lane was selling a Flow Blue Campion for $615. Tias had some champer pots for less, many in basic white. Also, check out this imported English porcelain pot at the Wisconsin Historical Society from the 1890s, hand-painted in reddish brown.

    Slop jars have also become cultural icons, heralded in songs and music. In 1973, trumpeter Donald Byrd paid homage to them on his album “Black Byrd” with “Slop Jar Blues.” Twenty years later, the Jelly Roll Kings from the Mississippi Delta recorded “Slop Jar Blues” on their album “Rockin’ The Juke Joint Down.”

    The first line of their lyrics:

    “Sitting on the slop jar, waiting for my bowels to move.””

    I guess that would give you the blues.

    slopjar3

     Slop jar photo from EraPhernalia Vintage.

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    4 Comments

    1. Hi Sherry, i inherited a wash set marked Blue Utah of gorgeous porcelain with two monstrous slop jars with lids. Thanks so much for your article! I had seen one of the lidded hand painted jars for $600 by itself once but didn’t know what they were. Bless you!

      • Hi Rebecca, you are so very welcome. I’m glad to be able to help you identify them. Interestingly, not many of them have come up at auction since then.

    2. I have a Dresden Chamber pot that I can not find one on the internet at all that looks like this to figure the value. Can you give me advice on how to research further? It is painted with three flowers on each side and a single flower in middle. Nothing like this and I have been allllll over the internet.

      • Hi Kim. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a precise collectible on the internet but if you’re lucky, you can find something similar. I know a former appraiser who has agreed to answer these types of questions for me. I’m not sure, though, if he has any expertise in chamber pots. Please send me a photo of the jar. Meanwhile, I wrote a blog post a couple months ago on how to determine the value of an item before paying an appraiser to appraise it. You can read those suggestions here.

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