how the heck did they go to the bathroom??? and other questions asked while writing historical fiction

To date I have about 8 different novels that can be classified as historical fiction, in varying states of completion. For Nanowrimo, I am writing a novel that takes place shortly after the Reign of Terror in France.  And this isn’t the first time that I’ve had to research historical bathroom habits.

The drawback to writing historical fiction in general is that small details will throw you out of the story and down a rabbit hole of Google searches.

In chapter one of my current WIP (The Red Ribbon), I Googled:

  • where did people get guillotined in french revolution paris
  • place de la concorde (answer to the above question)
  • rue des marronniers lyon
  • map of paris

(These were to simply get a sense of where my main character was walking and where she lived in the first few paragraphs)

  • matches history
  • lighting a fire in the 1790s

(Because my character needed to light a fire in the fireplace, and I wasn’t sure if matches existed back then.  I’m still not sure.  I managed to write the two sentences without specifically saying how she lit the fire)

  • invitation historical ball
  • invitation wording 1700s
  • french phrases with blood
  • phrases of the french revolution
  • french proverbs
  • qui vivra verra
  • Le Réveil du peuple lyrics
  • 1794 calendar days of the week

(My MC receives an invitation, and I wanted to include the actual words on the invitation… The example I found included a quote that gave hint to a theme for the ball, which led me to try to find some proverb that might work for my story.  And since the proverb was in French, I needed to verify that the translation was correct.  I also decided to make the ball happen on Friday the 13th and amazingly, according to one site I found, September 13, 1794 was indeed a Friday!)

  • rue du colisée paris
  • gossip magazines in revolutionary france
  • garters 17th century
  • how common were pistols in the 17th century
  • pistols history
  • pianoforte
  • pianos history
  • french pianos
  • 17th century french outerwear

(Moving onto the 2nd and third chapters – once again I was trying to place the MC’s home near where the ball was being held.  She also packs a few weapons to bring to the ball because she wants revenge, so I had to figure out a. whether 17th century garters could reasonably hold a knife or pistol and b. whether pistols were common enough for an aristocratic family to own one.  My character also has a moment where she remembers playing the piano, so I had to figure out if pianos existed then, or whether something like a pianoforte or harpischord was more common.  Finally, my MC needed to wear a coat or cloak of some sort as she walked to the ball)

  • waltz popularity
  • panniers
  • french fashion 18th century
  • chic synonym

(In describing the ballroom and the other guests of the ball, I needed to know if the waltz had even been invented, and whether it had reached France, also a few fashion terms, and while “chic” is a French word, it was not in usage at that time…)

  • what poisons were available in france 18th century
  • effects of arsenic poisoning
  • when did red and green become christmas colors
  • old french christmas songs
  • Bel Astre Que J’Adore

(One of my characters dies short after eating poisoned cake, which led to the searches about effects of poisoning, and then what poisons were readily available.  What exactly does rat poison contain?  How long does it take to work?  After I described a color combination as “Christmas-like” I remembered that red and green have not always been used as traditional Christmas colors.  And then I needed a Christmas carol that would have existed back then…)

  • how was it determined that someone was dead in the 1700s
  • pencils history
  • historical term for cataracts
  • what was the bathroom called in french revolution

(Obviously, at this point in the novel, someone has died.  And I was fairly certain that people did not check a pulse to determine if someone was dead at that point in time.  Also, did they have pencils back then and how common were they?)

And the question we’ve all been waiting for.

I know the obvious answer is that people used chamber pots.  You didn’t go to a bathroom in the middle of the night, you just pulled out your chamber pot and went.  But if one was out at a fancy ball in someone else’s home, or in this case, at a hotel, there would have to be a room, right?

In my research I discovered that Versailles and the bathroom situation is a big part of the reason for the stereotype of the French not being very hygienic.  Dogs and other animals that were allowed to roam loose in the palace relieved themselves wherever, and apparently the humans used stairwells or went behind curtains.  Eventually I did find that bathrooms might have been called “lavatories” or “commodes” (I dropped in the term “powder room” as well) and that there might be curtains for privacy while one used the chamber pot.  Obviously, there was no running water.

I also discovered while trying to find this information, that pissing in the streets was such a problem in Paris that in the early 1800s they built “pissoirs” or small buildings where you could go to pee on the street in privacy.

Oh, the things you learn… I just hope the FBI hasn’t put me on a surveillance list…

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