Answers to Not-Dumb Questions for Newbie Antiques Enthusiasts Part 1

A Commode is Not a Toilet

By: Julie VanDolen • Mar 07, 2010 • 2 Comments

W. Broughton St. - Savannah, GA

Recently I accompanied a dear friend to Savannah for a girls’ antiquing trip to find some finds.  My friend had become weary of being told “your house looks like a catalog” and decided it was time to break out of her Pottery Barn box and get serious about investing in some non-stuffy antiques.  I love to witness these little awakenings!  I was thrilled to help her break up her predictable décor and select some nice, unique pieces.

Before I launch into commode mode, let me talk a little about Savannah.  This southern city is a mecca for charming little antique stores and home great architecture and architectural salvage.  Not only is the scenery straight out of some antebellum-themed movie, but the food is stellar, it’s easy to get around on foot, and the historic design district is not intimidating in the least.  The antiques dealers are friendly and accustomed to tourists and newbies, so it’s one of the perfect places to discover what you like and acquire a few starter pieces.  After a long day of driving, we checked into a little rowhouse B&B, cuaght the the complimentary wineSavannah Style hour in the drawing room, & got our second wind. 


After stops into fun places like Paris Market, we decided to get off the main streets and seek out the serious dealers. While perusing one French dealer's wares, my friend recoiled when I referred to a stocky chest as a “commode”.  In a more informative than inquisitive tone, she said “I thought a commode was a toilet”.   She’s not stupid and that’s not a stupid assumption.  I explained the French term to my knowledge and realized I really didn’t have too much insight on the history of the term.  I suppose I hadn’t ever wondered much about it.  Besides the literal definition, what about the evolution of the term into English vernacular?  Why do we associate a piece of furniture with a household utility/fixture?  Hmm.


In this series I hope to shed light on the history of terms like commode, not just define the terms themselves.  It’s very interesting stuff!  So, in addition to Talk the Talk in our magazine, I think it would be helpful to begin writing a primer educating newbie antiques enthusiasts about the history of some of these fascinating items.  To kick it off, here’s a look at why we call a commode a commode:

The word commode has French roots and it means 'convenient' or 'suitable' in French. The dictionary describes commode as a piece of furniture. In fact, commode originally meant a piece of furniture that could be used as a washstand. At the same time, it also served as a close space used for hiding a chamber pot. Commode, in modern English, was used to describe a porcelain toilet or a chair improvising for a chamber pot. In France, the word still refers to a chest of drawers with short legs. Before modern plumbing marked its existence, the middle class in Europe used these commodes [to store/conceal chamber pots].  

-Lifestyle Lounge 


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