Inside the Collection

Home made commode an ‘ensuite’ from 1909

Photograph of Commode chair with attached pedestal sideboard
89/1428 Commode chair, kerosene boxes / fabric made by Jack Male, Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia, 1909, Collection: Powerhouse Museum

A commode is defined as ‘a stand or cupboard containing a chamber pot or washbasin’. They date from before the days of sewerage and flushing toilets, when for obvious reasons, the toilet or can was located outside the house, usually at the far end of the backyard.

This example was made by Jack Male for his new wife Penny to save her a creepy walk to the backyard ‘dunny’ at night. In summer the path could be covered in hazards such as spider webs (Garden Orb spiders which are common in Sydney, spin large webs at night). Rats would also be attracted to a backyard toilet.  The journey would also be dark and of course, the weather could be wet and unpleasant at any time of year.  A commode therefore provided the convenience of an ‘ensuite’ bathroom at the time.

Jack used three kerosene lamp oil crates strengthened by six wooden supports to make a seat to hold the potty. The two side crates provided storage. Jack’s daughter advised that it was based on designs recommended to the home handyman by organisations such as the New Settlers League of Australia. She stated that her father was a very inventive man who ‘made all sorts of things’.

Underside of commode chair showing stamps on the kerosene crates
Underside of commode chair showing stamps on the kerosene crates. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. 89/1428 Commode chair, make-do, kerosene boxes / fabric made by Jack Male, Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia, 1909

When not in use a lid is placed over the central section and the whole piece is covered in floral print upholstery fabric. Making the commode a very acceptable looking piece of furniture for the bedroom.

The commode chair with covers in place
The commode chair with covers in place. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. 89/1428 Commode chair, make-do, kerosene boxes / fabric made by Jack Male, Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia, 1909

Once its days as a commode were over, the unit was kept in use for the storage of boots and later it was passed on to Jack and Penny’s daughter who donated it to the Museum. Although the commode can be considered a humble home made object; for the donor it was imbued with memories of her childhood and her Mum and Dad. Like the Water-rat fur coat, this object is both a potent reminder of a time when living standards were quite different to those of today and of a long and happy marriage.

Jack and Penny Male on their Wedding Day 1909
Jack and Penny Male on their Wedding Day, 1909. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Post by Lynne McNairn, Web and Social Techologies

2 responses to “Home made commode an ‘ensuite’ from 1909

  • Although the commode may have been built in 1909, it would not have been from a New Settlers’ League design as the organisation did not come into existence until 1921.

    • Thanks Jacqueline, we’ve removed the reference to the New Settlers’ League magazine from the database record for this object.

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