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The Strange Saga of George Washington’s Bedpan

Due to his role in the birth of the United States, George Washington was regarded as an almost mythical character even before his death in 1799. His possessions, even today, are revered relics of history. That even includes a bedpan. It had nothing to do with the Revolutionary War, or even his presidency, but it belonged to the Washingtons, and is therefore a cherished piece of history.     

An 18th-century bedpan isn’t all that different from one today. Then, it was round and made of pewter with a handle. In an era before plumbing and bathrooms, the bedpan could be gently heated and slipped under the covers of a sickbed. The elderly, ill, and women recovering from childbirth could use the bedpan without having to risk further injury by leaving their bed.  While healthy adults could use a chamberpot, which might be kept in a cabinet or attached beneath a hole in a chair seat, the bedpan was designed for the immobile.

This particular bedpan was made by a New York pewterer named Frederick Bassett in the late 18th century. It was most likely used by either or both George and Martha Washington at the end of their lives. Because of the meticulous records kept by the family, we can trace the journey of this lowly item through the19th century and up to its return to Mount Vernon in 1936. Why was it kept, and who could possibly have wanted it?

The story of the bedpan is the story of all of George and Martha’s household belongings. They come down to us through Martha’s descendants, with meticulously recorded provenance. However, somewhere along the line, the exact purpose of the bedpan was mislabeled. Read the story of one object and how it represents the legacy of the Father of our Country at Smithsonian. 

(Image credit: George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

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