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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bed Pans and Old Wills

I've been helping John Headley, from West Creek, research his Headley family the last few weeks. While surfing on the net for information on the Headleys, I came across a summary of an old will which referenced some Headley names that might be related to John's family. While reading it, I was reminded how old wills are a reflection on what was considered valuable throughout the centuries. Often, what were considered valuable possessions to be passed on through the family are laughable by today's standards. Such was the case in the following summary of a 1690 will of Samuel Drake from Eastchesterm, New York. It seems that one of his most valuable possessions was his bed pan. He even put language in the will to ensure that it remained in the family.

SAMUEL DRAKE – died 1690

SAMUEL DRAKE, Eastchester. "In the Name of God Amen, I Samuel Drake of Eastchester being sicke and weake." Leaves to wife Ann all household goods, "except one bed with furniture sufficient to keep warm in winter, and some pewter, and a kettle, a warming pan and a bed pan," which are to be delivered back at her decease, and if she remarry, then security to be given for them. Also 4 which is in the hands of my son John Drake. Part of it is to be paid by my son Samuel Drake of Fairfield, Connecticutt. "And 3 a year so long as she remains my widow, and noe longer." Leaves her some cows "and grasse to winter five head of cattle." The dwelling house is to be put in repair for her use. Leaves to son Samuel Drake, "my best horse that is in Fairfield County, and my branding iron." To son John "my bed pan, to be delivered after my wife's decease." Leaves to daughter Mary, 25 to be paid at Fairfield by my son Samuel, and one cow when she is married, and 2 pewter platters and four Porringers. Leaves to his son in law Joseph Jones 5 shillings. To sons in law Lofels and Slatter 5 shillings. To son in law Richard Headley 5 shillings, and the same to grand children Samuel and Robert Headley, Joseph and Samuel Jones, Mary and Hannah Jones, and Martha and Elizabeth Slatter. "My lot of upland, and my lot of meadow at Cornelis, with one half of my home lot in Eastchester," are to be security for the payment of above legacies. Leaves the remainder to his son Joseph Drake, and makes his wife executor.

[New York City Wills, 1665-1707]

Antique 18th century bed pan.

I guess everything is relative. The use of outhouses in freezing winter nights would be most unpleasant, thus increasing the importance and value of bed pans or chamber pots in one's life. Since porcelain was very expensive in the late 17th century and early 18th century, it shouldn't be surprising to find a bed pan in an old will. Only the more well to do could afford them. I must confess, though, that I couldn't suppress a giggle as I read Samuel's will. Makes me wonder what items might be in our wills today that people will laugh at in a few hundred years.

I'm sure many of you Blog readers who grew up in New Gretna remember chamber pots and outhouses. I know of some New Gretna outhouses that were still being used when I moved to New Gretna in the early 1970's. However, I never read a New Gretna will that mentioned a bed pan or chamber pot.

A New Gretna outhouse. (April 21, 2005 photo by Pete Stemmer.)

With the economy in such bad shape lately, I was thinking of starting a bus tour of New Gretna's  outhouses to pick up a little extra cash, sort of like the tours of famous celebrity houses in Hollywood. I could have maps printed and little Hummel-like outhouse figurines for sale. If you would like a ticket, please see my tour director, Howard Ware, who is sitting in his office in the above photo.

Pete S

PS- Can't make the bus tour? You can take a cyber tour of New Gretna's outhouses at  .   .   .


  1. I have often tried to remember if the school in New Gretna had indoor or outdoor "facilities". I do remember that the elememtary school in Manahawkin had outdoor facilities right out in the play area. Of course we are talking mid 1940's.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  2. Hi Beverly. The New Gretna school had indoor plumbing when I started there in 1944. It was a nice very well kept school. That's because my dad (Walt Mathis) was the custodian, and did almost all of the maintenance work, from 1938 to 1956. :)

    Bob Mathis

  3. Hi Bob: Was he the gentleman that also rang the school bell? He used to let us come up the stairs to "help" him ring it. I went there in 1945 as a kindergartener.
    (Are we related?) My grandfather was Eugene "Boot" Mathis.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  4. Beverly - Yes that would be Pop. He got along great with all the kids down there. I remember the bell, it hung over the entrance door with a rope down through the library ceiling. Pop would be there early to get the heater fired up and make sure all was ready for school. He would hang around until school was under way and then go do his own thing. (He trapped muskrats in the winter time) Then he would be back when school let out to do the cleaning, sweeping etc. Yes, we are no doubt related. Will have to look and see where our common ancestor is some day. Old "boot" was the last Mathis owner of Dan's Island. Where a lot of the Mathis' lived once. The last resident of which was our looney cousin Clint (sort of a hermit). Booter looked after him until he died.