About the Exhibit
, William W. DuBois.
When and Where
VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library, Main Lobby
509 N 12th Street
Map and Directions
Exhibit open March 31st - June 30th, 2011
About the Artist
Professor in the School of Photographic Arts & Sciences and Program Chair of Visual Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, William W. DuBois has collected bedpans since 1978, amassing a total of 65 over the years. This set of 30 large-format prints was first exhibited at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo, New York, followed by a showing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Mr. DuBois has been at Rochester Institute of Technology since 1974, serving in a number of roles in the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. He earned the M.Ed. at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio and the BFA from The Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and has worked as a medical photographer, consultant, and freelance architectural photographer for clients including the Susan B. Anthony House, the International Museum of Photography, and the Eastman Kodak Corporation.
He lives in Rochester, New York.
Bedpans at VCU
2009.5.1, Special Collections & Archives
VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library
While some acquire bedpans for their beauty — or as curiosities — Tompkins-McCaw Library collects them for their significance as artifacts of health care. Along with the other thousands of items in the Medical Artifacts Collection, the library preserves these implements for their innate historical value as well as their ability to illustrate changes in manufacturing and material culture over time.
Though not among the most glamorous of tools at a health care practitioner's disposal, bedpans have long served an important role in keeping patients clean and comfortable when they're unable to attend to their own needs. Bedpans of various types have been a standard part of medical and nursing care for over a thousand years. A poem dated to the Song Dynasty in China (around 1100 C.E.) admiringly reports that legendary lithographer Huang Tingjian washed his mother's bedpan out himself every night rather than handing the task off to servants.
The Tompkins-McCaw Library holds around 25 vessels specifically manufactured for elimination — bedpans, urinals, and chamber pots. The earliest, a porcelain "Slipper" model bedpan, likely dates to the 1880s. The bedpans in VCU's collection show a range and diversity of form, providing a cross-section of those most commonly used in early 20th century America.
The list of requirements for an acceptable bedpan is short. Primarily, it must be large enough to contain waste. For the user, it needs to be comfortable. Both patients and nurses appreciate ease of placement and removal. As germ theory took hold in scientific medicine, it also became important that the materials be easily sterilized.
By the late 19th century, the basic form of the implement was similar from model to model. Common features included a higher rear lip for easy placement and minimization of splatter, and smooth top surfaces for patient comfort. Bedpan designers added a back spout to facilitate cleaning.
The material used in the manufacture of a bedpan must be sturdy, rust resistant, and inexpensive. Pewter, ceramic, and porcelain were the most common materials for much of the 19th century, but nurses found these bedpans troublesome because of their considerable weight. This problem was minimized by a shift to enamelware bedpans. The popularity of enamelware increased dramatically in the late 19th century as new industrial machinery made its large-scale application economical. Enamel bonded with a steel base produced a very smooth, pleasant, and durable surface.
A 1927 nursing manual explains, "the enamel, although more expensive [than porcelain] to begin with, is cheaper in the end, as with reasonable care to prevent chipping the enamel will last a very long time in good condition." The longevity, rust-resistance, light weight, and wipe-clean ease of use made enamelware the most popular material for bedpans until it was superseded by disposable plastics in the 1960s.
Bedpans have never been mass-produced purely for their aesthetic qualities, but they still carry visual signatures of the time they were manufactured. The post-Victorian United States was swept by a cultural obsession with sanitation and hygiene, driven by the same themes of temperance and purity that drove much Progressive era social policy. Contemporary reformers set up powerful public health regimes to attempt the elimination of all disease from the nation. Being traditionally associated with purity and cleanliness, white became the only acceptable color for privy and hospital fixtures, implements, walls, and floors. Reformers celebrated the sterile appearance of entirely white spaces. The trend was quite powerful, and the fondness for white in hospitals, clinics, kitchens and bathrooms persists.
Unsurprisingly, this cultural perception of white objects as "healthy" was reflected in bedpan manufacturer's treatment of their wares. The vast majority of early 20th century bedpans are white or cream colored. Some other configurations were mass produced, mostly in darker patterns that sought to minimize the appearance of soil, but hospitals didn't prefer them and they appear in few medical supply catalogs. Patients expected bright, white surroundings, and perhaps would have been jarred to see a decorative pattern on such an unsavory item.
The elaborate blue and grey splatter pattern on this bedpan might have been intended to help reduce the appearance of soil on the pan. Bedpans with such decorative patterns were sold mainly to home users rather than hospitals; hospital supply catalogs rarely offered bedpans in any color other than white.
2009.5.4, Special Collections & Archives, VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library.
Illustration from the 1942 American Red Cross Textbook on Home Nursing demonstrating a homemade newspaper cover for a bedpan.
Special Collections & Archives, VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library
Bedpans are intended for use as toilets by people who are not ambulatory. Contemporary nursing handbooks detail best practices for providing patients with a bedpan when they need it, placing emphasis on keeping charges as comfortable and avoiding bruising the coccyx, which can lead to pressure ulcer formation in immobile patients.
Every manual cautions nurses to execute the utmost discretion and sensitivity in bedpan administration, explaining that for most people, being unable to void without assistance is one of the most humiliating parts of their medical care.
Few surviving porcelain or enamelware bedpans are used for their original purpose, but creative people have recycled them into quirky and interesting objects. A bedpan can make an attractive container for houseplants, and others have transformed them into functional guitars or banjos.