How many bedpans is too many? 10? 50? Try 250. That's about how many bedpans and items of bedpan memorabilia Eric Eakin has collected thus far. "I have bedpan greeting cards, bedpan poems, bedpan jewellery, and bedpan salt-and-pepper shakers," he says. Eakin's also got plenty of vintage and antique bedpans, each one clean enough to eat out of, should you be so inclined.
Left, a speckled mid-century bedpan. Right, a novelty "Electric Bun Warmer."
Eakin realises it's hard not to joke about his particular niche of collectibles, even though he takes them quite seriously; until an unfortunate computer crash, he maintained a lengthy document with notes on each of his treasured artefacts. Someday, he hopes his collection might be on view at a medical school or history museum. But for now, to the amusement of friends and neighbours, the bedpans live in the Eakin family basement. We recently chatted with Eakin about his very unusual collection.
What's the difference between a bedpan and a chamber pot?
Eakin: Well, they're distinctly different in size and function. Indoor plumbing only arrived in the early 20th century for most people. Before that time, if you got up in the middle of the night and had to use the toilet, you'd go in a little pot. It was usually the youngest child's responsibility to empty all the chamber pots in the morning.
Chamber pots are about 10 inches around, often with ceramic handles, and have a lid on them. A friend of mine said he once sat down to dinner with some friends, and they were eating on fancy china. But then, they brought out the soup and served it from a chamber pot, and he didn't have the nerve to tell them what they were eating out of. They thought it was a beautiful antique soup dish.
A bedpan, on the other hand, is for people who are infirm — people who are unable to move but still must move their bowels. Someone with a broken leg or who's immobilised for whatever reason, their system still functions and must evacuate, and that's how bedpans came into use.
The bulk of Eakin's bedpan collection.
Does it bother you that most of them held bodily fluids?
Eakin: No, the first thing I do when I get them is thoroughly clean them. They're all grouped into one area of our house, and there's no smell. They were meant to be cleaned and reused. Porcelain cleans well; metal cleans well.
Bedpans are used primarily in hospitals, and they started off being made of ceramics. I heard a story about a bedpan salesman who would take six or eight metal bedpans, walk into a hospital's main corridor, and drop them to the floor. They'd make a tremendous clatter, as you can imagine, eight metal bedpans dropping on the floor of a hospital. All the nurses' heads would stick out of the hospital rooms, and then he'd make this pitch. "You see, not one of them broke", he'd say. "If you drop a ceramic bedpan, it's going to break. Buy my bedpans."
The contents of this bird-shaped bedpan would be emptied out of the animal's mouth.
Ceramic was eventually replaced by metal. The enameled Jones Relax model (see first image), made by Jones Manufacturing Co. in West Lafayette, Ohio, really set the standard, and the size and shape generally hasn't changed much since the '40s. But there are a thousand different ways you can enamel metal: you could put trim on them, you could put sparkle on them, you could spray them with different colours like Jackson Pollock. Generally, porcelain bedpans didn't have lids, which would make them unpleasant until emptied. The newer enameled ones came with lids that made it easier to transport them and dispose of their contents.
Eakin's collection also includes less-inviting devices like a rustic tin urinal (left) and a disposable bedpan made from recycled newspaper (right).
What are some of the more unique bedpans you own?
Eakin: I have a urinal from a B-52 bomber. Since these guys were on long missions, flying for hours and hours, they had to go somewhere. I also have novelty items, like a little box that says "electric bun warmer." You open it up, and there's a little ceramic bedpan with a phony electric cord attached to it. Tommee Tippee, the company that made self-righting cups for toddlers, also made a line of travel urinals for boys and girls back in the '40s and '50s, and I have some of those.
In addition to Dee's "Half-Pint" urinal for boys, Eakin has Dee's "Puddles" urinal for girls.
I have a bedpan signed by all the girls on the soccer team I coached, which they gave me for my birthday. I have a miniature bedpan novelty item with a little Richard Nixon head inside. I have bedpans that are really tiny, not even a half an inch long. If you were going to make a diorama of a hospital room, you'd need miniature hospital equipment. Hence, they made these tiny plastic male and female urinals.
What's the most you've spent on a single bedpan?
Left, a bedpan from the early 1800s made with a tiger's-eye glaze. Right, a blue granite-ware bedpan with a fitted lid.
Eighty-five dollars [£55]. I was at an antique show near Philadelphia and spotted this bedpan with a tiger's-eye glaze, probably dating from the early 1800s. But the most treasured item in my collection is a newspaper article from Rochester, New York, about a woman who collected roughly 150 bedpans. She sold her collection to the Guinness Book of World Records for $150,000, and they mounted it on a wall. Essentially, they drilled screws into all of her bedpans, wrecking every one of them. So I figure my collection's worth a lot of money now, and you know why? I got in at the bottom.