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A royal throne

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The rare, late 1800s, front-washout commode found in Tamaqua last week was manufactured for the bathroom of a wealthy resident.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The rare, late 1800s, front-washout commode found in Tamaqua last week was manufactured for the bathroom of a wealthy resident.
Published February 19. 2013 05:01PM

Toilet royalty has been found in downtown Tamaqua.

A rare 1899 "Earthenware Closet" was discovered beneath the front porch of an 1880s Tamaqua home.

It is now in the hands of a local plumber, who intends to display it inside his West Broad Street headquarters.

The old vessel surfaced when plumbers Dan Reigel and Rich Greim worked at a house on the 200 block of Center Street, performing camera work inside a sewer line running beneath a sidewalk and Route 309. The homeowner said the toilet was a surprise find and turned it over to Reigel.

"It probably was put under the porch years ago," said Reigel, owner of Reigel Plumbing and Heating.

The Art Nouveau-style toilet is an unusual front-washout commode, meaning the hole for elimination of waste is located at the front of the unit, unlike today's toilets which are designed with the washout hole at the rear.

It is one of the earliest ceramic toilet bowls invented and a primitive style, although it carries lavish ornamentation.

Called an Earthenware Closet, it has not been seen in the U.S. for well over 100 years.

The design may have utilized a pull chain attached to a tank mounted on the wall. Some call the style a highboy.

A plain, undecorated version of such a toilet would have been common and inexpensive at the turn of the 20th century. But an ornate vessel such as the one found in Tamaqua would have been a high-priced and rare item even in 1899.

However, that era was a time of wealth in the Schuylkill County town, which thrived as a coal and railroad center. The furnishings and other appointments of large early Tamaqua homes reflected prosperity, especially along the main street and the town's Mansion Row.

During the Victorian era, people of means surrounded themselves with ornately decorated objects, even in the bathroom.

The newly discovered bowl is not in the best condition. While largely intact, it has sizable cracks and requires care in handling. The tank is missing and it is uncertain if the bowl featured a lid or cover.

"We looked all over and there is no place where a lid would have attached," said Reigel.

The high-style throne is unmarked and so the identity of the maker is unclear. However, the toilet may have been sold by Fleck Brothers Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Fleck Brothers was the well-known marketer of such items and the toilet was discovered on a major thoroughfare leading to Philadelphia, 70 miles to the south.

The bowl likely was manufactured about 1899 by Trenton Potteries Company of New Jersey, or perhaps earlier by one of five affiliates of that firm. In 1892, five potteries - Crescent, Ideal, Empire, Enterprise and Equitable - merged to form Trenton Potteries, according to records. The historic firm is credited with making the first all-porcelain lavatory.

The Tamaqua toilet decor resembles a fleur-de-lis design, indicative of ornate early porcelain commodes which Trenton Potteries created and referred to as "vitreous china," featuring brass fittings.

By coincidence, a very similar commode with a different decorative pattern was unearthed exactly two years ago, February 2011, during excavation on Arch Street in center city Philadelphia. That toilet is now displayed in the archaeological collection of The Pennsylvania State Museum, Harrisburg. It is regarded as a one-of-a-kind item in that collection.

The unit found in Tamaqua, like the one in Philadelphia, was manufactured for the elite, not for the common man. It was the type reserved for the upper class, a "royal" form of toilet. The gaudy design celebrated the invention of indoor plumbing and paid homage to the then-popular Art Nouveau artistic movement.

"We were looking at it and we thought at first that it was a flower pot," said Greim.

Reigel said the homeowner intended to discard the old commode, but instead asked Reigel if he was interested in having it.

There is some question as to whether the item originated within that house or perhaps a different home.

"You'd think it came from one of the houses along Broad Street," noted Reigel.

There also is speculation the toilet may have come from the Weldy Mansion, which once stood on Pine Street, several blocks north along Route 309. Henry A. Weldy owned and operated Weldy Powder Works, Taggartsville, and was a man of considerable wealth. Other possible sources have been mentioned as well.

Reigel said he always keeps an open eye for memorabilia that tells the story of the development of domestic plumbing, noting that "we always look for old plumbing items when we go on a job."

But last week's find far exceeds anything he's been able to flush out in his 33 years in the field.

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