Monday, May 4, 2015

Brief and Sprightly Essays: The Toilet

The State Library’s collections are filled with curiosities and eclectic finds, particularly those from the early 19th century.  One recent re-discovery is a periodical from 1801 with the unwieldy and unlikely name of The Toilet: A Weekly Collection of Literary Pieces, Principally Designed for the Amusement of the Ladies.   Printed in Charlestown, Massachusetts, by Samuel Etheridge, this periodical lasted a mere 8 issues—from January 17, 1801 to March 7, 1801.  Like most titles in the early years of magazine publishing in this country (The American magazine: a compact history by John Tebbell counts fewer than 100 magazines published before the year 1825) The Toilet’s primary audience was ladies of leisure and was supported wholly by subscription rates and without advertising.  The price of The Toilet was “four penny bit” (4 pence); perhaps it was too much an exorbitant one for the time which led to its demise.

Today a magazine called “The Toilet” would elicit a chuckle from most people. However, in 1801 the title would have been unremarkable and chosen for its practical and literal use at the time—the English-language equivalent of the French word “toilette” —defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “the action of preparing oneself to appear in public”.  This little magazine with its “brief and sprightly essays” and poetry probably just was intended to inform and entertain its lady readers as they prepared themselves to face the day.

The Toilet was a magazine publishing experiment that did not even last 3 months, but looking at it today gives us a tiny glimpse into what was considered ladies’ entertainment over 200 years ago.  It still remains remarkable how The Toilet of yesteryear is comprised of the same type of short, easily-digested “snippets” that busy readers prefer in today’s modern world.

Judy Carlstrom
State Library of Massachusetts