L.Y. surprised me because he is a frequent reader, and he’s quite proper.
He sent a recent purchase of a Thunder Mug.
I was surprised, because, as I was educated in Britain, I remembered the term for the chamber pot as the “Thunder Mug,” and so I asked ever-so-courteously, “Is this for hygiene purposes?”
He replied no, they were used on ships. And used for signaling and celebration. Very different from 19th century chamber pots, which in no way were used for celebration, although my son used one of my collectible chamber pots for his popcorn at movie night. So you see what I was surprised about.
What is a Thunder Mug?
My first British dorm room did not have plumbing, but we did have chamber pots, as it was in distant and cold Scotland. We did call them Thunder Mugs in the all-girl’s dorm back in the early 1980s.
But L.Y. said the Thunder Mug was used on ships as early as the 15th through 19th centuries.
And he found three of them in flea markets in Ventura.
Here’s the story behind the seafaring Thunder Mugs.
A sea captain would fire one of these very very small cannons, the size of a beer mug, lit with black powder, in the direction of port to sound that the ship was coming in.
And if a captain saw another ship at sea, in the olden days, and didn’t recognize her, he would send off a mighty blast, and the other ship would answer.
And this was done without displaying the large and threatening cannons on the sides of the ships. And it was not seen as threatening to anyone on the sea, although the poor first mate who held these little powerful weapons and lit them and sounded them off was in mortal danger of losing sight and hearing.
So these are not for bathroom use. No, they were for signaling for four centuries. I learn something every day from my clients.
L.Y. has collected three of these, as mentioned, and does not collect them for hygiene, but for the historical significance, and he writes me:
“Elizabeth, I KNOW you thought the name implied a chamber pot, but these thunder mugs were not for personal hygiene; the term Thunder Pot was also given to a chamber pot later thanks to the deviant male humor of a random seafaring man.” Oh, how true about deviant male bathroom humor …
They were lit with black powder, were highly flammable and, in such a compressed device, exceedingly loud. And because the black powder needed to be tested for moisture whilst at sea, these were testing cannons as well.
The “mug” reference is because of its shape. These were beakers that had handles, made from iron or brass, with a lip at the bottom for the insertion of Black Powder, with an open hole (touch hole) at the top.
Here’s the timely part of my story. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a ship needed to prove it did not carry the Black Death when coming to port. These little thunder mugs signaled that the ship was ready for inspection.
An article by John Morris, date unknown, published in the “Springfield Arsenal Files,” tells of a beer mug that sounds like a Howitzer. In France, they were called a boite; in Spain, a servadore, and in the U.S., they were not used much at all. But, they were fired in England and were called a “chamber,” and in later years used in the Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” at British concert halls.
Mr. Morris’ article mentions the inventory from the Tower of London in 1568, where the tower held 24 of these thunder mugs for the purposes of “chambers for triumphes (sic)…”and crafted in the higher material than iron, bronze, to be sounded for victories earned. If you ever wondered about the big boom at the end of a firework display, this is where it came from: the Thunder Mug, the herald of triumph.
In England in the 16th century, they were used for the conclusion of a fireworks display, and whoever used them had to be extremely careful as they might lose ears and eyes, not to mention hands. Modern collectors are urged not to light these little canons at all.
But they’re collectible, at about $1,000 a piece.
Because most people do not know what the heck they are, they might be thinking, like me, they were used for “passing water” (if you are male), or, conversely, they are a converted beer mug. Many thanks to L.Y. for sending me such an interesting form.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.