What Is a Commode? Is It a Chest of Drawers or a Toilet?

These 2 Things Seem Unrelated -- But They Aren't

Commode belonging to King Louis XIV
Fine Art/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The word "commode" causes some confusion. Some people use commode as a euphemism for toilet. But it's also used to describe a chest of drawers.

So what's up with that? In early 18th-century France it meant a chest of drawers or a cabinet for storing personal items. Later on, commode also meant a cabinet that held chamber pots -- hence the evolution of the word meaning toilet. This cabinet was similar in form to any cabinet of the era called a commode.

It also was used to mean a chair-like wooden surround for a chamber pot, also connected to the toilet usage.

The word "commode" derives from the French word for "convenient" or "suitable." 

Commode Meaning Chest

Commodes were introduced in the 18th century in France and were both decorative and useful. A French commode is a low cabinet or chest of drawers, often with elaborate decoration and usually standing on cabriole legs or short feet. Earlier commodes had a bombe or convex shape with a flat back that went against the wall. Later the shape became more rectilinear, with straighter legs.

Commodes were meant to stand against the wall and were wider than they were tall. This piece of furniture provided convenient storage and also had a surface on top for placing additional items.

A commode often had a marble slab top and was displayed prominently. Sometimes commodes were paired with mirrors, and matching pairs of commodes were often used in a room.

Because of its usefulness, the commode became an indispensable piece of furniture, and before the mid-18th century it made its way from royal and aristocratic houses to more humble ones. It was well on its way to becoming the humble yet useful piece of furniture that it is today.

Gradually, by the late 19th century, the commode became even more subdued in form and ultimately a purely functional piece of furniture that is now referred to as a chest of drawers.

Commode Meaning Toilet

A commode’s association with a toilet came from night commodes, a 19th-century Victorian term for a bedside cabinet with doors that was kept in the bedroom. These enclosed cabinets provided an area for storing chamber pots and had a basin and pitcher on top for personal cleansing. A Victorian-style version of the master bath, even if lacking a bit of the luxury you find today. In their time, this was no doubt the height of convenience in the middle of the night.

By the 20th century, the word "commode" became associated with toilet, and that is now the more common usage of the term.