Jenny Doughty • Link
I came across this rather splendid web page, and thought it very interesting - however, the link doesn't necessarily work as intended. When I tried to link it for the Pepys Diary webgroup's email list it came up with something that looked rather pornographic and made me blush at having provided the link. Hence, I am copying it here as well as providing the link, which may or may not work.
The Practical Uses of Pee
While most of us think of pee as something to get rid of, some people -- both in modern and historical times -- have thought of pee as something to acquire, that is, as a useful and valuable substance which can be put to such uses as:
In the first century AD, the Roman's so valued the use of urine in the tanning industry that they imposed a tax upon it (the Roman Pee Tax. Most cultures never went that far in acclaiming it's worth. However vast numbers of cultures did discover the value of urine in tanning animal skins. Some merely sprinkled (tinkled?) urine on the toughest part of the hide, to soften it for working, while others actually soaked the hide directly in a container of pee.
One of the tasks acomplished through pee soaking was to dissolve fatty tissues and flesh that had remained on the hide after skinning. Once soaked in urine, the tissues semi-dissolved and could be scraped off much more easily. (Flesh left on the hide will stiffen and rot.) In a later phase of the tanning process, urine is rubbed onto the outside of the skin to remove any unwanted hair as well as the out layer of skin. Mixed with quicklime and wood ash, the urine loosens the hair, allowing it to be scraped off.
Urine has a variety of uses in the dying industry. First, it acts as a cleansing agent, removing oils and dirt -- especially important in preparing wool for dying. Reportedly, the resultant wool, once dried, is not only much cleaner, but also extraordinarily soft to the touch.
The second use for urine is as an extracting agent. Specifically, certain natural substances, when soaked in stale urine, will yield up a highly valued and highly useable pigmentation. For example, fermenting the lichen orchil in old pee will yield a lovely purple coloration that can then be used to die wool and cotton.
Finally, urine may be used as a dying medium and fixative. Add your coloring agent to the urine, toss in your wool or cotton, let soak, and voila. Interestingly enough, some who've experimented with the process say that fresh urine is better for this part of the process -- as rotten pee leaves in the fabric a rotton pee odor.
Naturally, if one thinks about the quantity of fabric necessary to make a large item of clothing (such as a dress or cloak), one cannot help but ponder the fact that a large quantity of fabric would require a large volume of liquid in which to be soaked for dying. The obvious question therefore is, "Where is all this urine coming from?"
And the answer is that most folks save up their own or their family's urine for the process. However, urban legend in remote parts of the U.K. would have it that some dyers used to leave a tub out for the lads to fill on their way home from the pub. Certainly there would be a value in having such ready contributors of fresh urine (such as a better smelling and more hygenic dye), but there is no proof that this practice really took place.
A more peculiar piece of folk history claims that some dyers would only use the fresh urine of nursing infants. The urine, which was obtained by squeezing out the diapers, then made from dried moss (in Britain at least), was saved until there was enough for a batch of dye. While this practice may seem a bit peculiar, as though harking back to witchcraft and superstitions, it is worth noting that breast fed babies do not have the same nasty odors in their sweat, urine, and poop as do adults and children eating solid food (especially meat).
While zillions of products marketed in the supermarket and online profess to clean away urine stains, giving the sense that urine is a powerful soiling agent only, urine itself has actually been used as a bleaching agent for centuries -- perhaps millenia. This fact may make more sense when you consider that both bleach and urine are strongly alkali and that both have the ability to dissolve or disintegrate biological material (seen Tanning, above. Nonetheless, most modern folks balk at adding fresh urine to the laundry machine ("But won't it make the clothes stinky?"), although they are quite confident about pouring nasty smelling, caustic bleach in with the wash.
But of course it is not the stink that makes urine a good bleach. It's the ammonia. (Don't believe me? Check the ingredients on a bottle of Mr.Clean.)
While it's hard to tell how extensive this practice really was, it is documented that at least some folks found that hanging their tobacco in the outhouse mellowed it and, oddly enough, lessened the stink it created when burned (as in a gentleman's after dinner cigar). Go figure.
Information about the origin of this practice is sketchy. But it is intriguing to note that the 1771 edition of Encyclop