Nicola here. This is a blog about P. Not the letter of the alphabet but the other P. Yes, today I am lowering the tone of the Word Wenches with a blog about some of the use to which urine has been put throughout history. When I was discussing the topic of P with the other Wenches (as we do) we discovered that we already knew quite a few of the historical uses of “pee” and we thought we’d like to share them because there are very few substances as versatile and useful or with such interesting historical applications.
The English language has developed many words to cover the action and the place where one might have a pee. The word urine comes from Latin urina and Greek ouron and its first recorded usage was around 1325 although the verb to urinate was not formed until the late 16th century. I much prefer the Old English word “lant” – it’s got a nice sound to it – which was in use from about 1000. Unfortunately, in pee as in many other things, Norman French overpowered native English and lant fell out of use although a few odd references remained: Bess of Harwick is recorded as owning a silver lant pot and comb. It may be that she used urine as part of a dyeing agent to maintain the red of her hair.
In Scotland the word “wesche”, later wash, was another word for urine. 15th century Scottish poet Robert Henryson recommends the following cure for insomnia: “Reid nettill sied in strang wesche to steip, for to bath your ba cod.” – Steep red nettles in strong urine and bathe your naked scrotum in the mixture. Worth a try?
The phrase “to take a leak” sounds relatively modern but was in fact in use in Shakespeare and makes an appearance in the 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. Interestingly, the word “addled” meaning confused or slow-witted also originally derives from urine. Who would have thought that phrases such as “addle-pate” in Georgette Heyer’s books originate in the Old English “adela” meaning a pool of urine? The implication here is that the person who is addle-pated is not quite all there or only “half-baked” or “half-washed” and it refers to the use of urine in woollen industry (see below!)
So here are a few historical uses for urine:
I have a lovely vintage Harris Tweed jacket that I inherited from my husband’s grandfather. It’s warm and windproof and it looks great. However occasionally when I wear it I get a faint but unmistakeable scent floating up from the material that speaks of its origins. Until the end of the 20th century, the pee-tub was an integral part of the process for making Harris Tweed. The tub was a big wooden barrel with an iron lid, and chamber pots were emptied into it daily. The urine helped to fix dye colours to the wool. Urine was also used later in the tweed-making process to remove any lingering oiliness from the woven fabric and to shrink it to the correct size. The woven tweed was soaked in a barrel of urine and stamped upon, an activity known as “waulking” and from which the surname Walker derives. Elsewhere in the UK this part of the weaving process is know as fulling or tucking and is again the source of a couple of surnames.
Urine was also an essential part of the English alum industry up until the late nineteenth century. Alum is a mordant used to fix dye to fabric. Ships carried coal from Newcastle or Sunderland, off-loaded it at Whitby and other north eastern ports, filled up with alum, took the alum south and exchanged it for barrels of urine that had been collected from London street corners, which were taken back up north.
Originally the alum industry used urine collected locally in Yorkshire but as demand outstripped supply it had to be shipped in on “lye-boats.” Most highly prized was the urine from teetotallers, followed by that of beer drinkers. Only as a last resort would the urine of upper class wine-drinkers be used. It is rumoured that this transport system was the origin of the phrase: “taking the p***.”
One of the great grievances of the early 17th century was that the “petremen,” men who were tasked with collecting saltpetre to use in the making of gunpowder, had the right to come into people’s houses and dig anywhere they thought they might find supplies. Saltpetre derived primarily from the action of animal urine on soil so people who kept animals in their cottages frequently had their earthen floors dug up. King Charles I was petitioned by homeowners complaining about having their stables and barnyards ransacked and their houses destroyed when the walls fell down because the petremen had weakened the foundations.
To counteract the public dissatisfaction with this, Charles agreed to a different approach to the production of saltpetre, using neat human urine and mixing it with soil. In 1625 he granted a patent to Sir John Brooke and issued a royal decree stating that all men should “keep and preserve in some convenient vessels or receptacles fit for the purpose, all the urine of man during the whole year.” Animal urine was to be collected too. This proved unworkable since there simply were not sufficient receptacles available for the entire British population and their animals to pee into for a whole year and the Crown was forced to go back to the original form of collection. It was Oliver Cromwell who finally ruled in 1656 that petremen could not dig in people’s houses without permission.
The use of urine in making gunpowder once again came to the fore in the American Civil War with an advertisement in the Selma Morning Reporter of 1863: “The ladies of Selma are respectfully requested to preserve all their chamber lye collected about their premises for the purpose of making Nitre.” Carts were sent out to collect barrels of lye and the Selma nitre works provided gunpowder to the Confederacy for the last two years of the war.
Pass the Smelling Salts
There are many more historical applications of urine. In the Middle Ages, urine was used to “quench” swords. The hot steel was plunged into cold urine to cool it rapidly. This was said to be the best way to forge a sharp blade. The urine of a small red-headed boy was said to be the most effective coolant!
Forgers would give coins a suitably authentic looking patina by burying them in earth sprinkled with urine. This would turn silver coins grey or black and bronze coins brown or green depending on the sort of urine used and its quality. Such tricks have been in use since Roman times. The coins had to be “watered” every few days.
Urine was also an ingredient of smelling salts or sal volatile, much in use in the 19th century for arousing consciousness. The newly formed police force in Victorian Britain even carried smelling salts in their uniform pockets to revive fainting victims!
I was slightly at a loss to think of a discussion question for this blog piece but then I remembered my grandmother and the various interesting substances she swore by for doing different jobs about the house. One of her favourites was to use salt and vinegar to clean the brown stains off the teacups. She also recommended washing hair in beer. (I remember using beer shampoo as a child and walking around smelling slightly alcoholic!) So my question is: which old wives tales do you swear by and do you know of any unusual usages for common substances?