Copyright @ Jane Austen’s World
Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.
Hannah Woolley, The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677
Urine for spot cleaning? Yes, you read the first word correctly. Since the middle ages, professionals belonging to guilds manufactured soap and candles, for both products required tallow. They traditionally manufactured soaps from sodium or potassium salt or alkalis present in plant materials, and boiled the ingredients with animal fat. In the 19th century, it was discovered how to make caustic soda from brine. Soap makers no longer relied on cut wood to make soap and the cleaning industry was never the same again.
Before innovations during the Industrial Revolution changed laundry day forever, it was generally known that that alkaline substances, such as bleach or ash, dissolved or disintegrated stains and soils, enhancing the water’s ability to clean clothes.
Urine is alkaline, and since the days of ancient Rome, this by-product of the human body was used as a bleaching agent. “Pecunia non olet — money does not stink”, Emperor Vespasian reportedly said when he started taxing this trade.*
Yes, urine stinks. But so do bleach and vinegar, a weak acid. The stinking ingredient that turns us off and that makes urine such a good cleaning agent – ammonia – is a substance that our modern cleaning products include in abundance.** Eighteenth century English wool manufacturers used both urine and sheep or pig manure for washing. In addition, urine also sets dye. (The seller of my beautiful little handmade rug from Turkey cautioned that its vegetable dyes were set with goat urine. Twenty years after its purchase, the rug no longer smells, but its fragile colors must be vigilantly protected from direct sunlight.)
As recently as the early 20th century, urine was collected in barrels in Japan and fermented for use in laundering. The Japanese threw the contents of their slop jar into the barrel, then separated the feces from the liquid urine. The feces were used as fertilizer to enrich the soil, and the urine was collected by laundry shops, who fermented the liquid and used it as a bleaching agent by pounding it into the cloth. – Edible Soap, A Harmless Natural Soap for the Family. It is the fermentation process that probably made urine safe to handle, much like fermented beer or distilled alcohol were safe to drink in the days before sterilization.
Urine from the animal of choice was also used to improve the complexion. Samuel Pepys’ wife decided to try the urine of puppies (‘puppy-dog water’), for instance, in March 1664 (Diary of Samuel Pepys). This may have been less foolish than spending a hundred bucks on a small pot of modern-day moisturiser, since the ‘active’ ingredient in urine is urea, and urea creams are inexpensive, effective and regularly recommended by dermatologists. - The Thirteenth Depository: A Wheel of Time Blog
This YouTube video uses urine to demonstrate that it is as powerful a cleanser as commercial products.
More on the Topic
- The Gentle Woman’s Companion, 1678, Electronic Book
- The British Housewife, Gilly Lehmann
- The Whole Duty of a Woman, A Guide to the Female Sex, 1695
- The Country Housewife’s Family Companion
- Colonial Soap Making: Its History and Techniques
- Pioneer Soap Making