A brief history of human urine and excrement, it’s uses, and how we’ve dealt with it through the ages

If you watch British television, you will know that they have many historical programs about just about everything. One topic that keeps coming up is how humans have dealt with their excrement and urine through the ages, including its many uses. If you think that we are good at recycling, believe me we have nothing on the Tudors and the Stuarts!

Urine used to be considered quite a commodity. If you allow it to go stale, it becomes ammonia, which was used for laundry stain removal. It was made into saltpeter, used in fireworks, gunpowder, paint stripper, paint pigment and fertilizer. Urine was used in the tanning industry to soften leather, and as a mordant to “fix” dye in cloth.

Urine was also used to full wool cloth. Fulling, also known as tucking or walking (spelled waulking in Scotland), was a step in woollen cloth making which involves cleansing to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and to make it thicker (felting). Ammonium salts in stale urine assisted with this task. The worker who does the job is called a fuller, tucker, or walker.

Engraving of Scotswomen singing a waulking song while walking or fulling cloth, c. 1770.

There were people who had the job of collecting the contents of piss pots at taverns, and “night soil men” who emptied cesspits.

A gong was a term that was used for both a privy and its contents. Gong farmer (also gongfermor, gongfermour, gong-fayer, gong-fower or gong scourer) was a term that entered use in Tudor England to describe someone who dug out and removed human excrement from privies and cesspits. It was sometimes used as fertilizer. More about this can be found at Wikipedia:

Despite being well-rewarded, the role of gong farmer was considered by historians on television series The Worst Jobs in History to be one of the worst of the Tudor period. Those employed at Hampton Court during the time of Queen Elizabeth I,  for instance, were paid sixpence a day—a good living for the period—but the working life of a gong farmer was “spent up to his knees, waist, even neck in human ordure”. They were only allowed to work at night, between 9pm and 5am. They were permitted to live only in specified areas. And they were sometimes overcome by asphyxiation from the noxious fumes produced by human excrement.

Gong farmers usually employed a couple of young boys to lift the full buckets of ordure out of the pit and to work in confined spaces.

After being dug out, the solid waste was removed in large barrels or pipes, which were loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. As privies spread to the residences of ordinary citizens they were often built in backyards with rear access or alleyways, to avoid the need to carry barrels of waste through the house to the street.

The history of toilets is quite interesting. From Roman times right up to medieval times, using the toilet was not really a private activity. As reported in PORCH,

It’s true that the most powerful or wealthy may have been able to use the toilet in relative privacy. But for the lower or middle classes, nearly all aspects of life was commonly shared. Like we explored in the history of the bedroom and kitchen, shared activities was a way to foster relationships, establish bonds and share communal life.

Roman public toilet

There were basically three types of toilets in the Tudor period and who used them was decided entirely upon the status of that person. There were Great Houses of Easement or communal privies, which were public toilets for the lower class. These toilets, like the ones before them, were often situated over rivers and enclosed in a bridge-like structure. Chamber pots were used by the middle class and would have been emptied onto the street or river.

The wealthy royals used velvet-lined clothes stools [I believe the term is actually “close stool”] with a chamber pot inside. They would be attended by servants who would bring the clothes stool to the person and then wheel them out when finished. Queen Elizabeth I even had a carriage for her clothes stool so that it could be brought with her wherever she went.

Close Stool

This is a really interesting and detailed article. Good read! Be sure not to miss what they used for toilet paper back in Roman and medieval times. In the 19th and early 20th century, you might find scrap paper available in the outhouse, like pages from the Sears catalog, or even corn cobs. I’ve heard it said that advertisements or other scrap paper used to be called “bum fodder” in England.

Real flushing toilets with functional sewage systems did not really exist until the mid to late 1800’s. The first sewage treatment plant in the United States was built in the 1890’s.

Most homes had outhouses or “privies”, some until quite late in the 20th century. At night they used chamber pots that were tucked under the bed for that purpose. I can remember my step grandmother in Canada putting a pot under my bed when I was a child, although  I never used it.

I know this Victorian-era chamber pot looks like a soup tureen, but it only has one handle.

Grandma Ruby had a bathroom, but preferred to use the privy that was attached to the barn out back.

This outhouse looks like the one we had at our “up north” summer cottage when I was a kid!

There was no such thing as a bathroom for many people (yes, here in the USA too) until the 1930’s, particularly in rural areas. Water was heated on the stove and put into a portable tin or copper tub in the kitchen for bathing, usually once a week. My mother told me a story about the time she was bathing in the kitchen, when all of a sudden something rattled the door knob. She was really startled, but then found out it was just a horse!

If you are interested in investigating the history of the toilet in more depth, this is an excellent program on the subject, produced by the BBC (see, I told you they talk about this stuff a lot.)

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10 Responses to A brief history of human urine and excrement, it’s uses, and how we’ve dealt with it through the ages

  1. Pa Hermit says:

    I go as far back as the “out house” and using a cup to spread lime to kill the odor. Seems the crescent moon was a popular addition to the doors. This was almost always in rural settings with no sewage lines. My concern in the summer were the spiders. One wasted no time in taking care of business, LOL. I’d bet that kids today would be “grossed out” with this. Yep I remember the “sponge bath” too.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sharon says:

      Electricity didn’t come to our corner of NE Montana rural areas (REA) until about 1952-3, so plumbing (requiring the basement pressure pump that brought water into the house from the cisterns. Our water came to the house from an artesian spring well four miles away–hauled in a 400 gallon tank in the back of the truck) to fill the cisterns.

      Everything about water was very labor intensive and so it was greedily measured out–not in a stingy way, but in a reality-based way.

      Our plumbing was in by the time I was in 4th grade. The “sewer line” was a trench dug from the house about 400 yards out into the pasture, which was filled with the proper sized rocks, the entire length.

      Installing electric lines into the house and installing the plumbing, all done by each individual farmer. My dad contracted with someone to come dig the sewer line.

      Even after we had plumbing with a beautiful bathroom, the toilet would never be used as a convenience. It was not convenient to run the water supply in the cisterns down. The habitual use of the outhouse was also a comfortable and familiar practice. No big deal. And the outhouses never had a bad smell. That simply didn’t happen–such things were managed well. That was where we got to pore over the spiegel and Monkey Wards and Penneys catalogs–they were the toilet paper.

      Before the plumbing, the chamber pot was available but was only used if someone was terribly sick or when the aunts from California came to visit. They were not expected to trek to the outside in the night. After plumbing, all guests used the indoor bathroom…would never have occurred to them to do otherwise and it wasn’t an issue. We just made sure the cisterns were full before we had company. I remember being bothered by the too-frequent sound of the pressure pump running and thinking, “Don’t these people understand??????” And, of course–no, they didn’t if they lived in town. There’s no reason they would have.

      Our farm home was lovely. Four bedrooms, full basement + three bedrooms and other room upstairs, lots of floor length curtains, french doors leading from the living room to the sunporch. We had a lovely house which was a fine home. Not having electricity or plumbing was not a feature of “poverty” or anything close to poverty. It was reality.

      The REA had priorities that didn’t include the dryland farmers.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. czarina33 says:

    What I love is the language, discovering where a word came from an and evolved to. And the origin of people’s last names.

    There is a science fiction story about a family which takes care of the waste on a planet, never touches anything but a button to run the machines, and is ostracized so completely but paid so extravagantly. Can’t seem to find it under Bradbury or Ellison.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. texan59 says:

    My grandmother didn’t have indoor plumbing at her house in western MN until 1965-66. I can remember using the outhouse when I was 5-6 years old. She used the money from my grandfather’s life insurance policy to get the plumbing work done. My Dad said they got electricity in 1948 when he was 13, but couldn’t get the plumbing done until he was long gone. I have a number of one-liners, but I won’t use them here in mixed company! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

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