History of Urology Forum
Presentation Authors: Simone Vernez*, Sarah Best, Madison, WI
Introduction: Today, the pH and mineral content of urine provide valuable data to urologists fighting stone disease. Internists use urine composition to assess progression of conditions such as diabetes and renal disease. However, historically, urine was instead valued for its chemical properties in production processes including manufacturing gunpowder, leather processing, and cleaning and dyeing textiles. We set out to determine the historical use and importance of urine in the world’s textile industry.
Methods: We interviewed textile historians at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the Master Weaver at Colonial Williamsburg regarding the historical use of urine in the textile industry. We also identified primary texts including Pliny the Elder's "Natural History" (Ancient Rome, 77-79AD), "The Compleat Servant-Maid: Or, The Young Maiden's and Family's Daily Companion" by Hannah Woolley (London, 1719), and "The Dyer's assistant of dyeing wool and woolen goods" by James Haigh (London,1800), which describe and prescribe the use of urine in cleaning and dyeing linens. Finally, we used these techniques to try "nature's ammonia" in a craft project of our own.
Results: Urine was used worldwide for cleaning and dyeing woolen textiles for millennia, from ancient Greek and Roman times to mid-19th century. In ancient Rome, fulleries (laundries) used stale urine to bleach and clean fabrics, including the togas famously worn by Senators. The state collected taxes from those who sold and used urine, which was collected in public urinals situated outside the fulleries. Books for servants described a similar process for employing urine to lift stains from household garments. Moreover, urine provided the basic properties necessary to release the blue pigment in indigo and wode. Artisans perfected the use of urine for creating 22 separate shades of blue. Throughout the world, these dyeing practices were passed down through generations via apprenticeship. In the United States, dyers were prevalent, even in small communities where they dyed and re-dyed garments imported from Europe, repurposing valuable fabrics. Urine remained a valuable source of ammonia for both dyeing and cleaning textiles until the 1850s, when aniline dyes emerged and the production of ammonia-based cleaning products became more widespread.
Conclusions: Though urine is composed of the waste products of the human body, for millennia urine was greatly valued as a chemical reagent. Nowhere were the chemical properties of urine more central than in the textile industry, where it was a valuable cleaning agent and an aid to artisans who practiced the craft of textile dyeing.
Source of Funding: None