Is there a doctor in the house?

I’ve been reading Victoria Finlay’s Colour, and in her chapter on indigo she discusses how urine was used as the alkaline agent for fixing dyes across millennia and cultures: from ancient Pompeii to early 20th century Scottish islands.  And then she casually tosses in the information that the best urine for dye vats comes from pre-pubescent boys.

Wait.  What?

There is no exploration of this rather astonishing fact, no discussion of why or when it comes from, or what culture made the claim.  Short of reading all her sources (some of which I’ve already read, the rest of which are already on my reading list), I can’t think of a way to explore or test the claim.

I certainly can’t google it.  My first though, as it often is, is “Ooh…I’ll look it up and see what google shakes out…” and then my mind contemplated the possibilities and quickly shut down.  It would not end well.

Bacchus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1640, oil on canvas

Bacchus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1640, oil on canvas

And then I realised that I already have a pretty awesome resource (and one that isn’t likely to result in the police showing up at my door if I ask “does the pee of prepubescent boys really make the best alkaline agent for dyeing?) at my fingertips: You, dear readers.

So, has anyone else heard this?  Know where it comes from?

And, are there any readers with the sort of scientific or medical training who might know if there is anything chemically different in the urine of young boys which would make it better for dyeing?  Is it more alkaline perhaps?  Or is this probably some weird folk-myth that doesn’t have any possible basis?  Or might it come from a culture that fed young boys different foods?  Would this affect urine enough to make it better for dyeing?

Some cultural health/body practices do have their basis in practical, realistic, facts, so I’m not completely writing little boy pee off as an essential ingredient of a beautifully blue cloak.

Ancient Hawaii was one of many cultures that secluded women while they were having their periods, and forbade them from preparing food.  While I don’t care for the dirty/punishment-from-God connotation that has sometimes come with the seclusion, on a practical level, it kinda makes sense.  Many women are in pain and a bit grumpy and emotional at that time.  There are certainly months where having my own private hut where I don’t have to deal with people and food gets brought to me seems like a good idea.

One can imagine ancient cultures going through the logical process of “Hmmm….every month around this time when we ask for sandwiches instead of making them she throws all the sandwich making implements at us and then sits down and cries.  Maybe we should tell her to take a few days off and go hang out in her own personal place…” and then after a few generations it becomes a socio-religious thing that women go off on their own at this time, whether or not they get caught by the emotional/crying/grumpy/sandwich-implement-hurling blues or not (because not all women do).

So, could it be the same with the pee of pre-pubescent boys?

Dyers?  Doctors?  Scientists?  Anyone brave enough to look it up in google books (I’m scared to try even that)?

UPDATE: There is tons of interesting information and useful links in the comments, plus some fascinating conjecture, but I do believe I have the answer.  I discussed this with the medicos in one of my sewing classes (my sewing classes are full of nurses, doctors and digital artists) and they instantly said “Oh, you use boy pee because it is more hygienic.”  Basically, thanks to their longer urethra, and the fact that it is less likely to touch other stuff as it comes out, male pee is less germy than girl pee, and thus, ironically, less smelly after time.  Add that to the young boys having less contaminants than men, and it makes perfect sense that little boy pee would be the preferred urine for dyeing.

They also took the opportunity to tell me that if I was ever desperate enough for moisture to need to drink pee, man-pee was a much better option than my own.  As you can imagine, I am even more disinclined to try pee-dying than pee-dyeing.


  1. Cynthia Sommer says

    Not to comment necessarily on a boy’s pee. But wouldn’t the ph level of urine depend on the diet? If you wanted to get a fixative to make a better dye, I would think you could add something organic to get to that level instead of using pee. 🙂

    • Oh yes, these days you can buy alkaline. But historically, urine was the most common thing used (easy to source, inexhaustible supply, quite alkaline).

  2. april pressley says

    might be just due to smell. Crottal (mordanted with any old human urine, ) smells vile.Anyone who has kept entire and castrated animals will note that the entire ones honk very badly, the castrated not half as bad. If I was working with the stuff day in day out, that’d sway my preference of pee-stuff 🙂

    • That is true…young male goats are cute and don’t smell bad, but mature male goats? Phew! But it’s not nearly as true with humans….

  3. “Which type of urine is best? This was the subject of considerable debate in the old days, with many “experts” contending that urine from diabetics and drunkards was generally best. This conclusion has scientific credibility; urine from untreated diabetics is high in urea and volume, and contains blood sugar (glucose or dextrose), an additional nutrient for bacterial or yeast growth. Alcohol and its breakdown products can also serve as nutrients for microorganisms.

    Urine from small boys and pregnant women was also considered very good. In the case of pregnant women, at least, there are probably additional nutrients and urea produced by the developing fetus.”


    • Wow…who knew? Not all pee is created equal!

      And OMG on reading that in full: urine dyes were so prefered that they created a fake urine smell to apply to fabrics dyed with a different alkaline solution. The mind boggles.

      Thanks Hayley for finding that fantastic resource!

    • That is a very interesting link. Not just for the urine, but also for how indigo works. I’m familiar with indigo as a hair dye, and there’s much about the indigo not taking on hair. What if fermenting the indigo first before dying works for hair as well?! (ehm I do hope I can find something else to use for fermentation though, for fabric I’d be fine but on my head….)

    • Elise says

      Very very cool. I love body stuff, and it’s neat to work our way out of Victorian prudishness and body shame. Right–back to praising you for your good link!

      • I was an historic open air museum here in Stockholm yesterday, and a couple of interpreters demonstrated dyeing wool with plants native to Sweden. They said that old sources stated that the urine from children and drunkards were the best but they couldn’t tell me why. So great to find the explanation her so handy, thank you, Hayley, that was very interesting!

  4. I don’t know about young boys, but in Britain the best pee was supposed to come from Newcastle-on-Tyne – it was collected outside public houses and sent by ship to where it was needed by the dyeing industry. Adam Hart Davis mentions it in his book Taking the Piss, which might give the answer to your question, if you can get hold of a copy. Why Newcastle I can’t imagine but local beer/water might have something to do with it?

    • I know Newcastle was source, but thought it was just because they developed an industry – not particularly that it was better pee than you could get elsewhere, but that nobody else was willing to put up with the scent of all that collection. And Newcastle already had a monopoly on it. Go Newcastle?

  5. I have read in places that urine from small boys was good, though at the time people may not have known why. The book I was reading suggested it might have been that children have had less opportunity to pick up parasites and disease, either sexually transmitted, parasites, or other ailments.

  6. Eset says

    sharonburnston.comWell, google mentiones young boys’ pee as best for dyeing quite often. I found this explanation that makes sense:

    “Once, I asked his pediatrician why “boy-child, collected in the morning” urine might be preferred. He said that that children have a higher metabolic rate than adults, so their urine would be more concentrated, and that early morning urine is the most concentrated of all. But boys’? That, he laughed, was simply easiest to collect!”


  7. Lynne says

    I’ve heard the story about man-pee, not necessarily boy-pee, being preferred in tweed production, and as a farmer’s daughter, well remember the distinctive smell of damp Harris Tweed jackets, much worn by our menfolk at the time.

    Hormones have to be the answer. We smell differently. I read not long ago about an experiment of the ‘sniff the tee shirt’ variety which showed that older women smell the nicest. That was a bit of a lift for the day! There is bound to be a chemical difference. Goats have been mentioned, and I’m sure anyone who has cats can smell the difference between a retired gentleman cat and an entire tom! Not to mention the different smells of toilets. Line of duty here, you understand – as a teacher, I occasionally had to check out the boys’ toilets!

    Maybe there’s a way of couching a search in terms of ‘hormonal effects in mordants’ that would keep us clear of the sort of history we don’t want our computers to have?

    Wonderful topic – will be looking for ‘Taking the Piss’!

  8. wow. very interesting. gross but very interesting. I knew throughout time that various types of pee and poo were used in beauty products.
    The alkaline thing makes sense. Permanent hair dye must have an alkali source, nowadays it’s usually ammonia. The ammonia swells the hair cuticle enabling the dye to penetrate deep into the hair shaft, I never thought about how it does the same to the fibers in fabric. I wonder if pee was used as a haircolor fixative back in the day?

  9. Lyndle says

    allfiberarts.comHey, that’s fascinating!
    I totally agree about the hut thing, by the way. It’s also a way of giving women a rest in cultures where they usually work non-stop. The whole unclean-thing that goes along with it isn’t the greatest but the reasons you give are probably why women allowed the practice to persist.

    I don’t know much about types of urine, but on this page
    there is a comment from their forum:
    ““I learned to spin, dye and weave traditional Chilkat style. Urine is one of the main ingredients for some dyes. However, only fresh infants urine is used (still nursing). Diapers were made from dried moss. The urine would be squeezed out and saved until you had enough for a dye batch. ”
    Posted to our Forum by HSMCNEIL”

    Interesting – it must have been thought to be more desirable to use infants’ urine, because surely one adult male would fill a bucket in the time it took to squeeze out a tablespoon of urine from the moss.

  10. Beatrix says

    Well, I’m an OB/GYN MD.
    The only thing I can add is that a diet high in dairy can increase pH – making it more basic (alkaline).
    Children obviously consume more dairy than adults & therefore have a bit more alkaline urine.
    I’d think a boy’s urine would be far easier to collect.
    Other than that human urine is usually around 95% water.

  11. Gail says

    Nothing wasted.
    There’s a show called Worst Jobs of the Middle Ages or Rome(?) and they show a textile historian showing how they probably made the purple cloth used in clothes for royalty. I think they used wee in that dye as well.
    And I found out that wee was an important ingredient in gunpowder production back then.

  12. karenb says

    I am sure I have heard that men should go and pee under the lemon tree in the backyard as that helps with better lemons?

    • Melanie says

      I’ve been told that too, but only from men. Perhaps they just need the excuse?

  13. That’s very interesting! At first I wondered about why boys’ urine was preferred over girls’ urine and I thought it could be because of the male dominated culture. But now that I read the other comments the easiness of collecting it from boys makes more sense.

    • I’m just not buying the ‘easier to collect if from boys’ thing. The thing is, girls (usually) have to squat to pee – which means peeing over a bucket is pretty simple, and the pee will go in the bucket. Young boys don’t have the best aim, and it would be easier for them to pee against a tree or a wall. And if the little boys are squatting, you get exactly the same result as from a girl.

      (Right, I need to go think about something other than the mechanics of how people pee)

    • Elise says

      Ok, this is a weird thought. Could there have been a sexuality associated with girls’ pee that made it too creepy to collect? I can totally imagine some perverted weirdos being really really into girls’ pee, seeing that it comes from genitals, is hidden, etc.

      Do during a time when sexual abuse of boys was either unknown or unremarked upon (such as in school), and seeing that it is almost impossible for a male to urinate without protruding outside of clothing, boys’ pee would have been much more neutered by sheer societal desensitizing of visible male genitalia. I mean really: People draw penises everywhere still, and even Prince Harry thought naked shots were funny.

  14. That is fascinating! I had never heard of anything like that before.

    All I know is that Moroccan leather products owe their world famous softness to pigeon poop. I don’t have any information on pee-dyeing.

    I completely agree about the hut thing, there are times when everyone seems like a total jerk, no matter how nice they are being. Having a secluded hut to stomp away to would be very nice, especially if it had a door that slams very loudly.

  15. The hut thing would be nice if it included PMS. My experience with myself and other females is that, except for the first day or two when you may be in some pain and fatigue, it is the days PRIOR to the “big event” that require the hut. When I was younger, I worried I was going insane because I was a horrible human being during PMS! The only thing that would bring me joy was the idea of smothering people with a pillow. Actually, a solitary confinement cell would have been better than a hut. Just shove the chocolate and hamburgers through the slot and run….

  16. Nicola Lowrie says

    Thats really interesting, though I just cannot see me drinking my own urine never mind a mans, lol. That really would be dire straits!

    I am Muslim and Muhammad (saws) said if a boy has an accident and pees on the floor wash it once with clean water, but if a girl has an accident to clean it seven times with clean water. I had assumed it had something to do with pheromones but maybe it was just that us girlies have more bugs to contend with.

  17. Ellie says

    Because of a very skilled mother in oh so many things, mainly felting and wool-related stuff, I have in fact experienced first hand the collecting of boy pee (two younger brothers, I have), but, for using in the tanning of fish hide! It was (I cannot name the sources, please forgive me, but I know it is “old lore” at least) considered to be the best material for any hide tanning, but especially for fish hide, as it is so much thinner and more delicate. I do recall her saying something about the pH value making it suitable for dyeing, too.

  18. blndtndr says

    American Indian women used urine to tan hides. It is said that urine made the whitest and softest leather, much prized, but I never heard who’s urine.

  19. Well, there is the semi-apocryphal reference to the use of urine from wine-drinking bishops in gunpowder manufacture, although I’ve seen it referenced as the best urine to add to one’s dung heap to increase the potassium nitrate content, or as the wetting agent during grinding of the powder ingredients.

    In the various medieval recipes requiring urine, it’s often concentrated by various recipes to increase the active ingredient required, whether this be simple evaporation for what we now know to be the ammonia, or the nitrate, or even boiling it down for the phosphorus.

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