Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.
And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!
The people who collected dog dung for books
Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.
Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.
That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.
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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.
So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.
The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.
Getting dog dung for books was good business
In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.
There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!
A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.
A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.
Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.
Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!