Pure Filth Why?’ and ‘how?’ are the first questions that come to mind on finding that the word used to describe collected dog-poo for the nineteenth-century tanning industry was ‘pure’. A more improbable word for this substance would be hard to imagine. Curious too that the first documentation in the OED dates from 1842, by which time the word had several centuries of being associated with the complete absence of defilement. In the four quotations in theOED entry for this usage there are three given spellings – pewer, pure, and puer. The first one, from the Penny Magazine, 1842, specifically states that the spelling is conjectural since the writer had only heard the word, and not seen it written down. This rings true, as the people who took on this job would be unlikely to have the benefits of reading and writing, though tanning companies must have kept some records of payments made to collectors. Mayhew, 1851, suggested the substance was called ‘pure’ because of its ‘cleansing and purifying properties’. Partridge gives it as changing from a colloquialism to a jargon word (i.e. a technical term) about 1905.Three centuries earlier ‘pure’ was used to describe ‘pured’ fur, in this case fur trimmed in such a way as to show only one colour – this was also known as ‘pured’ and ‘purray’. These derive from the verb ‘to pure’ in the sense of refining impurities, particularly impurities of colour – which links to another OED mention - 'purwyt', meaning ‘pure white’, dating from the fourteenth century. This usage, applied to white, survives in the phrase ‘pure white’. So a conjectural passage is from ‘purifying’ to ‘preparing’ to ‘the substance which was used in the preparation process’.
Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1865, gives ‘Pure Finders – street-collectors of dogs’ dung’, as a footnote with no explanation – as other footnotes do give explanations this implies that the process was generally known. Grose's The Vulgar Tongue, 1785, does not have it (but does give as a meaning for ‘pure’ – ‘a harlot, or lady of easy virtue’, which might be a joke or wishful thinking or placatory, or any combination of these). As a final twist, a Google search for ‘pure tanning’ provides pages of businesses which offer to turn you brown rather than white.
I am grateful to Lucy Inglis for the information (17th Jan) that Ned Ward's London Spy, 1690, uses 'pure' in the sense of dog excrement, which would support the idea that the usage had a long pre-nineteenth-century existence as a spoken word.
Poo, and some words from tanning
My quest to find the root (and route) of ‘pure’ has thrown up a few dainties.
Searching for incidences of ‘pure’ has so far taken me back to the sixteenth century, but I can trace the word itself to no earlier than 1780. A Compleat & Effectual Method of Tanning without Bark (1729) does not mention dog excrement, and neither does Brief Directions how to tanne leather according to a new invention made out by severall of the principal tanners(1680). And, sadly, I cannot find it in Ned Ward’s London Spy.
A trawl through a handful of lengthy Acts of Parliament from the early eighteenth century has revealed no ‘pure’, but a lot of exciting language to do with the ‘feat, craft or mystery of a tanner’ – ‘feat’ here meaning no more than ‘activities’. An Act concerning tanners, curriers, shoemakers and other artificers, occupying the cutting of leather (1718) immediately points to the word ‘curry’, which is still in use to describe the preparing and dressing of hides. ‘Curry’ here comes from an entirely different root from that which produced ‘cure’, which since the mid-seventeenth century has also meant ‘prepare for keeping’. Both processes, currying and curing, in the seventeenth century employed salt.
Skins were dressed in ‘allom and salt, or meal, or other Ingredients properly used by the Tawers of white leather.’ This is as near as the Act comes to describing dog-poo, though other excrements are described – ‘culver-dung and hen-dung’ (a culver is a pigeon, and theOED describes this word as ‘now the name of the wood pigeon in the south and east of England’, which is a new one on me). ‘Culver’ is a word which appears to have no connection to any similar word in any other language; the OED discounts claims that it is related to the Latin columba. Like ‘dog’ it seems to be an English word that has materialised out of the English earth, or air.
An alternative word for currying was ‘frizing’; to ‘frize’, later ‘frizz’, was to rub the skin with a pumice stone in order to produce a uniform thickness, though in the late seventeenth century it was also used to describe roughening the leather on one side, to produce a surface similar to suede.
The skins described in the Acts include calf-skins, kips (a kip was the hide of a young or small animal, and again seems to be a word invented in English), hog-skins, dog-skins (the OEDpoints out that this commodity was familiar enough to have produced a fourteenth-century family name; and the citations indicate that dog-skin produced fine soft leather). Also mentioned are ‘slink calf-skins’; slink here comes from the use of the word to mean ‘give birth prematurely or abortively’, a usage which dates from the seventeenth century. ‘Slink’ or ‘slink lamb’, for example, was also the name applied to the meat of an aborted animal, usually classified as ‘bad meat’, while the skin, also called ‘slink’ if from an aborted or stillborn calf was considered to produce the finest vellum. Skins were ‘tawed’ in ‘wooze’ or ‘shomack’ (spellcheck working overtime here). ‘Tawing’ was softening, an early stage in the tanning process. ‘Ooze’ comes from the Old English word for ‘sap’, and Eric Partridge proposes it is ‘probably akin’ to ‘virus’, particularly appropriate here.
Observations on Leather, printed in 1780, provides more exciting stuff. For stripping hair off the hides ‘a liquor is made of Hens or Pidgeons Dung; this is called a Grain’. Elsewhere this liquid, and the vat where it does its stuff, is called ‘grainer’. Other vats, generally during this period called ‘fats’, used in the tanning process, contained ‘drunch’, a mixture of wheat-bran and water, and the oak-bark-based tanning liquid itself, known as ‘wooze’, ‘ooze’ or ‘ouze’.
Oak-bark, providing tannin, was the source of a lot of legislation; removing the bark at the wrong time of the year could damage the tree, and as oaks were essential for defence, being used in shipbuilding, this had to be controlled. Brief Directions … (1680) begins with a description of the time of the year to take the bark: ‘First all the Tops or Loppings of Oake of what Age or Growthe soever, or young Oaken Coppice wood, from two to ten or twelve years growth, being cut and gotten in the spring, at or a little before the Leafe shoots forth, or in Barkingtime: The Sap (which is the main and sole cause of Tanning) being then the most fluent and powerful in it, will Tanne all sorts of Leather, or the Tops of those Trees that the Bark is stript off, or the Tops of Coppice wood stript as aforesaid will be as serviceable.’ The Tanners reasons against the exportation of bark (1695-1718) uses the term ‘coppice-bark’. ‘Barkingtime’ begs to be reintroduced; ‘barking mad’ first appeared in 1900, and ‘barking’ alone in 1991.
‘Drunch’ was an early form of ‘drench’; by the mid-nineteenth century it had become ‘drench’, a term used for any process or medium of soaking. The leather was tanned with ‘shoemake’ – which looks like a word made up to describe exactly what it does, but is more probably a folk-etymology for the plant sumac; the spelling ‘shoemake’ was in use from the sixteenth century. The hides were ‘very well limed (soaked with lime), then flesh’d (any flesh or sinew removed) and struck as before, then put in a Liquor made of dogs-dung and water, this is called Puer’. And this is the earliest use of ‘pure/puer/pewer’ that I have found. The use of ‘flesh’ as a verb here points to its inclusion in that group of words that can carry two completely opposite meanings – to add flesh, or to remove flesh, as here; and ‘pure’ itself could reasonably claim inclusion in the group.
The Art of Tanning (1774) uses the terms ‘dogs confit or masterings’. The book later explains that ‘confit’ is the French term, while ‘masterings’ is the English word, in both cases describing a mixture of dung and vegetable matter, to be laid on by hand. ‘Masterings’ do appear in the specimen financial accounts shown in the book, but not as a priced item, so there is no evidence as to what was paid for what was specified as ‘dogs dung, pigeons dung, and henhouse dung.’ The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a ‘pit of water impregnated with pigeon dung (called a grainer or mastring)’. ‘Confit’, which became ‘comfit’ in English, would have been understood as ‘a preparation’. ‘Comfit’ also carried the meaning of ‘sweetmeat’ - if a recognisable French word carrying the connotation of a sweet was used at all in English tanneries this would no doubt have caused sniggers all round during the Napoleonic period – which connects nicely with the proposal that the use of the word ‘pure’ was semi-satirical itself.
It begins to look like dog excrement was not an ingredient in tanning until the second half of the eighteenth century; the further back we go the absence of references in texts which detail other kinds of dung render it more likely that this particular ingredient was not used. A 1564 Act of Parliament controlling tanning processes carries very specific prohibitions against putting ‘any thing in any lycour, stuffe or workmanship in or about the tanning of leather but only lyme, Culver donge or Hen donge, and that in colde water onlye, and wooses made of colde water and Oken barke onlye.’
Finally, the word ‘tanner’, which as well as an occupation meant a 6d coin (a sixpence), surely one of the most attractive coins ever minted. Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers two possible roots, the Romany tawmo, (Hotten gives tawno) meaning ‘small’; and ‘a ponderous Biblical joke’ dependent on a wilfully obtuse interpretation of the words ‘St Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner’, from the King James Version. I like Hotten’s link to ‘teeny’, more plausible than his link to the Latin tener, ‘slender’ which he follows with a question-mark. The regularity with which tanners still turn up in allotments, under floorboards and along forest paths indicates how easily they slipped out of the pocket. Maybe human tanners after a career of handling some rather unpleasant stuff just got dried out and seemed to be on the point of shrinking away, like Tollund Man.