Virtually none of my writing involves anything later than the end of the nineteenth century, most very much earlier. Examining old maps and records may give glimpses into who was where and when but does not allow us to experience what it was really like to live and work in the towns of Victorian, Georgian, Tudor, Norman or even Saxon England. It struck it was tantamount to watching cookery programming on television, you can see it but neither smell nor taste it. Hence I have uncovered a few recipes used in the industries and processes of the past. You might not want to try these at home.
Common to just about every community since records were kept, the tannery was known for being odious in the extreme. Whenever possible it was situated at a good distance from the residential area. When the hides arrived they were already quite smelly, having been removed from the animal some flesh and fat would remain and that would quickly begin to rot. In order to clean up the hide and to help remove the hairs, the hide would be soaked in urine, concentrated and well-matured worked best. Then the leather would be softened, which required it to be pounded in a solution featuring animal dung (dog and pigeon was seen as particularly desirable). Tanners would tread this in bare feet for around two to three hours.
An alternative to dung was animal brains. Unfortunately not all animals have enough brains to rot their own hide, hence it was sometimes necessary to had something from the other end to help with the mixture.
Leather scraps would be turned into glue. Soaking the rotting scraps in water until it rotted down to produce the valuable adhesive. This took little in the way of man-power. Just let nature take its course, which it would after a few months.
Urine was also used to degrease and clean woollen cloth. Although there was an attempt made to ban this process in the Middle Ages, it was only successful for the larger scale production, those producing their own continued to use the free liquid.
Plasterers will tell you it is one of the hardest manual trades to learn as you have to work quickly to finish the job – in its simplest terms the whole task needs to dry as one, for this helps prevent cracking. When walls were made be interweaving flexible wooden poles through larger stakes, the gaps were sealed with wattle and daub. This was the plaster of its day, and effectively did the same job. Here a mixture of mud and animal dung was blended with straw, to give it some body, and smeared into the walls of the building. When dry it provided a draught-proof and fairly waterproof covering. Unlike the modern plasterer, who mixes and applies the plaster with tools, the wattle and daub was mixed with bare feet and applied with the hands.
But perhaps this was deliberate to cover up the smell of the cooking.