Petermen, Gunpowder, and Urine Laws

King Charles the 1st

King Charles the 1st

On your left you may observe King Charles the 1st of England, the man who mandated the collection of urine. It was a patriotic thing.


I love, LOVE, finding out how they used to make things. And it seems that making gunpowder back in the day spawned all sorts of jobs that beg to be put into a novel.

You’ve heard of tanners, bakers, tailors–how about a peterman, as in a collector of saltpeter?

Here are some juicy quotes from

QUOTE 1: “By the end of the 1500s, the standard formula for military-grade gunpowder was saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust in the ratio 6:1:1.

At this time, the only source of potassium nitrate was from rotting organic matter, especially rotting meat and urine. The saltpeter supplier would send out teams of collectors who would locate promising places to dig (abandoned privies and dungheaps) by tasting the soil before digging it out and carting it off to be boiled, strained and evaporated to produce saltpeter of the required purity. It is said that throughout Europe no privy, stable, or dovecote was safe from saltpeter collectors or ‘petermen’.”

QUOTE 2: “In 1626, King Charles I ordered “his loving subjects [to] carefully and constantly keep and preserve in some convenient vessels or receptacles fit for the purpose, all the urine of man during the whole year, and all the stale of beasts which they can save and gather together whilst their beasts are in their stables and stalls, and that they be careful to use the best means of gathering together and preserving the urine and stale, without mixture of water or other thing put therein. Which our commandment and royal pleasure, being easy to observe, and so necessary for the public service of us and our people, that if any person do be remiss thereof we shall esteem all such persons contemptuous and ill affected both to our person and estate, and are resolved to proceed to the punishment of that offender with what severity we may.”

There are more interesting facts in the short article. In fact, a number of the pages at that site yield up some gems like this Rudyard Kipling poem:

Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall
“But Iron–cold iron–is master of them all.”

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