From Pee to Powder – How the Chamberpot Supported the War Effort

The surge in female gun ownership over the past several years has many people (especially the Demanding Mommies) all agog. How could the “gentle sex” be so interested in “implements of destruction” they wonder?

Yet the notion of women being interested in the production of firearms and related supplies is not all that new. In centuries past, patriotic women “contributed to the cause” in ways that you probably never imagined.

A recent casual remark on social media sent me down the research rabbit hole, and I found some interesting stuff! Be sure to follow the links if you too want to be amazed (or disgusted).

Going back to the American Revolution, tales exist of American colonial women – Mary Draper is one example and Abigail Adams another – melting down their household pewter ware for bullets. There is some dispute about how widespread this practice was, but the stories are out there, apocryphal or not. 

But did you also know that homefront ladies in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars also contributed to the production of gunpowder (black powder)?

Yes back in the glory days of the chamber pot, when this lowly receptacle sat neatly under every bed in the land, patriotic ladies saved and contributed their own urine (sometimes politely called “chamber lye”) for the production of saltpeter. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was a major component in the production of gunpowder (the other components being sulphur and charcoal).

A chamber pot in its customary location.

Granted, in those days urine was saved for many other uses as well – including laundry – but this is a gun piece, so let’s concentrate on gunpowder.

The roots of gunpowder production go all the way back to ancient China. Saltpeter (sometimes called Niter) was often mined from the bat guano in caves or extracted from animal manure. But during wartime extreme measures were sometimes called for. Human urine was called to the cause – often from women behind the lines.

During the English Civil War (1642-1651) there are accounts of “saltpetermen” digging up the floors of churches – because sermons were so long that ladies reportedly urinated in their pews. Yes – they peed on the floor. In church. What did the men do? It doesn’t say. (Figures)

Sacrilegious or not,  this feminine nitrogenous waste ended up soaking the floor beneath the pews with the chemical resources needed to make the king’s gunpowder. So up came the floor for processing in the war effort. That’s quite a visual. I’m not sure how reliable that information is, but it was an entertaining read nonetheless. I’m not sure if it was more an indictment of the bladder capacity of the female parishioners or of the long windedness of the vicar.

During the American Revolution the Second Continental Congress printed a pamphlet on saltpeter production, which involved piles of vegetable and animal refuse – leached thru with human and animal urine. If the men were away at war, we know whose urine that had to be. The ladies whizz their way to the rescue again!

During the American Civil War a fellow named LeConte wrote up a detailed but simple method of producing saltpeter in 1862 with the hope of encouraging production within the resource-strapped Confederacy.

Then a southern chemist named John Harrelson also came up with a way to extract saltpeter directly from urine, rather that going through the more traditional processes.

As a result, in Selma, Alabama there were wagons with barrels that went around asking for urinary “contributions” from the household ladies – leading to the circulation of some bawdy verse amongst the soldiers on both sides.

Here’s one example:

John Harrelson, John Harrelson, do pray invent a neater

And somewhat less immodest mode of making your saltpeter,

For ‘tis an awful idea, John, gunpowdery and cranky,

That when a lady lifts her skirt, she’s killing off a Yankee.

There’s another entertaining visual for you. And you thought the Victorian era was full of prudes.

I’m not going to get into the chemistry involved, because it brings me unpleasant flashbacks from the high school Chem Nun (shudder), but all of the information is out there if you decide you want to learn more about the transition from pee to powder.

LeConte’s paper talks about the “Prussian method”, the “Swedish method”, and the “Swiss method”. There are also undoubtedly prepper sites and black powder enthusiast sites which can provide detailed instructions on black powder production, but that is another rabbit hole that I really didn’t have the time to get lost in. I’ll let you research that on your own. I’m just here for the cheap giggles.

So ladies and gentlemen, I’m not sure how hardcore you may be about making your own black powder in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse, but the information is there for those who seek it. As long as you have access to charcoal and sulphur, you’ve got your own hardworking kidneys as a source for the last ingredient. Who knew?

In fact the Apocalypse may even necessitate the resurgence of the chamber pot due to breakdown of public services.

But apocalypse or not, no matter the righteousness of your efforts, I’m not sure I’d recommend asking your local church ladies for “contributions”. That’s not the kind of collection plate they’re used to. Just sayin’.

Dr LateBloomer
Dr LateBloomer is a female general pediatrician who bought her first firearm at the age of 46. She now enjoys many different shooting disciplines including self-defense, IDPA, Steel/Rimfire Challenge, Sporting clays, and even tried 3-Gun for several years. She has gotten started in hunting and has expanded into crossbow. She is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and works to enlighten her medical colleagues whenever possible.