Language is an interesting thing. Even a casual search will yield all sorts of root words from ages ago, or from other languages. One doesn’t need to prod too deeply to find common English words that are Latin-based, and are still in active use in French and Spanish. It gets even more interesting when we see last names that have their root in the crafts, occupations, and stations in life of those that lived several centuries ago.
Names such as Smith, Farmer and Carpenter are pretty apparent, but there are more obscure meanings in names such as Chandler, Brewster, Walker, Fuller, Tucker, Wheeler, and my own name, Cooper.
A chandler was a seller of candles, many times provisioning ships. A brewster brewed beer and ales. A cooper built or repaired casks and barrels. A wheeler was a wheelwright, a maker of wheels for carts and wagons. What about walkers, tuckers and fullers? The expansion of these three occupations is the heart of today’s column.
I know, I know. I’m supposed to be writing about all things gardening and horticulture. Stick with me, because we are getting ready to go on a romp through a bit of fun history, and a look at a common household product that is extremely easy to overlook and take for granted.
While we as gardeners tend to focus more on what we grow in our garden beds and plots, the world of agriculture includes animal husbandry and production of products that are either eaten or used to create of other products. Clothing is one such product, and two common agriculture products that provide fiber are wool (mostly from sheep but other animals as well), and cotton.
When these are processed, they are far from the white finished product we are accustomed to seeing. There is a lot of dirt, impurities, oils, and overall discoloration present that must be addressed.
Since cotton and wool are ancient products, there are processes that have been in place from antiquity that have been either replaced or enhanced with modern engineering. Just in case you think that I’ve forgotten about those with the family names of Walker, Tucker or Fuller, they are tied to professions that are no longer common, but led to better methods of getting the desired results.
What I’m about to tell you has some “yuck” factor. Walkers, tuckers and fullers were those that worked to whiten wool fibers, and to make them into materials that could be used for clothing. The pioneers of this profession had a very difficult life, as they literally worked daily standing in, and walking around ankle-deep in, umm, wait for it … human urine. If they weren’t walking in it, they were constantly in the vicinity of the process or rinsing out materials that now needed the odious whitening agent removed. Where’s Mike Rowe and “Dirty Jobs” when you need him?
Once you get past the initial recoil to this idea, you may be asking, “how would urine, being the color that it is, whiten fibers?” There are two factors that produced whitening. First, wool is naturally greasy, from the lanolin the sheep produces. While lanolin allows the animal’s coat to shed water, it attracts dirt and does not allow the fibers to grip each other tightly to create fabrics. Urine is alkaline, and would help break down grease. Second, there is ammonium in urine, which assists in not only washing, but whitening as well.
As for choosing something as repulsive as urine for the process, it was simple economics. It was the cheapest and most readily available alkaline solution, even if it had to be collected from neighboring farms and towns. If this all sounds dubious, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vb0V5NSgAo0 to see an episode of “Worst Jobs in the Middle Ages.”
Obviously, use of wool and cotton, even if whitening them was historically difficult, has continued even to this day. Like many things that we enjoy now, they came to us through inventive thoughts of someone that looked at a product, service, or process, and thought, “there has to be a better way.” With the processes we’ve just seen, there was plenty of motivation to get the same results using other approaches!
For instance, practices changed where large pieces of linen and woolen textiles were stretched on dedicated fields to be exposed to the sun and rain to further whiten them. This was a lengthy and unpredictable process because it was dependent on the weather. Later on, bleaching started to be done using forms of sulfuric acid. This did a good job bleaching, but it was hard on people, the fabric, the land where the bleached fabric was laid to dry, and adjoining streams and lakes.
Further improvements occurred when tent-like frames were employed to stretch the fabric on, off the ground, to allow it to dry. A field of these frames was called a “tenterground”. The frames had series of short hooks on them (“tenterhooks”) to affix the fabric to them in a taut position.
The next great developments were chlorine-based bleaching powder and liquid bleach. These allowed fabrics to be bleached using much less space, resources and labor. Like many common products we know today, there were many iterations of bleach products before the familiar laundry bleach we use today became common. The most common household bleach today in the U.S. is Clorox — which became available to consumers in 1913 — just over a hundred years ago!
Chlorine bleach is manufactured from a readily available resource — brine (salt water). There is a series of steps (outlined, for the curious among us, at http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Bleach.html) utilized to produce sodium hypochlorite – the active ingredient in laundry bleach. The container of bleach that I have on hand shows the ingredients as 8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite and 91.75 percent “other ingredients” — which is almost entirely water.
Lest you think that you are being shortchanged by the product having so much water (known as an aqueous solution, meaning water is used as a solvent), stronger concentrations of bleach would be quite unsafe to handle and have in the household. Stronger bleach is also very hard on textile fabrics (not to mention colors!) and would have a quite overpowering smell.
Bleach works to whiten because it breaks down compounds, using oxygen molecules, into smaller pieces, so they release from the fibers of the fabric. Bleach works as a sanitizer in the same way. Germs are oxidized, broken down into smaller pieces, rendered inoperative, and then easily washed away.
Peroxide bleach is another fairly common product. In the U.S., it used more as a color-safe bleach powder for the laundry. It’s also used as a teeth whitener. In Europe, liquid peroxide bleach is used for laundering, but it requires very hot water temperatures to do its job. European washing machines are commonly equipped with water heaters that will bring water to boiling. Peroxide-based textile bleaches are gentler on the fibers themselves than chlorine-based bleaches.
Although laundry bleach hasn’t been around that long in the scheme of things, life is a lot better because it is. It has many uses, even for us gardeners, including use as a sanitizer and sterilizer to control disease. It’s especially helpful for dipping shears into after making pruning cuts on diseased tree stems, such as when pruning out fire blight on pear trees. Without the oxidizing ability of bleach, the microorganisms that cause these diseases would be easily transferred from one tree to another as pruning throughout the orchard proceeds.
The paper you are holding is printed on bleached paper. Wood fibers are bleached early in the process to give us the white papers that we enjoy and have come to depend on so heavily. Hydrogen peroxide is a common bleaching agent for wood fibers to allow the finished product to be much whiter than an unbleached product would be.
So, the next time you reach for the bleach (that’s poetic!), remember there is quite a history for this product that is used in some many ways around the home and industry. We are safer and enjoy a better quality of life because those hardy souls that lived before us weren’t content to leave things as they were. Walkers, Turners, and Fullers, rejoice!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.