Tech UPTechnologyA cultural history of shit

A cultural history of shit

On May 23, 2007, at Sotheby’s auction house, a can 5 cm high by 6.5 in diameter and looking like it contained some delicatessen was sold for 124,000 euros. The following year another, the 083 can, was selling from the same house for around £70,000. But what they contained was nothing appetizing, unless you have been diagnosed with paraphilia listed as code 302.9 in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders : Coprophilia . Because what the label of these cans announces in Italian, English, French and German is “Artist Shit: 30 net grams, naturally preserved, produced and packaged in May 1961” . All 90 tins of this “delicacy” are the product of Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, who put them up for sale at the time for 30 grams of gold. Bearing in mind that the current price of that weight of gold is around 970 euros… there are plenty of comments. If you want to see one, you just have to go to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona . According to the official website, the artist, who died two years after creating this work, wanted to criticize the art market, which is “willing to buy everything on the condition that it be signed.” He wasn’t even wrong.

Do belly

Making major waters is, for all of us, an act of intimacy between our body and the toilet, although it has not always been this way. During the Middle Ages, everyone made them wherever they wanted. In cities like Paris, the stench that the streets gave off was unbearable and when you turned a corner you could find someone defecating . In 1589 the English court had to hang the following warning in the palace: “No one, whoever may be, before, during or after meals, whether early or late, is allowed to dirty the stairs, the corridors or the cupboards with urine or other filth”. It is not surprising that Erasmus of Rotterdam advised in 1530 that “it is impolite to greet someone while he is urinating or defecating” or that a manual of good manners from 1700 recommended that “if you pass by a person who is recovering, you should do as If you hadn’t seen it.”

The health problem was obvious. In the absence of a sewage system and with the increase in the size of cities, the amount of waste skyrocketed alarmingly. Thus, so that in the eighteenth century the shit did not literally reach the neck of Londoners, in cities like the capital of the British empire there were manual garbage collectors . They were forced to work between midnight and 5 in the morning, they moved in carts with four workers and announced their arrival by ringing a bell. If the toilet was in the back garden of the house and the only access they had was through the main door, the reason for their work had to cross the entire house. To reach the cesspools, they carried flashlights, ropes, and all the necessary equipment to lower and collect the crap euphemistically called night soil .


Interestingly, this name brings back bad memories to the older inhabitants of cities like Singapore. After World War II, the infrastructures were practically destroyed and the only way to dispose of human fecal products was through this method of manual collection. During the first half of the 20th century, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) ruled the country, the poorest men dedicated themselves to collecting the stool of their fellow citizens , which they transported in the traditional way, in two buckets placed at the ends of a stick resting on his shoulders. In Hong Kong the synonym for night soil meant “to pour fragrance into the night”.

Worst of all is that in the 21st century, in India, there are still those who are in charge of this type of “service”: they are considered untouchable and are called safai karmachari . At the beginning of this century, the government of this country, which, let us remember, has atomic bombs and nuclear technology, recognized that there were still 676,000 people collecting the shit of their neighbors . A number that has been denounced as too optimistic by different social organizations, which estimate it at 1.3 million people. Today everything remains the same.

Declare a war over bird poop

I am sure that if I tell him that there have been wars because of some feces he will raise his eyebrows in disbelief. But that’s how it is. It was the so-called War of the Pacific, which took place in South America between 1879 and 1883 and confronted the Peruvian-Bolivian alliance and Chile for control of saltpeter and guano , which is nothing more than seabird droppings and a powerful fertilizer. .

But animal poop is not only used to fertilize the soil. Sun-dried cattle feces, such as camel or bison feces, are used as fuel and base material to make the adobe that ends up covering floors and walls. Some villages even have a camel and cow dung throwing contest. And what about Kopi Luwak or civet coffee ? This infusion is made from coffee beans that have been eaten and then defecated by the common palm civet or Paradoxurus hermaphroditus , a raccoon-like animal that lives in India, southern China, and Indonesia. And in Central Asia sheep dung is used in Kumalak, a system for predicting the future.


Laporte, D. (1998) History of shit, Editorial Pre-Texts

Piñol, M. (2016) The great treatise on poop, Editorial Planeta

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