Time Tested Tips for Spring Cleaning

By Emily Miranker, Projects Manager

Ah, March. That time of year when our fancy lightly turns to thoughts of … spring cleaning!

Whether your style is to pare down to your most joyful possessions à la Marie Kondo, follow the flow charts of decluttering tips that abound online, or grab the latest Martha Stewart Living off the magazine rack: spring cleaning is upon us.

Once upon a time, when spring finally came around after the dark, cold of winter, families would literally pull  everything out of their house and scour the place from top to bottom. After a long winter of heat and light from candles, coal, and oil, the dust, soot, ash, and general grunge must have been oppressive.[1] Cleaning everything off heralded both a figurative and an actual “breath of fresh air,” since it was presumably safe and comfortable to once again open windows and the door without freezing.

Our collections are a trove of tips for daily (and healthful) living, and as I prepare to whip my own home back into shape I pulled out A Collection of Choise Receipts, a beautiful compendium of recipes and how-tos from the culinary and domestic to the medical from 17th century London. I needed to consult it to solve the dilemma of the patina of dinge on my wall art that snuck in through the cracks of the window A/C unit.

Happily, Choise Receipts has just the thing:

cleaning of pictures_watermaked

“Take the Picture out of the frame, lay it flat on the ground, sprincle [sic] it with water, then sift Wood ashes and strew it upon the Picture, then pour more water upon it, then with your hand rub it very well then wash it off.”

Scrubbing ash onto the picture may sound counterintuitive, but wait. Mixing water and wood ashes like this would yield a crude form of lye (mostly potassium carbonate). Lye combined with water and fat (animal or plant) is what makes soap; the key to cleanliness since soap breaks up the chemical bonds of dirt.[2] In fact, this recipe makes a good deal of sense for spring cleaning, since at the end of winter all that burning of wood to keep warm would have yielded plenty of wood ash to be repurposed into lye or soap.

Turning our attention from the walls to the doors, here’s a handy solution to troublesome locks and fixtures:

Cleaning brass locks_watermarked

“For the cleaning of brass locks. Rub them with v[i]n[e]gar and rotten stone.”

Mix vinegar –got that– and rottenstone –what now?! Since when do stones rot? Rottenstone (sometimes called tripoli) turns out to be a finely ground, porous rock. The stone is typically a mixture of limestone and silica.[3] Weathered and softened by the leeching away of its calcium carbonate makes the rock friable – crumbly. This crumbly tendency gives rise to its name, rotten—decomposing, breaking down—stone. It is used as a polishing abrasive for metal and woodworking. Think of it as pumice for for your locks and fixtures. Vinegar is called for in this solution probably because its acidity combats the tarnishing that occurs with time and exposure to air.

Are these old-timey recipes for cleaning really effective, really worthwhile? Here’s Choise’s author’s response to that:

Approved of_watermarked

“This receipt is approved of.”

References:
[1] McNamee, G. “Spring Cleaning: Its History and Importance.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog,16 April 2008. Accessed 1/22/17.
[2] Living Naturally. “How to Use Wood Ashes in the Home and Garden.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 30 November 2017. Accessed 1/22/17.
[3] Wikipedia Contributors. “Rotten Stone.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 30 November 2017. Accessed 1/20/2017.

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