Advice From 1891: Cleaning And Polishing Ornaments | Anyclean

updated: 18/01/2023


If you are lucky enough to get hold of either The Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge printed in the USA in 1891, or else the selection of advice and advice collected and edited from this in Remedies, Potions and Razzmatazz by Don Roberts, you are in for a treat of advice and amusement. For those who aren’t so lucky to find these books, here is a summary of some household tips from 1891.Back in those days, householders were expected to have both manners and furniture polished. To get the necessary gleam on things, here’s how our ancestors did it:

To polish mirrors:

After reminding us only to use the softest cloths and so forth because glass scratches so easily, the book recommends dusting the mirror first with a feather duster, followed by a wipe-down with “a sponge dipped in spirits” (presumably this means methylated spirits, but white spirit or even whisky and vodka could do) to remove fly-spots. After this, the mirror should be dusted with something called “powder blue” in a muslin bag. (unfortunately, the recipe for this is not given) and finally polished with an old silk cloth.

To polish wood:

This homemade polish is suitable for mahogany and walnut, plus some other unspecified woods. Melt beeswax in turpentine (the plant-sourced type, not mineral turpentine), using enough so that when it cools, it has the consistency of honey. Then use like any other polish – put it on with one cloth, then buff it off with another cloth. The book also states that this polish can be applied to wood while it is being turned on a lathe. If you want to try making this polish and are lucky enough to be able to source plant turpentine, remember that the fumes are hazardous even though it is a plant-based product, so don’t breathe it in while mixing the polish.

To polish brass:

This recipe was recommended for brass inlays in wood, but is probably good for any brass. Linseed oil should be mixed with something called Tripoli powder, and this should be rubbed onto the brass with a piece of felt cloth. A footnote helpfully informs us that Tripoli powder is a very fine powder made from siliceous limestone (chert).

To polish patent leather:

Mix half a pound of molasses or sugar, 1 oz of gum arabic (acacia gum, used as a stabiliser, with the E-number E414) and 2 pounds ivory black (animal bones burned to charcoal – still used in the sugar refining industry and in the manufacture of petroleum jelly). Boil together and cool. Rub on with a cloth and buff well when dry.

To polish tortoise-shell:

The book recommends that “Tortoise-shell combs should always be rubbed with the hand after they are removed from the hair”. While tortoise-shell is frowned on today because it exploits an endangered species, antiques are still around and you may have inherited some – now you know how to polish it.

To polish ivory:

Another substance in “naughty” category these days but still around in antiques from the days of this book. Remove any scratches with powdered pumice mixed with water. The ivory should then be polished with “prepared chalk” (recipe not given, but instinct suggests that the chalk used for pool cues might be suitable) put on with a chamois leather. To clean ivory ornaments, the book recommends rubbing them with unsalted butter and leaving them to dry in the sunshine.

To clean silver:

The advice given is extremely simple to describe, but is a bit harder to actually do. The book recommends dipping silver items (which, in those days, included most of the knives, forks and spoons) into soapy water that was near boiling. After the items come out of the hot soapy water, they should be rubbed with whiting (powdered chalk) and rinsed in fresh water. The items should be dried with chamois leather. What the book does not tell you is how to get silver items out of the near-boiling soapy water without scalding your hands. Tongs might do the trick.

Lastly, but without any recommendations to actually do it, the book gives the following advice for cleaning gold: “Dissolve a little salt ammoniac in urine; boil your soiled gold therein, and it will become clean and brilliant.” I think I will not be trying this one, but if you want to, salt ammoniac is ammonium chloride.

About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.