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.The nightmare task of days gone by was, of course, laundry. If you have ever had to wash a load of clothes by hand using soap rather than laundry detergent, you will know how big a task this was and why the usual practice was to set aside a whole day for washing – usually on Mondays when leftovers from the traditional Sunday roast could be eaten cold so nobody had to bother about cooking too much. But we still wash some things by hand today, and it’s also good to know how to deal with items that today are usually sent to the dry-cleaners but were once washed at home by hand without any trouble.
The book also contains some advice on clothing that might be worth a try.
• To keep your feet warm in winter, wear woolly socks, but have something in them to absorb sweat. Straw was recommended in the book, but a second pair of cotton socks along with the woollen ones should work.
• Never store clothing that is dirty, even only a little bit. This will develop nasty smells that will spread to everything else. The book suggests keeping a special hamper for slightly worn or dirty clothes that aren’t ready to be washed yet or are waiting to be washed, although this hamper should be where mice and cockroaches can’t get at it…
• Silk can be ironed while damp with a cool iron, ironing on the wrong side.
• If you put clothes aside to mend, make sure that you have a separate bag for socks which “being smaller than the other pieces, they are more apt to become mislaid.”
• This method is listed as “washing made easy”: dissolve half a pound of soda in 2 quarts of water, and boil half a pound of soap (shredded or grated) in 2 quarts of water together. Then mix the two liquids and let them cool and form a jelly. Wet your clothes and other things to be washed, then rub the seams and any visible dirt with soap or another stain remover, then soak them overnight. Put the clothes and a pint of the soap/soda in a copper and boil for 20 minutes. Then “rinse it in the usual way.” This was, surprisingly, recommended for colours as well as whites, and made no mention of separating out woollens or silks. Don’t use this for anything modern containing elastic.
• Satin can be washed in hand-heat soapy water, rinsed in lukewarm water and line-dried. So can silk.
• These methods are all suggested to remove ink stains from clothes (linen): (1) Dip in melted tallow. When the tallow washed out (when!), the ink will also come out. (2) Wash the stain in milk, then rinse in cold water. (3) If ink has just been spilled on a tablecloth, throw salt and pepper over it as soon as possible (preferably the salt). This works for red wine, too. (4) Rub the ink spot with a tallow candle and leave the lumps of tallow on it for 24 hours, then wash out the tallow (easier said than done). (5) Mix a bottle of cold water with 1 oz ammonium chloride with 1 oz potassium carbonate and soak the stain in this. Pumice stone was recommended to get ink stains off hands, which happens if you use fountain pens a lot.
• Three methods are suggested for cleaning kid gloves, two of which sound rather unpleasant, but the other is easy and “green”: (1) 1 C of benzine (that’s benzine with an i, not benzene with an e). Soak the gloves and rub well. Rinse in fresh benzine, squeeze out, then hang them outside to dry. The book assures us that the smell will go. (2) By far the best method that won’t leave you with a headache and your house full of noxious fumes. Put the gloves on and sponge them with skim milk, rubbing to get the stains off. Then wear them until they are dry. (3) Put one glove on. Take a saucer full of gasoline (yes, ordinary petrol, though what else they used it for back in 1891 before motor cars, I have no idea) and sponge half of this onto the glove you are wearing.
Let it dry then remove that glove and repeat for the other. The book does state that “the odour of gasoline is disagreeable” and that while you are walking around with a petrol-soaked glove, you must “avoid stoves and lamps”; the gloves should be aired thoroughly after this treatment and perfumed before use. Method 3 is not recommended!
On the topic of gloves, if you get hold of the book, read about the secret language of gloves and how a lady could send a secret message to her sweetheart with them.