Old-fashioned stain removal methods | Anyclean

updated: 23/10/2023

Stains in the wash are nothing new.  In fact, if you ever look at a book of old-fashioned remedies for stain removal, they seemed to have more things to spill on clothes, tablecloths and carpets in the old days than they do now – ink, for example, was spilled more frequently in those days before ballpoint pens became standard.

Some of these old-fashioned stain removal methods call for obscure – or positively scary – treatments, but other methods are kind and gentle and well worth a try.  Here’s a selection of some of the more pleasant methods using easily obtainable methods.

Just as a brief aside, it’ s interesting to note that the heroines in some old European folk tales have to wash stains from garments to win their prince out of the hands of a witch or troll – the feminine equivalent of slaying a dragon, maybe?

Wine stains can be removed from a tablecloth by dipping the spots in question into boiling milk.  Presumably, this is for old, dry stains, as the usual method of stopping a cloth staining if you spill red wine on it is to sprinkle salt in quantity on the stain, or else slosh the spill of red wine with white wine.

Stains from rust in cloth can be removed with a solution of citric acid or tartaric acid.  Or else just rub the stain with lemon juice and salt and put it in the sun so the combination of lemon juice and sunlight can do the job of lightening the stain.

Boiling water can be poured onto a tablecloth or any other item that can handle it (i.e. not silk, synthetics or anything containing elastic) to remove coffee stains.  This also is supposed to work for tea stains and fruit juice stains.  Do this before putting the clothes in the wash.

Ink stains (because we all use fountain pens occasionally, and biros left in pockets can leak) should be dabbed with turpentine and this should be left to work on the stain before popping the item in the wash.  The other method that is suggested in old books is to drip melted tallow onto the ink spill with the advice that when the tallow washes out, the ink will wash out with it.  The book does not, unfortunately, say how to remove the tallow!

A number of remedies are suggested for getting tar stains out of clothes.  Butter is supposed to be the best method, but another suggestion is liquorice powder mixed with essential oil of aniseed (no guarantees here, but the wash will smell lovely afterwards).  From personal experience, kerosene is probably the best thing to get tar/bitumen off.  Bitumen is often “cut back” with kerosene before being applied to the road, and is soluble in kerosene.  It stinks, but the smell and the stain will wash out without much bother.

Hartshorn appears in many old pieces of advice for stain removal.  It is used in solution to remove greasy stains from the necks of coat collars, wine stains on coloured items and any stain from acid.  Hartshorn is a form of ammonia, with “spirits of hartshorn” being ordinary household ammonia, and “salt of hartshorn” being either ammonium chloride or ammonium carbonate.

One of the more alarming suggestions given for removing ink stains from the hands was to put a few drops of sulphuric acid in water and soak your hands in this, with the only warning being to avoid getting the acid on your clothes.  A much gentler alternative was to use cream of tartar and powdered sorrel leaved (sorrel being a source of oxalic acid).  Pumice soap is also suggested for getting ink off hands – this soap is often used by manual labourers, and you can make your own by grating and melting ordinary soap, then adding crushed pumice stone to the melted mix before pouring the goop into a mould and leaving it to set.

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.