My contribution, on historical housekeeping, to English Historical Fiction Authors this month and a reason I am grateful to be born in this century!
Ashes, Tallow and Turpentine: Coming Clean in the Regency Era
By Maria Grace
Keeping clothes has always been a challenge. Today, we can simply go to the store and buy a specialized product according stain that needs cleaning. In centuries past, the mistress of the house needed to be well versed on what home preparations could be used to keep her household fresh and clean. Some of their solutions are similar to what we use to today and some were positively stomach churning.
Plain lye formed the backbone of much of the everyday laundry cleaning arsenal and was fairly easy to obtain. Ashes from household fires were packed into a barrel with holes drilled in the bottom and lined with hay. Water was poured through the ashes and concentrated lye dripped from the holes.
The strength of the solution was critical for its cleaning power. If an egg did not float high enough in the solution it was too weak and would be poured through the ashes again. Lye that was too strong could burn skin and damage fabrics and would need to be diluted. Urine, for its ammonia content might also be added to a lye solution it improve its cleaning power.
Body linen, other garments whose colors did not need to be protected, sheets and household linens were soaked in a vat of lye prior to being boiled on laundry day. The process was called ‘bucking’ and attempted to restore the white or off white color to the laundry.
The generous use of soap was a modern advance in dealing with dirty laundry. At first it was used sparingly, only to treat stains. Later, it would be added to the main wash for cleaning.
Though soap could be purchased, what could be made at home often was, especially in areas away from larger urban areas. Soap could be made in several ways. A pail of lye could be added to about three pounds of melted animal fat and boiled all day. To avoid all that boiling and stirring, four pails of lye could be stirred into a barrel of 30 pounds of animal fat. Additional lye was added until it looked ‘right’ to the soap maker. The soap might be used while it was still soft or it might be set up—dried and hardened with warm weather and salt.
Household manuals often contained various specialized recipes for soap with different fats and additives touted as better for one use or another. Individual households would also have their own recipes handed down from mother to daughter.