The importance of thorough hand washing and personal hygiene has never been more prominent in the national psyche than it is today as we battle the Coronavirus pandemic, but cleanliness was important to Victorians too and there were a huge number of odd Victorian cleaning hacks.
They needed them, because back in Queen Victoria’s day there wasn’t the variety of soaps, lotions, shampoos, gels and detergents that we have at our disposal today. Victorian housekeepers had to rely on things like stale urine, eggshell and vinegar for their daily cleaning routines.
Carbolic soap was a staple item in many posh and poor Victorian homes, as well as in Victorian schools, hospitals and places of work, right up until the mid 20th century. In some parts of the world it’s still in use today.
The soap has a distinctive, some say unpleasant, smell, as it contains the disinfectant phenol or carbolic acid. It was acquired at the hardware store and bought in chunks cut off a large green or orange block and wrapped in newspaper.
Carbolic was used for everything from personal hygiene to household cleaning. It was used for the weekly bath in an iron tub in front of the fire, for hair washing and, along with a damp cloth, just to wash face and hands in a basin in the bedroom on a daily basis
It was also used for household chores such as laundering clothes and cleaning out chamber pots in the morning.
A whole variety of other substances would have been used in Victorian cleaning hacks to keep the rest of the house ship shape and Bristol fashion.
Baking soda was used with water for cleaning dishes; Vinegar and salt was used to clean brass and copper; White vinegar was used to clean windows and they were then buffed to a sparkle with rolled-up newspaper; Eggshells were crushed and mixed with lemon and were used as a scourer to clean pots and saucepans; Stale urine was used as a degreaser for heavy materials such as wool and carpets.
The Victorians had all sorts of tricks for cleaning different items. Here are eight more Victorian cleaning hacks.
Ovens: Baking soda was used to remove grease. They were first sprayed with water and then coated with a layer of soda before being covered with more water. Overnight, the soda would absorb the grease which was then scrubbed off with carbolic soap.
Knives and iron utensils: Strong abrasives such as bath brick and emery powder (used today on nail files) was used for cleaning knives, spatulas, serving spoons and the like.
Windows: As well as white vinegar and newspapers, cold, weak tea which has been left for several days also makes a good window cleaner in Victorian times.
Floors: Many floors in poorer Victorian homes were oilcloth which could be swept with a brush. Before sweeping, it was common practice to sprinkle damp tea leaves on the floor to “lay the dust”.
Rugs: Tea leaves were squeezed until almost dry and then sprinkled on rugs before they were beaten with a carpet brush. In good weather, rugs were hung out on washing lines and beaten and in winter they would be dragged across the snow to remove the top layer of dirt.
Bed bug removal: An easy recipe for bed bug poison involved beating four egg whites with an ounce of quicksilver and applying to the mattress with a brush.
Ant removal: The Victorians left strips of cucumber around the area where the ants were seen – and then removed and disposed of the ant-covered cucumber.
Fly removal: A plate of pepper, sugar and cream was left in the worst-affected room (usually the kitchen) to attract flies.
To find out more about the Victorian lifestyle, download the Adrian Flux Victorian Homes ebook for free. It’s full of tips on how to create a Victorian style house — even if you live in a new-build home — and advice on where to source original Victorian and reproduction fixtures, fittings, furniture, accessories and art.