c. Elizabeth Keegin Colley

Spring Cleaning on a Flatbush Farm

This activity comes to us from the educators at Prospect Park’s Lefferts Historic House. Check out the Lefferts at Home page for more.

At the Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park, spring cleaning is an all hands on deck event where we invite the public to join us in cleaning the house to prepare it for the tens of thousands of visitors we receive each season. Wherever appropriate we like to try 19th century cleaning methods that allows guests to experience a bit of daily life in the 1800’s. 

Below you’ll find a selection of interesting cleaning techniques published in Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree (1879) as well as a glossary of some of the more curious ingredients. Please be aware, we are sharing these cleaning methods for their entertainment and educational value. We recommend you use cleaning products you know and are comfortable with in your home. If you decide to try out a 19th century cleaning technique we suggest you test it on a small area first as is best practice with any new product. 

Cleaning Concoctions of the 1800s

To Oil Floors: To one gallon boiled linseed oil add half a pound burnt sienna. The druggist who sells these articles will mix them. If economy is necessary, instead of employing a painter to put it on, dip a large woollen rag into the mixture, and with this wipe over the floor.—Mrs. S. T.”

To Wash Carpets: Shake, beat, and sweep well. Tack firmly on the floor. Mix three quarts soft, cold water with one quart beef’s gall. Wash with a flannel, rub off with a clean flannel, immediately after putting it on each strip of carpet.—Mrs. R.“

To Remove Ink from Carpets: Take up the ink with a spoon. Pour cold water on the stained spot, take up the water with a spoon, and repeat this process frequently. Then rub on a little oxalic acid and wash off immediately with cold water. Then wet with hartshorn.—Mrs. R.”

An Excellent Furniture Polish: Alcohol, three ounces; linseed oil, boiled, two ounces; oxalic acid, one drachm; gum shellac, two drachms; gum benzoin, two drachms; rosin, two drachms. Dissolve the gums in the alcohol, and then add oil and oxalic acid. Apply with a woollen cloth.—Dr. E. A. C.“

To Remove Rust from Knives or any Steel: Rub very hard with a piece of wash leather, dipped in powdered charcoal, moistened with spirits of wine. Rub off quickly, wash in hot water, and renew as may be necessary.—Mrs. K.“

To Clean Marble Slabs: Sal soda, four ounces; powdered pumice-stone, two ounces; prepared chalk, two ounces. Mix well, add sufficient water, rub well on the marble, and then wash with soap and water.—Dr. E. A. C“

For Cleaning Clothes: Castile soap, one ounce; aqua ammonia (34), a quarter-pound; sulphur ether, one ounce; glycerine, one ounce; spirits wine, one ounce. Shave the soap into thin pieces, dissolve it in two quarts rain (or any other soft water). Then add the other ingredients. Rub the soiled spots with a sponge or piece of flannel and expose to the air.—Mrs. B.“

Mildew: Moisten the mildewed spot with clear water, then rub over it a thick coating of castile soap. Scrape chalk with the soap, mixing and rubbing with the end of the finger. Then wash it off. Sometimes one coating suffices, but generally several are required.“

To Prevent Fruit Stains from being Permanent: Wet the stained spot with whiskey before sending it to wash, and there will be no sign of it when the article comes in.

Iron Rust: Salts of lemon applied to the place and exposed to the sun will remove all iron rust in linen, etc.“


Burnt Sienna – a naturally occurring mineral that contains metal oxides. Sienna has been used as a pigment for paint since the earliest cave paintings. It is naturally yellow-brown but when heated it becomes red and is then called burnt sienna. 

Beef Gall – the bile produced in the liver of cows usually aids in digestion of fats. In this application the gall is mixed with alcohol and was traditionally used to remove stains.

Oxalic Acid – a compound derived from plants. When Oxalic Acid comes in contact with iron it creates a water soluble salt allowing rust stains to wash away. In this application it is likely the ink contained iron.

Drachm – or dram is a small unit of weight used by apothecaries in the past. It equals ⅛ ounce. 

Gum Benzoin  – the resin of the balsam tree, gum benzoin has many uses including in the production of perfume and incense because of its vanilla like scent and fixative properties. Fixative means that it will keep oil from separating from the rest of the mixture which was the likely application in this recipe.

Spirits of Wine – also known as aqua vitae, is a distilled and concentrated alcohol. It was often made by distilling wine or other fruit alcohol until it was a strong solvent. Similar to rubbing alcohol today.

Lemon Salt  – now known as citric acid, today is it most commonly used to add sour flavor to food or as a preservative. It’s acidic property makes it a good mild cleaning agent. It can remove mineral deposits often caused by hard water as well as remove iron rust stains.