What are they on about?

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
David Newnham keeps it clean

L P Hartley was right. "The past is a foreign country," he wrote in The Go-Between. "They do things differently there."

Not only do they do things differently, but they do different things. I bet you haven't cleaned your picture hooks in a while. Yet in the foreign country which was 1938, people cleaned hooks like we clean cars.

You think I jest? I have the evidence - a list of household hints plucked from a book that once sold for threepence in British chemists.

Just 62 years separate the book's intended audience from ourselves. Yet in less than a lifetime these everyday, practical tips from an age before plastics and fancy cleaning agents have lost all but their curiosity value.

How do you polish linoleum? By rubbing it with linseed oil, says the book. And how do you restore freshness to gold and silver articles? By washing them in water to which ammonia has been added.

Now you might have a bottle of linseed oil stashed away somewhere. But do you keep ammonia in the kitchen? No more than you keep iodine, turpentine, and spirits of salt next to the meat safe in the sculley. But, in 1938, the stink of ammonia was everywhere.

"If you should inadvertently spill acid from a wireless accumulator upon your clothes or carpets, apply a little ammonia instantly," advises the oracle.

If ammonia rules in the pre-war kitchen cupboard, then vinegar has pride of place in the pantry. Hot vinegar will bring those rusty picture hooks up a treat. It works for curtain rings, too. Vinegar removes medicine stains from silver-plated spoons, discourages poached egg yolks from bursting and stops boiled beef tasting off. As for paint splashes on windows, wellI Here's a tip for those who insist on drawing their chair too close to the fire. "Rubbing olive oil over the paintwork will make it less likely to blister." Would that be extra virgin? Don't ask - they'll think it's you who is foreign. Just remember that the best way to freshen up tapestry coverings is to clean them with warm bran.

My guess is that they had plenty of bran in 1938 - wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string on a shelf next to the horse liniment. It's hard to be certain though, since nobody's passed that way for decades.

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