8 Awesomely Illustrated Cleaning Tricks From the Early 1900s

Cleaning tricks from the 1900s

credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

Before we were bombarded with a million miracle cleaning products that get their magic from a chaos of toxic chemicals, people relied on natural ingredients, simple science, and common sense. The following illustrated instructions come from those good old days; albeit good old days when smoking was all the rage, as these cards were included in packages of cigarettes. In the 1880s, cigarette companies began including "stiffening cards" in the paper cigarette packs to help protect the product. Not long after they began printing an encyclopedia's worth of information and trivia on the cards. Topics from cinema beauties, cycling and swimming lessons to animals and monuments of the world were covered in numbered series up to 100, a premium designed to inspire subsequent purchases. The practice died out in the 1940s, but not before countless collections of the curious cards were gathered. The ones featured here are from the Gallaher Ltd of Belfast & London "How to do it" series from the 1910s. They are as wonderful for their wholesome practicality as they are for their charming illustrations and earnest advice. Enjoy!

No. 27: How to clean bottles

Poster showing century-old cleaning technique
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

From the back of the card:

To clean the interior of bottle, a little sand and water should be well shaken inside them. This will have the effect of cleaning every part, and the bottles can then be washed out and dried.

I'm guessing this would work quite well, but then you have a bottle filled with wet sand – if you live at the beach, you're all set. For the rest of us there's the old diner trick for cleaning coffee pots which works for bottles too: Add some ice, kosher salt and a squeeze of lemon and swirl vigorously. The ice moves the salt around which helps to scour; the lemon cuts through any lingering residue. After, dump it in the sink and use the salty lemon water to give a nice scrub there, too.

No. 50: How to remove sea stains from brown shoes

Century-old cigarette advertisement shows shoe shining technique
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

Front and back of card pictured Everyone should be so lucky as to have sea stains on their shoes! But for those of us not tramping through the surf and sand wearing our brown brogues, perhaps our city boot salt stains "will be found to have disappeared" by using this method as well. (Test on an inconspicuous spot first, of course.) Note: Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is a cousin to baking soda; it's an old-school highly alkaline ingredient commonly used to as a laundry detergent booster.

No. 70: How to make a good polish

Poster showing century-old cleaning techique
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

From the back of the card:

A splendid polish can be made for pictures, mirrors, pianos, floors, etc., by mixing in a bottle equal parts of vinegar and paraffin. Cork and keep for use. A few drops of oil of lavender will give the polish a pleasant smell, and make it doubly effective in keeping away the flies.

Win win!

No. 47: How to take ink stains out of a handkerchief

Century-old poster shows a cleaning method to remove ink from cloth
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

Front and back of card pictured I'm not so sure that many people still have a fine linen handkerchief that can suffer "the misfortune to become stained with ink," and come to think of it, I'm not so sure that people even still use ink to misfortunately cause a handkerchief to become stained. But if you do happen to still employ that antique writing device known as a pen and you happen to get ink on your handkerchief, or other article of clothing, the milk trick really does work. You can soak the affected part in milk for 20 minutes and then scrub with a toothbrush until the ink is gone, then launder. Alternatively, you can soak the area in milk overnight and then wash. You can also try using straight lemon juice or a paste of lemon juice with cream of tartar for ink stains, preferably as soon as they happen, then wash in cold water.

No. 31: How to clean new boots

Shoe shining trick displayed on 1900s poster
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

From the back of the card:

New boots are sometimes very difficult to polish. A successful method is to rub the boots over with half a lemon, allow them to dry, after which they will easily polish, although occasionally it may be found necessary to repeat the application of the lemon juice.

And as for the polish itself, you don't need anything more than a banana. Alternatively, if yes you have no bananas, you can use two parts olive oil to one part lemon and polish as usual.

No. 61: To separate glass tumblers

Century-old poster featuring a useful household trick for separating glasses
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

Front and back of card pictured This one isn't about cleaning, per se, but it's related and such a good thing to know that I couldn't resist. I mean, life skill here! When two glasses that have been nesting in the cupboard find that sweet spot that makes them impossibly stuck? Well generally a bit of wriggling will do the trick; but sometimes they are really stuck, and sometimes one doesn't want to end up with handfuls of broken glass. In those cases, the 'ol expansion and contraction trick. America's Test Kitchen recommends using ice in the top glass, but frigid water might be enough; the idea is to make the top glass contract from the cold and the bottom glass to expand from the heat ... just enough to break the bond, without breaking the glass.

No. 49: How to pick up broken glass

Poster from the 1900s showing a hand cleaning up a broken bottle
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

From the back of the card:

To pick up broken glass quickly and cleanly a soft damp cloth will be found to most effective, for it takes up all the small splinters. The best plan is to use an old piece of rag that can be thrown away with the glass.

Just in case the "separating tumblers" trick didn't work ... This was obviously written before paper towels went mainstream. If you use paper towels, this is a valid job for them. If you don't use paper towels, good for you! Try using damp newspaper or even wetted magazine pages instead; if you do opt for a damp cloth, rather than tossing it after, you can simply shake it off well enough in the trash bin.

No. 33: How to clean a Mackintosh

Poster showing instructions for cleaning a raincoat
credit: George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library
  • Dirty raincoat? Rub a potato on it! I can't say I have ever tried this, have you? I do know that a raw potato dipped in baking soda is good for removing rust, thanks to the potato's oxalic acid, so perhaps there's something to this. Next time I smudge my Mackintosh I'll be sure to let you know, right after I remove the sea stains from my brown brogues.