Summer is in full bloom! The days are longer, and the light is brighter. But with the drapes pulled back, and sunshine illuminating the corners of every room, suddenly everything looks a little dingy. The windows could benefit from a good washing. The chandelier has lost its gleam. Ditto the furniture. And while everything outdoors smells fresh and green, everything indoors seems a bit musty.
There is a good reason why housekeepers have always dived into spring and summer cleaning frenzies, airing out clothes that have hung in closets all winter long, washing and waxing furniture, and hauling rugs outdoors and beating them mercilessly. If you’ve ever seen one of those commercials that magnify microbes a million times, you’ve learned that dust has teeth, and those voracious little motes will gnaw away at your prized possessions with merciless persistence unless you break up the party.
Most of the modern methods to renew a home’s sparkle and shine rely on ammonia for its cleaning potency. Even though it has been used since the days of the Egyptian dynasties, when it was extracted from camel dung, ammonia is terribly dangerous stuff. Poisonous if swallowed, and supremely caustic to bare skin and eyes. Even scarier than that: if ammonia is accidentally mixed with bleach, the combination will release chlorine gas that can kill in an instant!
Aside from the fact that ammonia is deadly and its fumes literally take my breath away, other harsh and hazardous commercial cleaning agents, with labels covered in usage warnings, make me nervous. What if they leave a residue that my cats pick up on their paws? Or worse, what if a child somehow accesses a container of toxic fluids? Call me old fashioned, but I’ll stick with safer methods, even though a bit more elbow grease may be required.
Surprisingly, some of the best cleaning agents are also food! The first cleaning trick I ever learned was how to remove tea stains from china. Like most Americans, my father drank coffee, but my mother, whose Italian heritage should have endowed her with the coffee gene, picked up a preference for tea from my father’s Irish-blooded sisters. The day I watched Mom magically remove nasty brown tea residue from our bone china teacups by rubbing it with a baking soda-water paste is engraved in memory.
Mother wasn’t Irish, but with the battery of natural solutions in her cleaning arsenal she was certainly “green.” Windows, venetian blinds, and the crystal chandelier were always washed with a mixture of hot water and plain white vinegar. I’ve added the techno-touch of using a pump spray bottle, which diminishes drips and eliminates the need to dismantle any light fixture.
When I was a child, clothing was almost always made of cloth woven from organic fibers. Polyester and nylon are both manmade fibers spun from coal and petroleum derivatives. Once nylon grays or yellows, it’s gray or yellow for life. Poly-blends don’t wrinkle, but they also don’t clean very well. Stains are practically impossible to remove except by dry cleaning, and that just exposes the wearer to yet another batch of chemicals. However, stains can usually be removed from linen and cotton, especially if the fabric is white. The miracle whitening agent is not harsh chlorine bleach, which can damage fibers, but lemon!
Not too long ago, every home owned a large enamel or porcelain laundry tub. In it, soiled white clothing and linen was first soaked overnight. The following day, sliced lemons were added to the pot, which was then put over heat, and the water was brought to a boil. After boiling for a while, the linens were removed, allowed to cool, wrung out, and hung on a line outdoors, where the sun finished the bleaching process.
Lemon juice will even successfully remove rust stains. Moisten the stain with water, squeeze lemon juice onto it, hold the stained area in the steam from a boiling teakettle for a few minutes, and the stain will disappear before your eyes. This may sound like some arcane alchemy formula, but it works like a charm! Another rust-removing method, though not as rapid, calls for salt. Sprinkle salt on the stain, moisten with lemon juice, and dry the item in full sun.
In researching this article, I discovered that salt and lemon can also be used to clean mildly tarnished copper and brass, which is actually a copper alloy. Cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it liberally with salt, and rub the tarnish away. Alternatively, use a heated mixture of vinegar and salt. When I told a pal about these truly strange metal-cleaning methods, she not only had already heard about them, but swore that copper also responds well to being rubbed with ketchup! She added that the ketchup will turn green as it cleans the metal and must not be left on too long or it will eat away at the metallic finish.
Products of the beehive have been used for centuries. Honey, of course, is the primary product. Aside from its value as a sweetener, pure honey has been used for soothing lotions and as a healer for wounds and sore skin for hundreds of years because its high potassium level does not allow bacteria to survive. Some of the finest beauty products are made with honey, and a lip salve composed of honey and beeswax not only heals chapped lips in a trice but tastes good too.
Several years ago, while visiting Delphi Lodge, a fabulous Edwardian fishing lodge on the far edge of the wild Connemara peninsula, I learned another valuable beeswax usage. When I commented on the soft luster of all the wood furniture and floors, the owner shared with me the secret to keeping wood clean, and more importantly, dry in a damp environment. The lodge’s wooden surfaces were always polished with beeswax, which when melted down with turpentine makes the best furniture polish. Over time, it builds up into a soft patina protecting and enhancing wood’s grain and beauty.
So this year, why not experiment with using natural ingredients for cleaning? By making ecologically sound choices, you’ll be eliminating a few hazardous chemicals from your personal environment. Not only have these homespun methods been used by generations of Irish homemakers, they’re as ‘green’ as it gets. Sláinte!
Beeswax Wood Polish
– Sloe Gin & Beeswax by Jane Newdick
Note: The turpentine called for in this mixture is EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE and has a very low flash point to flame. Follow the instructions carefully.
60 grams beeswax granules
300 milliliters pure turpentine
25 grams Ivory soap flakes
150 milliliters boiling water
6 drops lavender essential oil
In a medium-size stainless steel bowl, pour the boiling water over the soap flakes and stir briskly until the soap is completely dissolved. Set aside to cool slightly. In a double boiler, heat the water to boiling point, then lower to simmer. Place the second pot containing the beeswax and the turpentine over the simmering water and stir until the wax is melted. (You MUST use a double boiler and be very cautious; if the turpentine is heated in a single pot it WILL catch fire!) When the wax is dissolved, remove from heat. Pour the cooled soapy water into the melted wax mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour emulsified polish into a medium-size jar and cap tightly. Store in a cool place until ready to use. Stir each time before using. Beeswax polish is best used on soft woods, such as pine, and should never be used on varnished surfaces that require a fine hard wax. When using beeswax cream, apply sparingly, then spread and buff with a soft cloth. The more you buff, the better the shine.
Baking Soda Uses
For centuries, baking soda, a naturally occurring mineral known as “trona” (sodium sesquicarbonate), was once the most common leavening agent used in baking bread, with Irish soda bread being the best known example still made today. This most useful mineral has many other applications, some of which are included here.
- To absorb refrigerator odors: Keep one open box of baking soda in the refrigerator and one in the freezer.
- To clean bathroom and kitchen tile and counters: Mix baking soda with water to make a paste and apply with a damp sponge.
- To remove odors from laundry: Add one-half cup baking soda to the wash cycle.
- To keep drains smelling fresh: Put a few tablespoons of baking soda down the drain and flush with several cups of boiling water.
- To clean and deodorize the inside of a microwave oven: Mix three tablespoons of baking soda with one cup water in a microwave safe container. Boil in the microwave for four minutes, then remove and wipe down the interior surfaces with a damp cloth.
- To remove burned on food from stainless steel pots: fill the pot with water, add several tablespoons of baking soda and one lemon cut in quarters. Boil briskly for 15 minutes, pour off water, and scour.