Milk for Floors, Bread for Walls: 19th-Century Cleaning Tips for the Modern Era


Want to live like a Bridgerton, the upper crust British family featured in the hit Netflix series? Promenading with handsome dukes and gossiping with a queen over macarons?

Well, you probably can’t live like a 19th-century aristocrat. But you can clean like a scullery maid.

English Heritage, an organization in Swindon, England, that cares for centuries-old palaces, houses, castles and abbeys, released spring cleaning tips on Friday that would have felt familiar in the Regency and Victorian Eras.


For dusty mirrors, skip the glass cleaner and wipe them down with chamois leather.

To get your stone floors to gleam, scrub them with skim milk.

Dirty wallpaper? A piece of spongy white bread is all you need to make it look new.

“Although we may not recommend some of the more bizarre historic cleaning tips, like using a potato to clean an oil painting, housekeepers of the past were often spot on with their methods, despite relatively little scientific knowledge,” Amber Xavier-Rowe, head of collections conservation at English Heritage, said in a statement.

The suggestions by English Heritage, which has spent the winter cleaning many of its properties before they reopen on May 17, arrived just in time for spring cleaning — and amid renewed interest in using natural and nonchemical materials to clean the home.


“The old ideas are coming into their own again, aren’t they?” said Lucy Lethbridge, author of “Mind Your Manors: Tried-and-True British Household Cleaning Tips.”

People are increasingly worried that their cleaning habits may harm the environment, and they are looking for ways to avoid using plastic bottles or chemical-based products that can exacerbate asthma or cause other health problems, she said.

And, Ms. Lethbridge added, the old methods work.

During the pandemic, she said, her kitchen pipe has repeatedly become clogged. She has relied on a simple solution of baking soda, hot water and vinegar or lemon juice that she pours into the sink until “there is a great, fantastic glug.”


“It’s better than any drain cleaner I’ve ever bought,” Ms. Lethbridge said.


The methods described by English Heritage have most likely been around for centuries, but it is difficult to know when they originated because there are so few historical records of early housekeeping, according to Ruth Goodman, an author in Wales who has been researching the work and lives of servants for 30 years.

Ms. Goodman said the idea of using bread to clean wallpaper probably came about in the 1600s, when England went from using wood to coal for heating homes and businesses.

The soot made homes filthy, especially the walls. Bread would have worked as an effective sponge without damaging the paper the way water can, she said.

That kind of realization had to come from the women cleaning the house, whose creativity and resourcefulness is often overlooked by history, Ms. Goodman said.

“We’ve been somewhat bedazzled by the great men of history,” she said. Cleaning is “not widely talked about. It’s not widely researched, and yet it is the basis of survival and the basis of women’s lives and working women’s lives.”


Andrew Neborak, the owner of Luxury Cleaning NY in New York City, said he was not surprised to hear that skim milk could be used to clean stone floors. He said he had recently used a milk-based cleaning product to wash an unfinished floor in a SoHo furniture showroom. He regularly uses vinegar and lemon to wipe down countertops.

“It’s actually even better than any cleaner,” Mr. Neborak said of the mixture.

Ms. Lethbridge said that even as some spurn modern-day, chemical-based products, we should remember how natural cleaning agents would have made us smell 200 years ago.

Urine, for example, was a popular ingredient for washing clothes in the early 1800s, Ms. Lethbridge said.

“In the early 19th century,” she mused, “maybe the smell of clean was the smell of urine.”


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