Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cleaning Up with Fuller's Earth

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"But Money, Wife, is the true Fuller's Earth for Reputations; there is not a Spot or a Stain but what it can take out. A rich Rogue now-a-days is fit Company for any Gentleman; and the World, my Dear, hath not such a Contempt for Roguery as you imagine."
from The Beggar's Opera 
      by John Gay, 1728

Susan reports:

I'd heard that line from the famous 18th c. ballad opera many times (yes, in true, shameless, NHG fashion, I like The Beggar's Opera the way my daughter likes High School Musical), but I hadn't really given much thought to what exactly fuller's earth might be.  

Once again, the ladies in the milliner's shop of Colonial Williamsburg came to my enlightening rescue.  That grey-green powder is fuller's earth, and a marvelous substance it is, too.  It's a clay-like substance mined from the earth (you don't make it; you dig it), and in the past it was much used as an all-purpose dry-cleaning agent.  It can lift out that greasy gravy spot on your lovely new waistcoat, and it can remove the mustiness from your woolen cloak after a summer in a wardrobe – which is why it was found in the shop of a mantua-maker or tailor.

It's called fuller's earth after fulling, an 18th c. trade that's mostly forgotten today.  Fulling was one of the final steps in processing woolen cloth.  A fuller rubbed a mixture of fuller's earth and water into the cloth to remove excess lanolin and other sheepish impurities that might remain, as well as fluffing and brushing the fabric's surface to finish it.  

But I also learned that fuller's earth is still very much in use today.  In demand as a "green" cleaning substance, it's also used by the military to help decontaminate uniforms affected in chemical warfare.  It's an ingredient with many applications, from medicine and engineering to movie special effects. More humbly, it's used in kitty litter and dry shampoo.

And once again, what's old is new....


nightsmusic said...

If it takes out stains, I'm all for it :)

So, did you buy any to bring home? And if so, how did it work for you?

It often amazes me how, for all our technology, all our "advancements", it's often still the simple things from times past that work best.

Loretta Chase said...

In the section on valets in The Complete Servants, Fuller's Earth comes up repeatedly in the various recipes (receipts) for cleaning. Among other things, the valet would prepare "portable balls" for scouring. IOW, he'd mix up a batch of the cleaning compound, and roll it into small balls, which he'd keep in a box, to apply as needed to various kinds of dirt and stains. Fuller's Earth is widely available today online.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It wasn't for sale, Theo. That little bottle was just one more of the amazing little things they have tucked beneath the counter in the shop. Ask, and ye shall be enlightened *g*

So I have no first-hand experience as to the efficacy of fuller's earth. But thank you, Loretta, for your additional insight -- and the suggestion to look for it online.

Yuki said...

Fullers earth is also a natural solution for controlling acne and oily skin. Here is a link to purchase:

Jen said...

We use it in my office as material in poultices to remove stains from buildings when we restore them. I had no idea it could be used to remove stains from other things as well!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Removing stains from faces AND buildings: truly this stuff does work miracles!

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