Do the low-cost cleaning tips of yesteryear still cut it today?

Do the low-cost cleaning tips of yesteryear still cut it today?

Published in The Guardian

My late mother-in-law, Lyn, was not a traditional 1950s housewife. Born in 1928, she didn’t marry until the ancient (for the time) age of 29. Lyn was more likely to be out on her bike than scrubbing the front step, so I was surprised to find several pages of housework tips in the back of her handwritten recipe books.

A young adult through years of rationing, Lyn was always frugal. Could her hints help me spring-clean affordably and sustainably in 2023?

As with food and drink and other basics, the price of cleaning products has risen sharply in recent months, and only a few days ago, Unilever – the firm behind household cleaning and hygiene brands such as Cif and Domestos – warned that what we pay for these sorts of items will continue going up this year.

The cost of living crisis has spurred a wave of interest in simple cleaning hacks that can help people save money, so I decided to give Lyn’s a spin.

I started with her white vinegar-based tips.

It was with some trepidation that I took her advice to “pour boiling vinegar around the bath to remove hard water or dripping tap stains”.

Isabelle’s late mother-in-law, Lyn,
Isabelle’s late mother-in-law, Lyn, wrote several pages of housework tips in the back of her handwritten recipe books. Photograph: Isabelle Davies

The vinegar bubbling on the hob stank but I boiled it in a well-ventilated area and was careful not to inhale the fumes.

I used the steaming liquid around the bath, applied it to yellow stains between the bathroom floor tiles, and filled a very stained white porcelain oil burner with a good amount.

I kind of wanted it not to work – steaming pans of acidic liquid and the clumsy are a recipe for disaster – but it did. A sparkling bath, stain-free floor and an oil burner that looks good as new.

And the bathroom didn’t smell like a chippy, as I’d feared – the vinegar stink dissipates quickly.

Not wanting to waste the remaining hot vinegar, I next tested Lyn’s tip “[to] remove paint from windows with hot vinegar and a razor blade”.

It worked a treat: the vinegar softened but didn’t dissolve the paint, so it came off in one piece on the blade.

I mixed the last of the vinegar with water to try two more tips: cleaning windows and ridding shoes of salt marks.

Lyn was right: “A little vinegar in water makes glass sparkle.” Whether it “helps KEEP AWAY FLIES” (she really hated them), we will have to wait and see.

As I live by the sea and love to walk on the beach at low tide in ill-chosen footwear, I did as Lyn instructed with a pair of salt-stained boots: “Rub in half vinegar, half water then dry and brush.”

The boots now look presentable, although there’s nothing to be done about the watermarks besides learning not to splash in rock pools in leather.

“Lavatories: make paste of borax and lemon juice to remove stains or rings in pan,” was another successful tip.

Borax was banned in the UK some years ago, so I used bicarbonate of soda (£1.19 for 500g from the Savers website) instead.

While I had to get more hands-on with the paste than you do with a bottle of bleach and a toilet brush, the toilet smelled good and sparkled afterwards, although it didn’t really work on the plastic seat.

You can remove rust from cake tins by using Lyn’s tip to “rub with cut raw potato in scouring powder”. I made a green scouring powder out of lemon peel (dried out and ground to a fine powder in a coffee grinder), salt and bicarbonate of soda, and the potato and powder combo did remove the rust.

Lyn’s advice for cleaning carpets to “sprinkle generously with oatmeal, salt or cornflour, leave for half an hour then vacuum” was challenged with a dog sick stain left by a friend’s pooch.

Isabelle Davies tries out her late mother-in-laws white vinegar cleaning tip on the bath.
Isabelle Davies tries out her late mother-in-laws white vinegar cleaning tip on the bath. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

The oatmeal made no difference, the salt did better but the cornflour won, definitely lightening the stain and a money-saver, too, as I already had cornflour in the cupboard.

But here, Lyn’s good advice ran out. My burnt pan was not rescued by following her advice to “fill with a strong sol’n [sic] of salt water, leave overnight, bring slowly to the boil”.

Nor did hot tea remove the marks on a mahogany bedside table, and I decided not to try Lyn’s other suggestion of hot beer, preferring to drink it.

I was hopeful that one of her tips could rescue my tarnished silver jewellery but rubbing it with used lemon halves, wiping with a warm, damp cloth and polishing with a soft, dry one was messy and made little difference.

I struggled to test Lyn’s intriguing suggestion to clean grubby playing cards with bread. Not even a friend with three young kids could provide me with visibly dirty playing cards. What had Lyn done to hers to make them so grimy?

And Lyn’s advice that “dirt can be removed [from wallpaper] with stale bread” just resulted in crumbs on the skirting board.

Bread, playing cards and Lyn’s handwritten cleaning tips
Lyn suggested cleaning grubby playing cards with bread. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

I’d love to know how many of these tips Lyn used herself. I’ll definitely use vinegar on limescale again, and the lemon bicarb paste for the toilet.

Armed with the knowledge of how to clean salt from leather, I’ll also carry on wearing inappropriate footwear to the beach at low tide with her son. We’ll remember Lyn as we clean the sea stains from our shoes.