“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
― L.P. Hartley, The Go Between

Asking questions of loved ones often leaves us with surprises. You don’t always get the answer you expect to receive. (And real surprises can end in divorce)

One such memorable conversation started with an inquiry regarding neighbors. Who lived nearby, how did you interact, any interesting recollections? This is what conversations are like when you run a historical society and your family members are not fast enough on their feet.

One of my family’s neighbors in the 1910s and 20s had a gas pump in front of their home. I believe it is still there, or it was there long enough to still be etched in my mind even if it is no longer there. My aunt recalled that she would go to this neighbor’s house and get kerosene for her Mom.

For kerosene lamps, right? I suggested.

No, for her Mom to use to do the wash.


I am not sure who was more surprised: me, because I couldn’t figure out why, or she, because she couldn’t figure out why she even said that. My poor Aunt had a bit of a shocked and embarrassed look on her face. There were no more details as to how the kerosene was used, but she vividly remembered that was the reason.

Back to our trusty friend and auxiliary mind Google – and voila! Why kerosene? It seems that back in 1840 a French maid knocked over a kerosene lamp splattering a nearby linen tablecloth. The cloth was found to be much cleaner in the splattered spot. Her employer, textile maker Jean-Baptiste Jolly explored this happy accident compared it to the previously used method of clay and ‘ammonia’ – which was derived from urine – and soon Jolly was using kerosene in dry cleaning.

Personally I am not tickled at either of these methods. Surely both would be malodorous, not to mention unsanitary. Then you have the flammability factor. Consider the use of open fires, wood stoves, whale oil or kerosene lamps at the time, to name a few. It would seem that kerosene as a cleaning agent would heighten your chances of becoming a very clean human inferno.

Perhaps this is why my aunt’s childhood was referred to as The Roaring Twenties.

Or perhaps this is why our ancestors didn’t wash their clothes terribly often. Then again, with all the smells of the time, kerosene included, maybe they didn’t think anyone would notice.

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