Ask the Past: Floor cleaning

Do you have any suggestions for cleaning old floorboards? They're not stained, just dusty, scratched, somewhat dirty, and perhaps in need of a polish.

Most books of household management are remarkably silent on the subject of how to clean a floor, probably on the assumption that either your mother would teach you the approved way well before you went out into a house of your own, or that you'd have plenty of servants to take care of trivial things like that for you. However, The School Custodian's Housekeeping Handbook (1948) has a whole chapter on the subject, and it turns out the correct way to clean a floor was with a mop and a bucket of soapy water. Preparation is important, though:

Before mopping, sweep the floor and with a putty knife remove chewing gum or other foreign matter adhering to the surface.

The most efficient way to clean a floor, though, was with a vacuum cleaner. The Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia describes several types, both electric and manual, which "consists of a system of double bellows, actuated by a long lever, to which is attached a flexible hose having the usual form of splayed nozzle at the end." They note that "one person can operate the machine, one hand working the bellows while the other guides the nozzle, but better results are obtained by the combined efforts of two persons. By this means much greater effort can be applied to the bellows with a consequent increase of suction."

Two women operating a manual vacuum cleaner. One is pushing around the hose while the other operates the bellows

As far as polishing goes, there are all sorts of floor polishes out there, and they all claim to be very good, so we need to consider their other claims in order to choose the best one. The Housewife's Handbook recommends this one as a very economical choice:

Melt down any odd candle ends which are too small for burning. When the wax is quite liquid, remove bits of wick, and add turpentine in equal proportion to the melted candle grease. Warm slightly before using.

If you're more interested in longevity than economy, try this recipe from 500 Household Hints by 500 Housewives:

Mix together in a bottle 1/4 lb of shellac and 1/2 pint of methylated spirit. Let the mixture stand for twenty-four hours, then paint over the floor with it using a flat brush. No more polishing will be needed for three or four months, when another coat of shellac must be given.

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