Ask the Past: silver polish

I've been given a silver tea set that belonged to my grandmother, and it needs a good polish. Is there something I can use that's more natural than commercial silver polish?

Well, the first thing you should know is that you shouldn't be polishing silver yourself at all. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1906) includes all of her silver polish recipes in a section headed "Recipes for Man-servant or Parlor-maid". But if your man-servant or parlor-maid doesn't have a good recipe for cleaning silver, this is what she recommends:

Wash the plate in a strong lather of common yellow soap and boiling water to remove all grease and wipe it quite dry; then mix as much hartshorn powder as will be required into a thick paste, with cold water or spirits of wine; smear this lightly over the plate with a piece of soft rag, and leave it to dry. When perfectly dry, brush it off quite clean with a soft plate-brush and polish the plate with a dry leather. If the plate be very dirty or much tarnished, spirits of wine will be found to answer better than the water for mixing the paste.

Hartshorn powder, incidentally, is another word for baker's ammonia, so hopefully you'll have that in your pantry already, and spirits of wine, if you need it, is just ethanol.

Mrs Oliver Harriman's Book of Etiquette (1942) says that you should actually have your footman clean your silver, as well as your windows, but unfortunately, she doesn't say how, so hopefully your footman already knows. She does also say in her section about a footman's uniform that "His buttons may be brass or silver." so perhaps the best thing to do is look for a footman with well-polished silver buttons, and then trust that he'll take equally good care of your tea set.

Once your footman or parlor-maid has got your silver nice and clean, here is a suggestion from the 18 May 1935 edition of the Hawera Star for keeping it that way:

Mix together slowly over the fire 6 or 8 oz. unsalted lard and 1 oz. resin. When melted and mixed take from fire and stir till cool, then use. Silverware, first well polished, then rubbed over with a little of this mixture will not show the effects; and will keep its polish and shine almost indefinitely. Its surface must be perfectly dry as well as polished before applying.

And if you're not planning to use your tea set regularly, here is some advice on storage from Aunt Daisy's Book of Handy Hints (1939)

Store silverware sprinkled with, or packed in, dry flour. Helps to keep off tarnish.

Do not use rubber bands when storing silver. The sulphur in them tarnishes.

I'm sure that will help.

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