Black lead and lemons

British and NZ books of advice before about 1960 were full of advice involving black lead, so it was kind of disappointing to learn that black lead didn’t actually contain lead. Black lead was the British English word for graphite, and was also the generic term for any kind of polish made from graphite (plus other materials) that you’d rub onto your cast iron stove to keep it shiny and prevent the cast iron from rusting.

Bizarre vintage ad for Rising Sun stove polish. Colour drawing of a woman brandishing a fish slice and shouting at a couple of stove polish salesman. Text: "Go away with your polish, I buy the rising sun stove polish of a regular dealer and you don't humbug me any more with paste or paint stove polish - the rising sun stove polish is the best in the world."

Unfortunately, black lead wasn’t waterproof, and it wasn’t heat-resistant, so it would eventually burn away, and would need to be reapplied regularly.

You could buy black lead polish commercially, but you could also make it yourself. Aunt Daisy’s book of Handy Hints includes the following recipe:

4 cakes blacklead, 3 tablespoons floor-wax (Quickshine or C.O. wax shine), 1 cup turpentine. Makes stove very black and shines like glass. Very clean and no dust.

Going back to 1890, Enquire Within Upon Everything offers this recipe:

Blacking for stoves may be made with half a pound of black-lead finely powdered, and (to make it stick) mix it with the whites of three eggs well beaten; then dilute it with sour beer or porter till it becomes as thin as shoe-blacking; after stirring it, set it over hot coals to simmer for twenty minutes; when cold it may be kept for use.

These days, cast iron is usually painted with a high temperature paint instead, but there’s still lots of modern advice about how to blacken wood stoves. None of it mentions lemons.

Vintage ad for x-ray stove polish. Cannot explode, it says in large letters, which is very reassuring.

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