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Wonders of Baking Soda

June 4, 2013

Recently we noticed that the green walls of the back kitchen of the 1900 house had started to tint black due to the smoke and soot of the wood burning stove. As this is a 19th century problem that we don’t commonly deal with in the 21st century, we consulted a turn of the century household guide.

Page 284 of Sidney Morse’s 1908 book Household Discoveries instructed us:

To Remove Blackened Walls. – A smoked or blackened ceiling or wall may be cleaned by means of a cloth wrung out of a strong solution of baking soda and water. Or use vinegar and water. If the stain is not all removed, dissolve gum shellac in alcohol to the consistency of milk or cream and with it cover the sooty parts. Paint or whitewash over the shellac. The black will not show through.

As baking soda is something we keep on hand at the 1900 house we decided to give it a shot. What we found was that Samuel Morse’s recommendation were good ones. Using a strong tincture of baking soda, water, and elbow grease we scrubbed the black off the walls, restoring them to their green color. In a way it was like Morse invented the magic eraser, one hundred years early. The change with such a simple solution was tremendous. Check out the following picture:

The right side has been cleaned, the left side hasn't (If you couldn't tell)

The right side has been cleaned, the left side has not.

Now with the risk of sounding like an infomercial for baking soda I want to just state that this particular product has many wonderful uses. Turn of the century households knew this, and thanks to the internet and a desire for “clean living,” modern households are rediscovering the wonderful uses for baking soda. This product, developed as early as the 1790s but brought into common use in America by the 1850s, can be used in several different rooms of the house.

1. Use it as a leavening agent in the kitchen.

If you’ve ever put a volcano together as part of a school project, you have witnessed the science of chemical leavening first hand. By mixing an alkali base (baking soda) with an acid (vinegar) you create a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide. Though we don’t often bake with vinegar, the baking soda reacts with other acidic substances in batters. Examples of these include the lactic acid of dairy products (milk, buttermilk, yogurt, etc.), citric acid of fruits (lemons, oranges, etc.), and other chemicals (like cream of tartar). The production of carbon dioxide takes place at temperatures above 80° which means when heat is added the batter rises nicely.  Baking is one of the most common uses for baking soda. It makes cookies, cakes, and other items. The kitchen at the 1900 farms uses baking soda regularly. For a recipe to try out check out basic biscuits or German coffee cake.

2. For cleaning all over the house.

Like you saw above, Samuel Morse knew what he was talking about. In addition to cleaning blackened walls, his book recommends using baking soda to clean other household goods like china,  to remove paint stains from garments, or mixed with vinegar to clean cut glass. It mentions  that baking soda is recommended for cleaning steel knives, and for washing windows that are “much soiled.” Today, baking soda has many of the same uses. It takes one search on Pinterest to yield numerous results on household uses for baking soda. People today use it to freshen mattresses, couches, and carpets in conjunction with a vacuum, to remove stains and wash laundry, even to clear corrosion from batteries. Baking soda provides many benefits, not only for cleaning, but also for medicinal use.

3. Baking soda in the medicine cabinet.

Mr. Morse recommends bicarbonate of soda (an alternative name for baking soda) as a supply in a first aid kit. It mentions the use of baking soda as an antidote for acid poisonings (like sulfuric acid). “For mosquito bites, stings from gnats, wasps, bees, and spiders…baking soda dissolved in warm water is also good” (pg. 655). Indeed, baking soda seems to serve the purposes of Calamine lotion in 1900, as a strong baking soda solution is also recommended for poison ivy, oak, or sumac. When it comes to sunburns, another common summertime problem in Iowa, Mr. Morse recommends, “a compress wet with water, in which is dissolved a liberal amount of baking soda” (pg. 656), and an application of any oil such as olive oil or linseed oil. In the recipes for compounding tooth powders in 1908, bicarbonate of soda is one of several ingredients. Today, baking soda is known to brighten smiles.

4. Other uses

For many years Sodium Bicarbonate was used in fire extinguisher for B and C class fires. This concept is not new. Morse included an illustration in his book for a patent for a device that much resembles a modern fire extinguisher.

fire extinguiser

In another section of the book, Morse discusses the use of what he calls “cooking soda” to wash feathers for use. I’m thankful that in one job I don’t need to worry about as much. In case of hard water, baking soda can be used instead of salt or lime for softening or mixed with starch to press clothing flat.

Modernly, too, we use baking soda for other purposes. Some recognize the use of baking soda to temper lactic acid that causes muscle soreness in athletes, and the Mayo clinic describes baking soda as an antacid in this article.

A Historical Tidbit:

Sodium Bicarbonate (NaHCO3) is commonly known as baking soda, but the term saleratus, a derivative of the Latin term sal æratus, was a common 19th century name for the substance. Older recipes will sometimes refer to saleratus as the leavening agent in a recipe.

Church and Dwight, the company that first started producing sodium bicarbonate in New England in 1846, is still in existence today. It is the parent company to several brands one of which, not surprisingly, in Arm & Hammer.

No matter if you are scrubbing dirty walls or baking a birthday cake, baking soda may be the product for you. It can usually be found for less than a dollar at your local grocery store. Good luck trying it out.

–Erin

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