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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Regency Valet - Blacking, Boots and Buckskins

The Regency Valet: Iron mould, Boot Blacking and Cleaning Those Buckskins
Thanks in part to Mrs Rundell’s new system etc 1806;John Farley’s London Cookery and Domestic Housekeeper’s complete assistant; also credit to Two Nerdy History Girls for some of the notes on buckskin cleaning.

For his wage of around £30-£60 a year – depending on how fashionable and wealthy was his master – it was the valet’s task to see that his master went out looking his best.  This included blacking his boots, keeping his buckskins in good order, keeping his clothes well brushed and nice and making sure that his neckcloths were in good order even though it was no part of the valet’s duty to tie them.  Anyone who has read Georgette Heyer’s ‘Unknown Ajax’ cannot fail to be amused by the war between the valets Polyphant and Crimplesham; poor Polyphant, whose genius in devising and tying his master’s cravat can never be recognised whereas the shine on the boots of Crimplesham’s master is obviously the sign of a great valet as no gentleman would black his own boots.  The incident where Polyphant is accused of permitting his master to go forth with iron mould on his neckcloth emphasises the care he must take with this.
Though the laundry would deal with most of the master’s clothes, removing stains from delicate fabrics would doubtless fall to his valet. I shall be examining the removal of stains and washing various fabrics in another section on laundry matters through the ages.

Iron Mould
This is rust and is hard to get off if the iron is once permitted to get rusty.
There are 2 main methods:
  1. lemon juice and salt
  2. cream of tartar and salt

The relatively recent innovation of having a brick to heat in the fire to put into a hollow iron helped reduce soot contamination; also most big houses had iron ovens as part of the new closed stove to heat the various kinds of irons essential to keep the master and mistress looking good. Ironing the beaver with a hat iron, a circular iron, was also part of the valet’s job. 

Boot blacking
Beau Brummel’s insistence that champagne gave the best blacking was not for all.  However, few valets worth their salt would be content to stick to Bayly’s Blacking or Scheffer’s cakes for ‘making shiny liquid blacking for shoes and boots 6d each’ as the 1780 advertisement put it. 
Dubbin had been used from Medieval times to soften and waterproof leather but it did not impart a shine; it was made of natural wax, oil, soda ash and tallow.
Blacking is, generally speaking, a mix of lamp black and tallow; lamp black is literally the black soot from a lamp.  Ivory black was made by burning ivory or bone.

Below are some recipes for blacking. Note that alcohol seems to feature in the recipes even if not champagne.

1: Mrs Rundell’s receipt
Take four ounces of ivory black, three ounces of the coarsest sugar, a table spoonful of sweet oil and a pint of small beer; and mix them gradually cold.

2:John Farley’s receipt
The best blacking for shoes, is made by dissolving the improved blacking-cake in water, when i. sold by Bailey, in Cockspur Street. And the following is an inva-luable recipe for cleaning boot-tops: take half an ounce of oil of vitriol, two ounces of water, and mix gradually in a strong earthen pot; (if not mixed gradually with the water, it will heat too much and crack the pot). With this liquid wash the boot-tops, and wipe them dry. Have ready the white of one egg well beaten in the juice of a lemon, and when well mixed, add half a pint of milk. With this mixture, wash over the boot-tops : when dry, wash then, with milk and water, wipe them quite dry, and brush them with a clean hard brush.

3:1oz Gum Dragon [note: Tragacanth gum] dissolved in a quart of small beer wort [interesting he specifies the wort]; add 3 oz ivory black, mix well together, put in a dram of brandy and it is fit for use.

Cleaning those buckskins

Well I recall my brother’s assiduous care of the washleather lining of his cycling shorts in the days before lycra.  This involved a lot of talc to absorb the dirt and sweat and anything else; and the method hadn’t changed a whole lot from the middle ages when fuller’s earth was used to absorb sweat and stains.
However what happens when the buckskins get wet through in the rain and are stiff and stained white with water?  Then it’s a question of working them well with a mix of oil and tallow between the hands until they are soft and supple again and finishing them off with fuller’s earth to pick up any excess grease, and then a good brushing to bring them to a pristine condition.  This method can also be used if the leather needs washing for any reason – which is to be avoided. However if one’s master is addicted to pugilism it is not unreasonable to suppose that his opponent’s cork being drawn he might bleed freely on the said garment necessitating sponging off the blood and undertaking all this extra work.  No wonder in 1714 it cost 4/6d to have a specialist clean and mend leather trousers for an unfortunate who did not have his own valet.
For small stains there are other means of dealing with a problem; the Breech Ball or Buff Ball, aka Yellow Ball or Yellowboys.
This was a cake of compressed ochre and kaolin clay suspended in glue and soap; this was for touching up and it hid the blemish by covering it up, NOT by cleaning.


  1. Great to find this and yes, I am halfway through the Unknown Ajax, yet again!

  2. Glad you enjoyed! and it's my favourite, I have no idea how many times I have read UA, but when I'm ill, it's my go-to comforter .... all the characters are so wonderful!