|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
ASHING linen with ashes or lye is one of the most
important operations of housekeeping.
In a large wooden
tub the soiled linen is arranged with some care, on it
is strewn a layer of wood-ashes, and over the whole is
poured a quantity of hot water. This water, carrying
with it the active constituents of the ashes, filters
through the linen and removes the stains, running out
continually in a small stream through an opening left
in the bottom of the tub and collecting in a bucket
from which it is drawn and replaced on the fire, to be
poured over the ashes again when it is hot. The whole
day is spent at this work. From morning to night always
the same boiling water passes through the contents of
the tub from top to bottom, cooling off on the way,
running out, and returning to the fire to begin the
same journey over again.
"Washing with the help of wood-ashes is much more
effective than washing with hot water alone. The part
played by the ashes is what we will now consider, and
this connection let us have recourse to a simple
"We drop a few handfuls of ashes into a pot of water
and set it to boil. After boiling a little while
 we leave the contents to cool off. The ashes settle at
the bottom and the water above becomes clear. Well, we
shall detect in this liquid a peculiar odor in all
respects like that which comes from the washtub; and we
shall also find that it has an acrid, almost burning
taste. This smell of lye and this acrid flavor were not
in the water to begin with; they come from the ashes
which have imparted a certain property not in the water
"Ashes must therefore be composed of at least two
elements differing from each other. The more abundant
of these two cannot dissolve in water, but gathers in a
mass at the bottom, forming an earthy layer; the other,
on the contrary, constituting only a very small part of
the whole, dissolves easily in water and gives to it
its own peculiar properties, especially its odor and
acridness. If, in order to make ourselves better
acquainted with it, we wish to obtain by itself the
part yielded by the ashes, nothing could be easier. All
that is necessary is to put the clear liquid containing
the solution in a vessel on the fire and heat it until
all the water has evaporated. There will remain a very
small amount of whitish matter looking a little like
kitchen salt. But it is not kitchen salt, far from it;
it is quickly recognized by its taste, which is
unbearable. Put a little of this whitish powder on your
tongue and you will instantly feel a prickly and
painful sensation as if from a burn. The part touched
would indeed be burned to the quick, just as if it had
been seared with a red-hot iron, if the powder first
underwent a certain preparation which I will not enter
into now. The skin
 of the hand, although much less sensitive, is pained by
prolonged contact with this harsh substance, which
gnaws the skin and makes it crack and bleed. Wool,
silk, feathers, hair, horn, leather, and almost
everything of animal origin yield to its corrosive
action and are at last reduced to a pulpy paste. Such
is the active element in ashes, the element in fact
that gives lye its drastic properties. It is called
"Then washing with ashes produces its effect by means
of the potash which the water dissolves and carries off
through the layer of ashes?" This from Marie.
"That is it, exactly."
"Potash, which bites the tip of the tongue when one
tastes it, and the skin of the fingers on handling it,
also, you say, quickly destroys wool, silk, leather and
many other things of animal origin. Then, woolen and
silk goods should not be washed with ashes: the potash
in the ashes would injure them."
"They would, in the end, go all to pieces in the wash."
"Hemp, cotton, and flax," continued Marie, "must be
very tough not to be injured in a liquid capable of
reducing wool to a pulp."
"I have already told you that textiles of those
materials are endowed with an exceptional and admirable
resistance which increases their value a hundredfold.
Here you have a conclusive proof. A thick woolen stuff
would come from the lye-wash all a sticky paste; a
frail cotton fabric would emerge intact."
 "Washerwomen's hands are all cracked," observed Claire.
"I have seen some of these poor women with the skin
worn off their fingers. It must be the potash from the
lye that makes these wounds?"
"It is the potash. It eats into the hands as it would
into a woolen stocking."
"Why, then," asked Emile, "do they put ashes in the
wash-tub when this frightful drug, potash, destroys
woolen things and tortures the washerwomen by eating
into their hands? Why do they not simply use hot
"That is exactly the point we are coming to. To get rid
of an oil or grease spot what would you do, my dear
child? Would you simply use water, hot or cold?"
"Certainly not. I know very well that water alone, even
if boiling hot, would not take out the grease. I should
"Right. Well now, you must understand that if soap is
good to take out grease spots it is just because it
contains potash, as I will explain to you presently in
detail. One more question: to wash dishes that are very
dirty, very greasy, is hot water sufficient?"
"No; I think in that case ashes are boiled in the
water, and with their help the grease comes off all
"Your answer is correct. Hot water alone cannot remove
the grease, but hot water together with ashes does the
work very well. In this case again the effect produced
by the ashes is due to the potash
 they contain. This substance, in short, this potash
that Emile calls a frightful drug, possesses a property
very useful in housekeeping; it is the property of
dissolving greasy substances of whatever sort they may
be, whether oil, lard, suet, or tallow, and making it
possible for them to be carried off by water. Try to
take out with water alone the oil spot that soils a
piece of linen: all your patience, all your efforts,
will fail; the spot will remain afterward what it was
before, and the water will have accomplished nothing.
But if we first dissolve a pinch of potash in the water
and then use it for washing, the spot will disappear
without any trouble. To sum up, potash dissolves greasy
substances and consequently gives water the power to
take out spots produced by those substances.
"Now, more than half the stains on soiled linen belong
to this class: they are grease spots. Prolonged contact
with the human body leaves our garments full or
impurities; little accidents at table soil the
table-cloths and napkins with oil and grease; kitchen
service accounts for all sorts of greasy deposits on
kitchen towels. To wash out these impurities on which
water has no effect we are compelled to invoke the aid
of potash, which is found in the ashes that lie ready
to hand on the hearth. Ashes, then, play an
indispensable part in the work of the laundry; with
their energetic assistance hot water is able to efface
not only all grease spots, but also countless other
stains that mere washing would not always remove.
"The ashes used are those that come either
di-  rectly from wood or from wood that has been converted into
charcoal. The best are those from bakers' ovens, on
account of their larger proportion of potash. The dense
wood of the trunk and larger branches of a tree contain
less potash than the small branches and the leaves.
Hence the fuel used for heating ovens, namely bundles
of fagots, yields better ashes than we commonly find on
our hearths. Finally let me add that coal-ashes are
absolutely valueless and would even be injurious."
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