featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Donis Casey is the author of the award-winning Alafair Tucker Mystery series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children. The series is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Today Donis stops by to tell us a bit about how women cleaned their homes back before all those cleaning products that now line the supermarket shelves were available. Want to save money? Give some of these a try. Learn more about Donis and her books at her website.

Keeping It Clean
Imagine this:

It’s 1915 and you are a forty-year-old married woman who lives on a farm in rural eastern Oklahoma, in a one thousand square foot house with two bedrooms. You have ten children, ranging in age from two to twenty-four, to feed, clothe, and educate, not to mention animals and crops to care for and very little money.

In the spring and summer, and most of the autumn, every unscreened window and door in the house is open, and the husband and kids and their dogs and whatever other wildlife that take a notion, troop in and out at will.

There is no such thing as a supermarket, and even if there were, there is no Lemon Pledge, Tide laundry detergent, Mop ‘n’ Glo, Mr. Clean, Tilex, or Shout--or vacuum cleaners. Not that you could use one since you have no electricity, or indoor plumbing for that matter.

How on earth do you keep things clean, sanitary, and pest-free?

This is the fight that my sleuth, Alafair Tucker, wages every day of her life. It wasn’t so long ago that housekeeping was a full-time profession and required years of training and immense skill, not just in dusting, scrubbing, and sweeping, but in making your own cleaning products from scratch and knowing just when and how to use them.
My own grandparents lived on a subsistence farm in Oklahoma when I was growing up. I witnessed my grandmother washing clothes in an iron kettle over a fire in her back yard. She’d stir the clothes and linens around in the boiling cauldron with a sawed-off broom handle, transfer them to a tub of clean rinse-water, then carefully wring them out to hang on the line or drape over bushes. After she was done, she used the wash water to scrub down the back porch.

Until I began writing about the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other details of farm life, it didn’t occur to me to wonder what she used for detergent, or starch, or bleach. In fact, she made her own soap. She had a contraption called a “leach” made of boards with slits in the bottom that she filled with slaked lime, wood ash, and boiling water. The resulting liquid that dripped through the slits into a tub was lye. She used straight lye in water to scrub down the outhouse twice a day. She boiled up a portion of the lye water with fat and washing soda, which hardened and made soap. She shaved bits of the lye soap into the laundry tub to wash her clothes. 

I do a lot of traditional research. But many of the details of Alafair’s life on the farm, such as using kerosene-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, I learned from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it. I know how to do laundry in an iron kettle, how to make household cleaning products, how to grow and put up vegetables, and how to slaughter a hog and preserve every last bit of the carcass. Not that I need to, thank goodness, but I know how it’s done.

Aside from my own memory and the memories of many of my older relatives, much of my information comes from reprints of the original books and pamphlets on housewifery that were rife in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. My two favorite references are a 1983 reprint of The Original White House Cookbook, first published in 1887, and a gorgeous copy of Housekeeping in Old Virginia,1879, which was given to me by Margaret Maron, whose country background is similar to mine.

Before the dawn of Dawn and other commercially made cleaning products, here is what every well-equipped American housewife had in her larder—

~A bottle of liquid ammonia. A few drops in water could wash windows, clean silver, get the grease off dishes, whiten the laundry, wash the walls, and remove stains.

~A box of powdered alum. Dissolved in water and applied boiling hot to bedsteads, cracks and crevices in floors and walls, alum would repel any bug you’d like to name.

~Borax powder, which is a great cleaner, but also softens laundry, repels insects, and you can use it to wash your hair.

~A big jug of vinegar with the “mother” (the lees floating at the bottom of the jar), for cleaning and disinfecting as well as adding a spark to a dish of turnip greens. My grandmother would scrub down all the surfaces in her house with hot vinegar when there was sickness in the family.

~A bottle of turpentine. Our foremothers used turpentine for things that would now be considered shocking and dangerous, such as medicine for a sore throat or to clean wounds. But it was also useful as an ingredient in cleansers. Mix a little turpentine oil with lampblack and polish your shoes. A cupful in a tub of cold water sets dark-colored dyes in clothing. Rub down your bedsteads with turpentine every spring to repel bedbugs. Just don’t smoke in bed afterwards.

I do test some of these cleaning products before I write about them, if I can obtain the ingredients and don’t think I’ll poison myself. One very common recipe I’ve come across is for a furniture cleaner. It consists of one part linseed oil, one part vinegar, and one part turpentine. I have an ancient mahogany side table, worse for wear, that I inherited from my mother. It’s all scratched up from many years in homes with kids, so I decided that it couldn’t be hurt much more if I used it to experiment with the homemade furniture cleaner. I didn’t have any turpentine in the house and I probably wouldn’t have used it if I had. So I just mixed up a little oil and vinegar and gave the table a good rub. It wasn’t a miracle, but to my amazement, the table looks much better than it does when I polish it with Pledge. And I had enough furniture cleaner left over to dress a salad.

Hell With the Lid Blown Off
In the summer of 1916, a big twister brings destruction to the land around Boynton, OK.  Alafair Tucker’s family and neighbors are not spared the ruin and grief spread by the storm.  But no one is going to mourn for Jubal Beldon, who made it his business to know the ugly secrets of everyone in town. It doesn’t matter if Jubal’s insinuations are true or not. In a small town like Boynton, rumor is as damaging as fact.

But as Mr. Lee the undertaker does his grim duty for the storm victims, he discovers that even in death Jubal isn’t going to leave his neighbors in peace.  He was already dead when the tornado carried his body to the middle of a fallow field. Had he died in an accident or had he been murdered by someone whose secret he had threatened to expose? There are dozens of people who would have been happy to do the deed, including members of Jubal’s own family.

As Sheriff Scott Tucker and his deputy Trenton Calder look into the circumstances surrounding Jubal’s demise, it begins to look like the prime suspect may be someone very dear to the widow Beckie MacKenzie, the beloved music teacher and mentor of Alafair’s daughter Ruth.  Ruth fears that the secrets exposed by the investigation are going to cause more damage to her friend’s life than the tornado. Alafair has her own suspicions about how Jubal Beldon came to die, and the reason may hit very close to home.

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Susan Oleksiw said...

That's a great description of what we've lost and how easy our lives have become. My parents and great grandparents had farms, and when my parents moved my mother brought all the canning with them. By the way, vinegar is making a comeback as an all-purpose cleaner (mixed with water, etc.).

Cynthia said...

Excellent blog post. My grandparents probably did the same but they're not around to ask any more. I remember my Missouri grandmother had an old wringer washer but no dryer. The clothesline was the dryer and I miss those, sheets smell better when dried on the line. I make my own soap, as a hobby but it's dangerous stuff. One doesn't want to mess with lye.

Anonymous said...

Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?

you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is magnificent, as well as the content!

my web page: same hair style


Thanks, Anonymous. The blog has been around since 2010. You might enjoy checking out some of the older posts.

Donis Casey said...

Susan, since I started this series, I've discovered that our foremothers had quite a few clever tricks that are a lot easier and cheaper than "storeboughten" products. I actually use vinegar a lot, and baking soda, too. Cynthia, you are right about lye. That stuff will eat your skin right off unless it's incredibly diluted.

Lani said...

Farm girl here too! I grew up making our own soap too, etc. However, what always amazed me was how my grandmother could skin apples and potatoes with a knife sharped to an inch stub. The skins would be thinner than what I could do with a professional grade peeler. I wish I had that talent.

Kimberly said...

I took a soap making class once and wanted to do it on my own. I never did. I'm always amazed what our ancestors did everyday.

Donis Casey said...

Lani, you know what they say about how to get to Carnegie Hall--practise, practise, practise. I've seen my grandmother whip up a full meal for a dozen in half an hour--from scratch! Her hands moved so fast you could hardly see them. You just do it 3 times a day every day and you become expert. Kimberly, my sister tried to make homemade soap once. She did it, but told me that it was so labor intensive that she'd rather remain dirty.

Sara Hoskinson Frommer said...

These details are one of the many reasons I love the Alafair books. I remember the house my mother grew up in, because my cousins lived in it when I was growing up. Into the 1950s they still had to pump water, and the water at the kitchen sink pump wasn't safe to drink--you had to go outside to another well for that.

Clothes hung outside not only save the environment, but they smell so good! If nothing else, hang your sheets and nightclothes on the line if you have a choice--you'll be glad you did.

Angela Adams said...

Thanks for the post!

Janis Susan May said...

Donis, my grandmother married in 1910. She and all her family lived on farms in North Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border (about 20 miles east of Sherman, if you know where that is). I love the Alafair series (and this blog post) because it's like listening to her stories of her childhood and young married life. So much of what you describe was common during my young years. There was a huge tornado in Texas about the same time as the one in your book - though I think it was 1918, not 16, but I could be wrong. My mother was a girl then and her descriptions of it terrified me for years. I own a delicate dresser that was blown some 12-15 miles by the storm. It has the original four foot high mirror and delicate wood horns that hold it, all undamaged. When it was found in a cotton field, the only damage to the piece was a cracked back leg. Tales of that tornado still survive in our family. Please keep writing about Alafair. Our current generation can learn so much from her. PS - I also own both those books, the Housekeeping in Old Virginia one having come from a book club back in the 70s.

Christine Keleny said...

Thanks for the interesting post. Until probably 4 years ago my mom still made lye soap. She was a depression baby too.
I'm going to check out your books too. Sound interesting!

Donis Casey said...

Fabulous tornado story, Janis. I have heard so many horrifying stories about what a tornado can do that I couldn't possibly have used them all in the book. Christine, I hope you do drop in on Alafair and the folks.

Pat T. said...

This was a really interesting blog, Donis.
My maternal grandparents were farmers in far northern New Hampshire in the early part of the 20th century, and I can vividly remember the wood stove in the kitchen, and clothes on bushes and also hung up on the clothesline outside to dry.
Don't remember the method of washing, but bleach featured prominently, and everyone wore clothes for days and days before washing them!