These days, when we tend to buy everything that we need rather than make it for ourselves, it is easy to forget how many small, independent manufactories of household necessities there must have been in the 1660s in every great estate, medium town and small village, all worked by local people whose designs, recipes and methods had been refined over generations.
Household Polish was such a thing, to clean and brighten the woodwork in a room – perhaps the furniture, perhaps the wainscotting panels which lined many homes to protect their walls from damage by chairs being pushed back, or by household pets or children playing. You can use almost any oil as the base for a wood polish, decided by what is available or tolerable, and according to preference. For example, linseed oil is fine for cricket bats, but you would probably find it too pungent for the timbers of your four-poster bed. Many waxes and oils serve equally effectively.
One ready source of wax and oil would have been whatever remained from lights – such as the dregs of whale oil in lamps or the stumps of tallow candles. However, tallow is made by rendering animal fats. At best, you or your servants would use suet and sieve the fats carefully. At worst, you would be using whatever scraps are available and the result would contain impurities. Incidentally, the first soaps were largely made from tallow – and soap still contains sodium tallowate, made from sodium hydroxide (better known as caustic soda or lye), steam, and animal fat.
It is easy to imagine the stink of a room lit by cheap candles, their flames guttering in the imperfections of stale or impure tallow, and to imagine how their smoke would encrust walls and ceilings with filthy, sticky residues.
Polish made from tallow wax would, surely, only add to the stink, and yet polish was necessary to preserve the wood in such rooms. The answer, of course, was to add fragrant herbs, or their oils, to the preparations of wax. For this too, Lavender was a strong favourite, a fashion dictated in the 16th and early 17th centuries by Queen Elizabeth’s own love of the plant.
On Tuesday 11 September 1660, diarist Samuel Pepys dined at (in London) “at Sir W. Batten’s, and by this time I see that we are like to have a very good correspondence and neighbourhood, but chargeable. All the afternoon at home looking over my carpenters. At night I called Thos. Hater out of the office to my house to sit and talk with me. After he was gone I caused the girl to wash the wainscot of our parlour, which she did very well, which caused my wife and I good sport”.
Why should a servant girl washing the wainscot of the parlour provide Pepys and his wife with so much pleasure? What I think is happening is that Pepys, a great social climber, suddenly finds himself able to afford a better polish than ever before. The girl is not using the cheap option of a tallow-based polish with its smell smothered by Lavender. No, Pepys is able to afford Beeswax, itself a much pleasanter scent, and to blend it with Lavender Essential Oil. Once again, the bees who produce the wax have fed upon the Lavender in London’s herb gardens and so the wax and the herb complement each other perfectly in Pepys’ rooms. They still do. No wonder he and his wife are cheerful.