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Jean Henri Fabre


"W 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 in this connection let us have recourse to a simple experiment.

"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 originally.

"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 potash."

"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 water?"

"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 use soap."

"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 right."

"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 of 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 directly 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."