How to clean your silver easily: Vintage advice from 1918
by Lucy Oppen
Have you learned to clean your silver in the new-fashioned way, or are you still wasting your time and energy — and, incidentally, your silver plate — through a vigorous use of her polish and elbow grease?
If you wish to try the efficiency of the electrolytic method, it is not necessary to invest in any special equipment. This method of cleaning silver is as simple as washing dishes, and any child who can learn to wash dishes can use it.
All that is necessary is to invest a few minutes in learning the why and wherefore of a simple process — and then, with the aid of a few household necessaries already on your shelves, you can set the genii of nature to do your disagreeable task for you, while you stand by with folded hands watching them accomplish in a few seconds the task which used to be your weekly bugbear.
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No commercial device needed
Almost any woman accustomed to visit department stores has seen demonstrated some commercial contrivance for the cleaning of silver by electrolysis. These commercial devices are all more or less efficient, but many if them are cumbersome and more expensive than they need be.
Some women have hesitated to buy them because of their cost, some because they did not wish to be bothered with a new contraption to clutter their already crowded kitchens, and some because they feared that, the process, efficient although it appeared to be, might “eat away” their silver plate.
As a matter of fact, although some of the patented devices, on account of their convenience, are to be recommended to those who have large quantities of silver to clean, the principle on which they work is so simple that the average woman will prefer her own little homemade way of doing the task.
Moreover, instead of being destructive to silverware, the electrolytic process of cleaning is the least harmful that science thus far has been able to discover. Even finely-powdered whiting, that good old standby of conservative housekeepers, is destructive in comparison.
What you need to do
Before discussing the scientific principles which underlie the new method of silver cleaning, it may be interesting to describe briefly just what it involves.
An enamel or agate ware dish should be partly filled with a cleaning solution, made by adding one teaspoonful of either washing or baking soda and one teaspoonful of common salt to each quart of water. This is placed on the stove until it comes to a boil, then a sheet of aluminum or of clean zinc is dropped into the dish and the tarnished silver is put into the water in contact with this metal.
It is not necessary to have every piece of silver touch the metal itself, but all silver to be cleaned should be in contact either with the metal or with other silver which touches the metal.
It is best to base the silver entirely covered with the cleaning solution and to allow the solution to remain at the boiling temperature. In a very few seconds, the tarnish on the silver will disappear a by magic. As soon as the tarnish has been entirely removed, the silver should be taken out of the cleaning solution, rinsed in clear water, and wiped with a soft cloth.
The articles thus cleaned will have a soft, satiny finish which many fastidious persons prefer to the bright burnished appearance given by most silver polishes.
After the silver has been cleaned a number of times by the electrolytic method, it will grow so dull that it may be desirable to rub it with a paste of whiting and water to restore the original polish. Housekeepers who prefer the brightly burnished appearance sometimes employ the electrolytic method to remove the tarnish from their silver, and then use a good abrasive polish as often as may be desirable to keep up the burnished appearance.
A combination of the two methods is sometimes used. In this case, one or two tablespoonfuls of finely-powdered whiting is added to each quart of the cleaning solution, and after removal the silver is allowed to dry without being rinsed. The film of whiting which adheres to it may then be rubbed off with a soft cloth. Housekeepers who fancy the exceedingly bright polish, however, will find that it is best secured by using the two methods separately.
Anyone who has tried various ways of cleaning silver will find that the electrolytic method is a tremendous labor saver. Since washing or linking soda and table salt are to be found in every kitchen, and since a small piece of zinc or aluminum may be purchased for a few cents, the cost of this method is practically the same as those involving the use of ordinary silver polishes.
The commercial devices for cleaning silver in the new way, however much they may differ in appearance from the homemade apparatus, arc practically the same thing.
One very efficient type of cleaner consists of a zinc pan, on the bottom of which is fastened an aluminum grating. The pan is filled with the cleaning solution described, the tarnished silver is placed on the grating, and the tarnish on the silver consequently disappears.
A simpler commercial form of the cleaner consists of a zinc disk, to the top of which are welded some aluminum wire grids. This disk has the advantage that it can be used in any kettle, or if very large pieces of silver are to be cleaned, it may be used in a wash boiler.
The simple little strip of aluminum or zinc which can be bought at any tinshop, however, is quite as effective and certainly much less expensive. Aluminum is better than zinc because it corrodes or gets “worn out” less easily. After a strip of zinc has been used, a few times it becomes corroded and inefficient, in such cases a new piece of zinc may be substituted, or the old piece may be cleaned by rubbing it with some strong acid, such as muriatic.
As metals other than zinc and aluminum are likely to be corroded by the cleaning solution, the enamel or agateware dish is to be preferred by the housekeeper who is careful of her kitchen utensils. However, an old aluminum pot or kettle which would otherwise lie thrown away may lie useful in place of the enameled vessel.
How this method works
Now for the explanation of the causes which underlies this process, which seem almost magical to those who do not understand it.
Unlike most other metals, silver is not tarnished by oxygen in the air, but it readily unites with sulphur whenever it comes into contact with things containing sulphur.
When immersed in the solution of salt and soda, aluminum and zinc are said to be more “active” than silver, and an electric current is set up which breaks up this chemical combination of silver and sulphur, which we popularly call “tarnish.” The particles of silver which were in the tarnish are again plated out in a pure form on the silver articles, while the sulphur is set free to perform a new combination.
As a result, no silver whatever is lost when this method of cleaning is used, and the tiny particles of silver, resettling on the original articles, give them their soft, satiny finish instead of their former bright polish.
In the case of even the mildest abrasive polish, the tarnish is removed by being mechanically cut away through the rubbing. This, of course, removes not only the silver in the “tarnish” itself, but it also removes some of the pure silver from the surface of the article which is being polished. Careful experiments have shown that even with the most careful use of whiting or an equally mild polish, the loss in the weight of silver is twenty-five times as great as when the electrolytic method is used.
Regarding the use of baking or washing soda, there is little choice between the two. The washing soda is cheaper and somewhat quicker in its action; therefore, if convenient, it is the better ingredient. The salt is not absolutely essential in the cleaning solution, but the cleansing action is quickened through its use.
Considering the saving of time, energy and silver plate which the electrolytic method of cleaning silver offers the housekeeper, it is probable that it will soon come to be regarded as a necessary expedient in every household which is regulated with a view to efficiency.
Siver pieces have will be labelled as silver or hallmarked with the maker or company name included.