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scour / scouring brick

v.t. To rub hard with something rough, for the purposes of cleaning; to clean by friction; to make clean or bright; to cleanse from grease, dirt, &c. To remove by rubbing or cleansing; to sweep off; to carry away; to remove. To pass swiftly over; to brush along; to range; to traverse thoroughly; as, to scour the coast. v.i. To clean any thing by rubbing. — Webster, 1882

The artesian well is down seven hundred and fifty feet, and is progressing finely. The drill brought up some fine sand excellent for scouring purposes and some of our housewives laid in a supply. – Kingsbury County Independent, 1893.

In the Little House books, a scouring was the most intense and thorough cleaning any item could receive, implying not only a soaping and rinsing, but a scrubbing with something gritty and abrasive. In the case of steel knives and forks used by both the Ingalls and Wilder families, scouring was a necessity. Steel cutlery, being made of iron with a small amount of carbon – naturally rusted over time, especially if not kept thoroughly dry.

Early household management books recommended that steel knives and forks be cleaned and polished at a permanent work-station supplied with a board for the work surface, leather for rubbing, and a scouring-brick or scourging brick, a cake of sandstone, or a specially manufactured and compressed compound such as Bath Brick, patented in 1823 for use in polishing. Bath Brick was the size and shape of the brick used in construction (many people did use commercial brick dust for scouring). The dust was scraped from the brick using the back of a knife or an old knife kept for the purpose, this dust was moistened with water or oil, then rubbed over the steel with a cork or cloth. Perhaps Almanzo Wilder, when scouring the steel knives and forks in preparation for Christmas dinner (see Farmer Boy, Chapter 26, “Christmas”), used the short-cut of holding two knives by their handles, back to back, and rubbing both blades at the same time, then flipping the knives to scour the other sides!

Bath Brick. Patent Scouring or Flanders Brick – was made from a slimy river mud found in the River Parrot in Bridgwater, Somerset, England. It was mixed with fine sand and a little clay to bind the grains together, shaped and fired. Scouring bricks were fired at a lower temperature than building bricks, making them softer and easier to scrape, but their composition was identical. By 1870, Bath Brick was also sold as a dust (no scraping!). The original Bath Brick was exported to America and sold in almost every general store. Similar bricks were made in the U.S. from mud found in Wisconsin. There are many brands of scouring powder sold today, but stainless steel has replaced steel in most everyday cutlery, and it needs no scouring since it doesn’t rust.

Scouring agents that owe their cleansing properties to the friction they produce when rubbed upon a surface are: (1) whiting and bonami, both of which are finely pulverised chalk, the latter being pressed into cakes; (2) silica, an oxide of the non-metallic element silicon (silver polish contains silica compounds and whiting); (3) bath brick, a form of calcareous earth pressed into the shape of a brick; it is used chiefly for cleaning steel knives; (4) rotten-stone, known as Tripoli, after the country in which is was first found, a soft stone used for scouring and polishing metals; (5) powdered emery, a variety of corundum, a metal of extreme hardness; it is used for scouring the harder metals; (6) carborundum, a carbide of silicon that is even harder than corundum. It is made by heating coke and sand in a furnace. — Amy Pope, Physics and Chemistry for Nurses (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918): 234.



Wilder also uses the action of scouring when she personifies ice and snow scrubbing walls, the roof, the ground, and even her own face! It is a sound so grating that it is hardly to be endured. She expresses this best when writing about a blizzard during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881: Sometimes in the night, half-awake and cold, Laura half-dreamed that the roof was scoured thin. Horribly the great blizzard, large as the sky, bent over it and scoured with an enormous invisible cloth, round and round on the paper-thin roof, till a hole wore through and squealing, chuckling, laughing a deep Ha! Ha! the blizzard whirled in. (See The Long Winter, Chapter 22, “Cold and Dark”)


scour (FB 10, 26; BPC 35, 39; TLW 4, 9, 14-15, 17, 22, 24; LTP 2; THGY 7)
     scouring-brick (FB 26)