Navigation Menu+

blacking / stove-blacking / boot blacking

A preparation used for blacking shoes, boots, &c., variously made; any factitious matter for making things black. — Webster, 1882

Blacking is any purchased or home-made preparation used to polish and blacken iron cooking and heating stoves or items made of leather. The main ingredient in blacking is graphite or plumbago, also called black-lead, because on paper it makes a shining mark like lead. At the time of the Little House books, plumbago was mined at Ticonderoga, N.Y., Brandon, Vt., and Sturbridge, Mass.

Plumbago is supposed to be of vegetable origin, and is chiefly used in the manufacture of pencils. For this purpose a mixture of black-lead, antimony, and sulphur – the proportion of these ingredients determining the hardness of the pencil – is melted and cast into blocks, which are then sawed into thin slips, as seen in common pencils. Though graphite seems very soft, yet its particles are extremely hard, and the saws used in cutting it soon wear out. We notice this property in sharpening a pencil with a knife. Graphite mixed with clay is made into black-lead crucibles. These are the most refractory known, and are used for melting gold and silver. It is also sold as “British lustre,” “carburet of iron,” “stove polish,” etc., which are employed for blacking stoves and protecting iron from rusting. For drawing pencils, pure graphite powder is subjected to such enormous pressure that the particles are brought near enough together for the attraction of cohesion to hold them in a solid form, when the pressure is removed. This block is then sawed into prisms, which are fitted into cylinders of cedar-wood. — J. Dorman Steele, Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1873), 67.

Doctors believed that stove polish caused “catarrhal and bronchial irritation” because the dry metallic substances found in stove polish were expelled by heat, mingled with the air, and were breathed in, adhering to moist membranes of the throat.

Recipes for Stove and Shoe Blacking. Liquid blacking is made by well rubbing together two pounds of ivory or bone black, two pounds of molasses, and one of sweet oil; then adding three-quarters of a pound of oil of vitriol, mixing well and diluting it with the dregs of beer. The Field gives the following receipt for making blacking: Take three gills of vinegar, four ounces of ivory or bone black, one ounce of oil of vitriol, one ounce of sperm oil, two tablespoonfuls of molasses, and two of sugar; put the oil, ivory or bone black, molasses, and sugar into a bowl together; stir them up well; then add the vinegar; let it remain two or three days before adding the vitriol, then bottle it, taking care to have the corks well rosined; it is best to keep it six months, but it may be used directly. Shoe blacking is made of oil of vitriol two parts, sweet oil one part, molasses three parts, ivory or bone black four parts, mix, and put up in papers. — Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine LXXXV (December 1872), 510.

Pharmacist’s Method of Preparing Stove Blacking for Sale. The most lasting polish is obtained by first brushing the stove with a syrupy mixture of lampblack and soluble glass (silicate of soda), and letting it dry for twenty-four hours. Then apply a syrupy mixture of black lead and mucilage, and polish by brushing before the last coat dries. — “Weekly Drug News,” as printed in The Druggist: A Western Journal of Pharmacy, Chemistry and the Allied Arts (Chicago: G.P. Engelhard & Co., 1884), 21.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder suggested in Farmer Boy and Little Town on the Prairie, both a cloth and a brush were typically used when blacking the stove. First, the polish was applied with a cloth, and that allowed to dry. The surface was then buffed to a hard shine with a soft brush. Some blacking brushes had special rollers for applying the polish, like the one shown at right. The pioneer housekeeper spent hours per week keeping the stoves looking black and shiny; stove polish wasn’t waterproof, so wiping spills removed the polish and left the surface susceptible to rusting. Blacking also burned away with normal usage. Today, iron stoves are usually painted to keep them looking good.

How to Polish a Stove Easily.
If a little vinegar or some cider is mixed with stove-polish it will not take much rubbing to make the stove bright, and the blacking is not likely to fly off in fine dust. — Emma Whitcomb Babcock, Household Hints (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881), 88.

Blacking a cast iron stove is not the same thing as seasoning a cast iron cooking pot, yet both are used to protect the iron surface against rusting. To see how a blacked stove might look in comparison to plain iron, first hold a heat-proof glass measuring cup above a candle flame so that the sooty black substance rising from the flame has collected on the glass. Once this has cooled, use a dry rag to remove it from the glass and rub it gently into a small area on the back of a cast iron pot or pan; you can use any piece of iron, such as an unpainted iron hinge. Buff the area with a soft brush and see the slick blackness left from the homemade polish!


blacking / stove-blacking (FB 18, 26; LTP 10)
     Almanzo throws blacking brush at Eliza Jane (FB 18)
     blacking box (LTP 10)
     blacking brush / blacking-brush (FB 18)
     blacking the stove (FB 26; TLW 18; LTP 10)
     polished shining black cookstove (BW 10; FB 13)

blacking, boot
     blacking boots (LTP 8)