Market Musings Blog

Low-Tech Kitchen Cleansers: If It Ain’t Broke . . .

BonAmi_1886_formulaOne hundred fifty years ago, if you needed to clean out an especially grimy kitchen pot, you’d add water and ashes from your wood-burning stove to the offending pot and allow the potent alkaline mixture (lye) to scour the pot for you. This caustic kitchen brew was replaced in the post-Civil War period by one of the first commercially made cleansers: Bon Ami (feldspar-tallow soap). Bon Ami is still available today, and is superior to more popular big-box cleansers like Comet and Ajax.

Bon Ami solved a problem that nineteenth-century cooks faced when using homemade wood ash or brick dust as scouring agents: both scratched delicate surfaces like the newly popular and prized porcelain sinks and enameled steel and aluminum cookware. Bon Ami’s inventor, J. T. Robertson, recognized this and chose feldspar, a soft mineral often found in association with quartz, as a scouring agent. At the time, quartz was powdered for use in laundry soaps and the feldspar discarded. Robertson realized that the much softer feldspar could also be used for cleaning without harming delicate surfaces. His cleanser combined tallow (the fatty by-product of animal processing, which has been the historical basis for most soaps) and feldspar, and Bon Ami was marketed with the logo of a tiny chick and the slogan, “Hasn’t scratched yet.” (You chicken keepers out there know that chicks don’t start scratching until they’re about four days old, and Bon Ami’s logo assumed this knowledge on buyers’ parts.)

BonAmi VintageBon Ami remained a popular cleanser through the 1940s, but thereafter it steadily lost market share to the aggressive, chlorine- and abrasive-laden cleansers that came on the market in the 1950s. Happily, the environmental movement that swelled in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) recognized the value of Bon Ami’s old-fashioned, fragrance-free formula, and sales began to climb again. Mississippi Market carries the original-formula Bon Ami (feldspar and tallow only), as well as a more recent Bon Ami cleanser. Both are free of dyes, fragrances, and other industrial additives. I’ve used Bon Ami all of my life, and it’s a wonderful cleanser—hasn’t scratched yet!

This old-fashioned cleanser can handle just about any kitchen cleaning job you ask, and does so in transparent, low-impact ways. No kitchen should be without it.

Once in a while, though, everyone has a stovetop accident, and a thick layer of char coats the bottom of a beloved pan. In such cases, the most effective remedy is simple, old-fashioned baking soda. Make up a very thick paste of baking soda and cold water in the charred pot or pan and leave it to sit overnight. Most of the char should lift off easily after such treatment when you add hot water. Once most of the char has floated off the surface, you can scour out the remainder with Bon Ami.

For more simple, homemade, green cleaning tips: register for our Make Your Own Eco-Friendly Cleaning Kit class on Saturday, April 20th. The class will cover harmful chemicals in household cleaning products and their adverse effects. Then learn how easy, economical, and fast it is to make your own cleaners with common ingredients. Make an eco-friendly all-purpose cleaner and a scrubbing cleaner for you to take home, too!

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