Sand:   A Regency Cleaning Agent?

Today, most people would be much more likely to clean sand up than they would be to clean with it. But during the Regency, as it had been for centuries before, sand was a commonly-used household cleaning agent. And the man who supplied the sand used for cleaning to most households across Britain would, by the time the Regency ended, be passing into the realm of myth and folk tale, having acquired special powers, certainly in the eyes of most young children and their parents. Like so many other things discussed here, the ways in which sand was used for cleaning were beginning to change during the Regency, though they would not die out completely until the twentieth century.

The shifting, and sifting, sands of the Regency …

From at least the sixteenth century, one of the cleaning agents found in nearly every household in England was sand. As I noted in my recent article on kitchen fireplace furnishings, sand was always spread on the floor of the kitchen. In the more affluent households, the sand would be spread only over the hearthstone and in the immediate area of the fireplace. In less opulent, less pretentious households, sand would be spread over the entire kitchen floor. It would also often be spread over the floors of each room of a house which got a lot of traffic, particularly in homes in rural areas. The sand near the kitchen fireplace would absorb grease and other cooking spills, as well as protecting the floor from any stray coals and sparks which might escape from the fire. In the other rooms of a house, the sand would prevent any muck which might be tramped into the house from solidifying and adhering to the surface of the floor itself by absorbing and dissipating the moisture, in addition to keeping it away from the floor surface.

Regardless of the material of which the floor was made, whether wood, stone or brick, any floor covered with sand remained singularly free of any marks or stains, due to both the sand’s absorbency, and the regular abrasive action as it was constantly trodden over in the course of the week. Even in homes where sand was not spread over the floors for the entire week, sand was sprinkled on the bare floors and stair treads of many houses on cleaning day, prior to sweeping. No matter how long the sand had been on the floor, in most homes, the sand was swept out on Saturday, to ensure the house was clean for Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Once the old, soiled sand was swept out of a room, it would be sluiced down with cold water. Mops were used throughout England, but contemporary records show that most Scottish women preferred to work a scrubbing cloth around their floors with their bare feet. This practice is known to have continued in some remote areas of the Scottish Highlands until the 1930s.

Cleaning with hot water and soap is a practice which came into general use in the late nineteenth century, several decades after the Regency had ended. Prior to that, every gallon of water which was used in the houses of all but the affluent had to be carried into that house from a well or stream, almost always by the housewife herself. The heating of that water was also costly, requiring fuel which the family needed for cooking and warming their rooms. It was not until water was piped into the majority of homes in Britain in the 1870s that cleaning with water became common. Soap in England was considered a luxury item and had been heavily taxed from the early eighteenth century. The tax on soap was not repealed until 1853, finally making soap affordable to those beyond the upper classes. However, it took another full generation for most of those in the middle and lower classes to cease considering soap a luxury item and to use it regularly for cleaning their homes, their laundry and themselves. Sand was an effective, inexpensive household cleaning agent. In conservative Britain, if it had been good enough for preceding generations, then it was good enough for those who came after.

After mopping, those floors which were kept regularly sanded would be re-sanded with clean sand, ready for another week. There were local traditions across Britain which governed how the fresh sand was laid down in houses in many rural villages and farms. Over time, special patterns had become traditional in each village or hamlet. The sand was applied to the floors of homes in those areas in highly decorative and intricate patterns, usually achieved, and regularly renewed, with a broom. In other areas, the sand was spread smoothly, in a thick golden carpet, routinely smoothed throughout the week as it was marked by the footprints of the occupants. In more affluent houses, where sand was spread on floors just prior to cleaning, it was typically spread using a sieve in order to achieve an even coating of sand over the floor before it was swept away.

The hearthstone of most kitchen fireplaces in Britain was scrubbed and polished each week, usually on Saturday, with sand. This was done in both elegant London town homes and modest cottages in remote rural areas. A spotless white hearthstone was considered the mark of a truly clean and well-kept house, the pride of every housewife. The stone stairs and walkways outside upper class homes, whether in town or in the country, were also scrubbed and cleaned with sand. In London, the front steps were scrubbed clean with sand every morning, while in the country, these areas were usually cleaned only once a week, unless the family was in residence. Then they would be cleaned more frequently, usually daily.

Sand was not only used for protecting and cleaning floors, walkways and stairs. It was also used to scour metals, often mixed with ground oyster shell. This compound was known to leave brass gleaming as well as to smoothly polish pewter plates and other utensils. It was also reliable for removing any food remains which had adhered to the pots and pans used for cooking. It was for that reason that in many cook books of the time, recipes would remind cooks to be sure their pots were free from sand before they began preparing the dish in the recipe. The compounds used for the cleaning of cooking pots and utensils could vary from region to region. For example, in Cornwall, many housewives preferred to scour their pots and pans, and often the floors of their homes, with what was locally known as either "gaird" or "growder." This was a cleaning and polishing agent made of a local granite which had been ground to a fine powder. In other areas, brass and sometimes pewter, were polished with white brick, brick-dust or rotten-stone. White brick, later also known as Bath brick, was made at Bridgewater, in Somerset, and was a preparation of calcareous earth which was molded into the form of a brick for use in cleaning metal. Brick-dust was just that, the dust which remained from the making and cutting of bricks. Rotten-stone was a powder which was made from decomposed limestone. Objects of silver or silver-plate were cleaned and polished with white clay, usually called "whiting." If the silver to be cleaned was heavily tarnished, it was usually washed first in a solution of lye in water. In more affluent households, spirit of wine, what we know as alcohol, was used instead of lye. Steel was usually polished with emery paper, though in some households white brick or rotten-stone might be used.

The further sand had to be transported from the sea-coast, the more expensive it became. Country women in many of the more remote inland areas were more likely to use vegetable rather than mineral-based cleaning agents to clean their cooking utensils. They might use a handful of straw, or wood ashes gathered from their fireplaces, to clean their pots and pans. If any of the pots was heavily soiled they would usually boil them in a solution of water and lye. Farm wives preferred to use bran husks, if they had them available, for their washing-up. The abrasive husks would easily remove any stubborn food remains and would also readily absorb any fat or grease. An additional advantage was that the used bran husks were a food much relished by their pigs.

Women who lived near sandy seashores would usually gather their own sand supplies themselves, or in some cases assigned that task to their children. However, in many Cornish villages, it was the custom that sand was sold by old women, or miners who had been blinded, thus providing them with some means of support. Transport and delivery was usually by donkey. Sand continued to be provided by such people in many small Cornish villages into the early years of the twentieth century. Those who lived further from the source but still wished to use sand for cleaning would have it delivered to their homes, usually in large sacks. Not surprisingly, the peddlars who specialized in the delivery of sand were known as "sand-men." These sand-men typically provided other mineral scouring agents as well, including brick-dust, white brick and rotten-stone. They could be seen moving through the cities and towns of England with their pack-horses or driving their carts filled with bags of sand.

By the time the Regency began, more and more affluent people were using sand only for protecting their kitchen hearthstone and scrubbing their front steps. The most wealthy had water piped to their grand homes, both in London and their country estates, thus enabling their servants to use soap and water for their indoor cleaning. Those of slightly lesser means could afford servants to transport the greater quantities of water needed for indoor cleaning. Though sand was an excellent scouring agent for use on pewter plates, it was too harsh for use on the china dinner services which had become so popular with those of means. Soap and water were much more effective for cleaning china ware, thus further reducing the need for sand in the homes of the affluent. When the Prince Regent was crowned king in 1821, sand-men were already beginning to fade from the English scene. But in that same year, the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use in print of the term "sand-man" as the personification of sleepiness and the bringer of sleep. Oftentimes, people would awake with traces of grittiness along the seam of their eyelids which they assumed to be grains of sand. Thus, it was believed that sleep was brought to them in the night by the sand-man. Before George IV died in June of 1830, tales, poems and songs were already being written, recited and sung about the sand-man and his nightly rounds. By the end of the century, there were more stories and songs about sand-men than there were actual sand-men still plying their trade in England.

The next time you switch on your vacuum cleaner, or load your dishes into the dishwasher, think how our Regency ancestors might have accomplished those same tasks, with sand. In fact, the use of soap and water for cleaning is a relatively modern phenomenon, in common use for not quite a hundred and fifty years. Sand was used for household cleaning for at least three hundred years before soap and water displaced it. Some people still use sand for cleaning, even today. One of my friends sometimes goes camping with her husband, and, if it is available, they use sand to scour their grill and cooking pots before they use their limited water to wash them. There really is nothing new under the sun.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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15 Responses to Sand:   A Regency Cleaning Agent?

  1. Already used sand as a scouring agent in my Renaissance series…. didn’t know about bran chaff though, thank you!
    The Royal Navy of course used sand and holy stone [pumice] to scour the decks of the warships. Holy stone was so called because the sailors spent more time on their knees with it than they did at prayers…. It was a big slab of pumice similar in size to a big church Bible, not the familiar mouse-shaped stones we have today for bath use.
    Sand is a good cleaner, we used to use it at camp.
    Vinegar is also a very good cleaner but you can’t use it on pewter because it dissolves out the lead which is poisonous.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for the information about “Holy Stone.” I had not heard that one before. It may well be the one time most sailors were on their knees! 😉

      Perhaps the vinegar/pewter cleaning angle could be worked into a period murder mystery, being used as the means by which the victim is dispatched. I would assume that wine would have a similar effect on pewter. Perhaps the deed could be done by serving wine in a pewter goblet.



  2. More stuff that I didn’t know! Thanks for another excellent blog, Kat.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I must admit, I was rather surprised when I ran across this information. I knew sand had been used for protecting the hearth for centuries, but I had also assumed the use of sand for cleaning had died out long before it actually had. Yet again, the Regency has proven to be a transitional time for yet another long-held practice in England.

      It is not beyond the realm of possibility that your ancestor, Louis, may have put one of his younger apprentices to using sand to clean the steps of his London shop each morning.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Could ‘holy stone’ be a corruption of ‘holey stone’, because pumice has bubbles in it? Just a thought…

  4. Isobel Carr says:

    This is so cool! You always provide such wonderful details of everyday life. My brain is already whirring with ways to use this info in a book…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked it. One of my favorite things about reading Georgette Heyer is that she often incorporated features of daily life at the times her novels were set which were very different from my own. I felt like I had really been transported back in time when she described the details of her characters doing the everyday things of their lives. So, I am trying to record as many of those kinds of things here as I can, in the hope these curious details will provide material by which other authors can embellish their own Regency tales and give them more of the real flavor of the time.



      • Isobel Carr says:

        I’ve always thought these little details are one of the things that make a historical the kind of book you can lose yourself in … but then I was also told by an agent that it was clear I “really liked history”, and she didn’t mean it as a compliment, LOL!

  5. Kathryn Kane says:

    Good Grief!!! Clearly, she does not know why most of us read historical novels. I hope you did not sign with that agent!


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  9. Sia says:

    Oh…people still clean with sand. Mostly themselves. I bet you do it too. Specifically, quartz sand. Yeah, take a look at your toothpaste next time you brush your teeth. Silica? Yeah, that’s Silicon Dioxide. Quartz Sand – the same stuff that’s the main raw material for glass production.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Yuck!!! I will really have to look more closely at my toothpaste package from now on.


      • Sia says:

        Which is incidentally, the reason why attempting to poison people with powdered glass isn’t going to work. Well, not unless your villain is VERY patient and plans to off someone via abrasive dental illness. The ‘ickies’ caused by overbrushing, in other words.

        If you powder glass,you just end up back with sand again…more or less. (according to Wiki, anyway)

        Quartz Sand is what we typically mean by sand, unless you live in a reef-type area in which case you probably mean ‘calcium carbonate’ sand.

        But your LD50 is 5000 mg/kg, taken orally. So yeah, don’t have your villain do that because a)the victim’s likely to NOTICE and b)Where the hell is he getting all this sand from anyway?

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