The methods of cleaning paint, wallpaper, and wainscoting varied only slightly throughout the early 19th century. Between 1800 and 1840 we see a few methods spoken of throughout the various cookbooks or servants companions that were being published.
One such book called A New System of Domestic Cookery published in 1807 explains how to clean paint: Never use a cloth, but take off the dust with a little long-haired brush, after blowing off the loose parts with the bellows. With care, paint will look well for a length of time. When soiled, dip a sponge or a bit of flannel into soda and water, wash it off quickly, and dry immediately, or the strength of the soda will eat off the colour.
Virtually the same advice was repeated in 1839 in the book The Good Housekeeper: Put a very little pearlash, or soda in the water to soften it, then wash the paint with flannel and soft soap; wash the soap off, and wipe dry with a clean linen cloth.
Then of course if you had trouble with ‘vermin’ you would have followed this advice from The Frugal Housewife which was published in 1830: If the vermin are in your walls, fill up the cracks with verdigris-green paint.*
*There are two kinds of green paint; one is of no use in destroying insects. – 1832 edition
[NOTE: This green paint would have had arsenic in it, which is why it was effective for killing rats, ect. They have since deemed the arsenic dangerous, naturally, and stopped using it to create the green color in paints.]
Moving on, if your walls were covered with any wainscoting you would have been doing the following, in 1807, when cleaning it: When wainscot requires scouring, it should be done from the top downwards, and the soda be prevented from running on the unclean part as much as possible, or marks will be made which will appear after the whole is finished. One person should dry with old linen as fast as the other has scoured off the dirt and washed the soda off. – A New System of Domestic Cookery
Then if you were really in the cleaning spirit and wanted a nice gloss to your wainscot you could have tried the following: To give a Gloss to fine Oak-wainscot. If greasy, it must be washed with warm beer; then boil two quarts of strong beer, a bit of bee’s wax as large as a walnut, and a large spoonful of sugar; wet it all over with a large brush, and when dry rub it till bright.- A New System of Domestic Cookery in 1807.
To my surprise this recipe is still being used as an oak furniture polish today. The recipe, unchanged from days of old:
1 Quart of beer
1 Teaspoon Sugar
2 Tablespoons beeswax
Boil the beer with sugar and beeswax. Allow mixture to cool, then wipe on wood, and let dry. Polish when dry with chamois cloth.
In the early 19th century wallpaper was often referred to as paper. Thus the terms paper hangings or paper walls were used more frequently than wallpaper. Now some advice on how to clean those paper walls: First blow off the dust with the bellows. Divide a white loaf of eight days old into eight parts. Take the crust into your hand, and beginning at the top of the paper, wipe it downwards in the lightest manner with the crumb. Don’t cross nor go upwards. The dirt of the paper and the crumbs will fall together. Observe, you must not wipe above half a yard at a stroke, and after doing all the upper part, go round again, beginning a little above where you left off. If you don’t do it extremely lightly, you will make the dirt adhere to the paper. – A New System of Domestic Cookery in 1807
The bread still being employed in the art of wall paper cleaning here in 1839: The very best method is to sweep off lightly all the dust with clean cloths, bound over a long handled broom, then rub the paper with stale bread–cut the crust off very thick, and wipe straight down from the top, then begin at the top again, and so on. – The Good Housekeeper 1839
Interestingly enough this advice is not as old as you would think. Even though I hadn’t heard of cleaning wallpaper with bread, its advice is still being given today for cleaning delicate or non-washable wallpaper. That makes the advice nearly 200 years old, at least. Can we venture to say then, that it’s a time-tested method for cleaning wallpaper? Probably so.