Whitening Instructions *


Since the "made-in-China" lead paint scare has set fire to an investigation by the U.S. Senate and ignited many toy recalls it got me to thinking about this recipe I wrote for our family cookbook. It is in my grandmother's handwriting on a fragile piece of paper and was found in an old trunk that belonged to her. When she passed away my cousin Peggy inherited the trunk. Along with Grandmother's wedding dress there were love letters from my grandfather as well as letters to her friend Aletha which Peggy has published and are quite revealing of what the culture and community was like during that era.

Born near the end of the War of Northern Aggression her mother died shortly after giving birth. Her father remarried and moved his family from Tennessee to Texas in hopes of a brighter future. Long before the "tan looks healthier" hype Grandmother had been raised to admire Magnolia-white skin from the previous generation. I'm sure she was fetching enough for Grandfather as it went well with her strawberry blond hair and blue gray eyes. It was the fall of 1900 and she had just returned from a short trip to Galveston, Texas to see the deadly destruction left behind by the hurricane that reshaped the Gulf Coast forever. Grandfather showed up at her door in Democrat, Texas collecting funds to help the victims of the storm rebuild their city. She was quite taken by his dark brown eyes and thick black hair so she sent a few anonymous postcards to his home. This had him getting into all kinds of trouble throughout the small farming community of Lometa, Texas asking numerous girls who could have sent them. Peggy explains that the origins of Grandmother Nollie’s recipe for whitening instructions:

    "I believe the above instructions for 'whitening' are written by the hand of my grandmother, Nollie. I am not sure if this whitening would have been used for skin or for clothing. Living in the Texas sun, Nollie always wore a bonnet outdoors in order to protect her skin from the darkening effects of the sun. She may have used this formula to further lighten her skin. Living on a farm with a hard-working husband and nine hard-working and hard-playing children, she doubtless had need of whitening for their clothes, also." -The Godwin Archives, Volume IV: NEIGHBORLY NOTES, Schoolwork, and Miscellaneous, (2007).

This liquid composition was used as a whitening for things and “as a wash for making the skin fair.” Since there is just a list of ingredients and no directions about applications I decided to take a look at the ingredients and do some guesswork as to why they are a part of this recipe. According to the Grolier Encyclopedia bay rum, ...a popular face lotion for men, is made from a combination of bay oil, citrus and spice oils, alcohol, and water. It was first made in the West Indies, where it was prepared by boiling the leaves of the West Indian Bay (tree) in white rum and collecting the distillate. No doubt the bay rum was added to make whatever was being whitened to smell good.

“Glycerine” is a spelling variant of glycerin and comes from the word glycerol which means ‘a colorless, sweet, viscous liquid formed as a by-product in soap manufacture, used as an emollient and laxative.’ Rose water still enjoys an excellent reputation today as a traditional facial cleanser, because it works as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and has a lovely scent. Both of these ingredients would soften the face, help to clear the skin of blemishes and leave it feeling rather tingly.

Now here is the really scary part. Flake white is a basic lead carbonate. One web tale explains how it was probably made:

    “Strips of lead were carefully folded to have spaces running through them. They were called buckles because they sort of looked like them... They were fitted to clay pots which had holes in the bottom. Those pots fit into other pots that held the acetic acid or vinegar. Those pots were set side-by-side on beds of fresh manure and tanbark. (Tanbark is bark rich in tannin; bruised and cut in pieces to use for tanning) That was also stuffed between the pots. The sheds were closed and filled up with acidic fumes and heat. (This) made actual flakes of lead grow on the buckle. The process is called efflorescence ...You can also see those flakes if you take a storage battery apart. Those are sulphur (sic) compounds and not nearly so white as Flake white. Sometimes they build up and cause a short circuit between the plates."

The buckles were harvested, the flakes scraped off and washed in water before drying. The resulting pigment is very special because the color is warm, and has a beautiful sheen similar to pearls. Flake white is a type of lead paint that is commonly used in oil paintings today; however, it is slowly being replaced by titanium white and zinc white because of the health related concerns of lead. I have asked my father if it was possible that his parents made Flake white and he said they did tan hides and had a smoke house just east of the kitchen where they might have made it.

Grandmother kept a ledger and noted what work they did each day. There are a number of entries where she simply wrote “ditching.” Shortly before they ran off to get married, she, along with neighbors and friends helped Grandfather build a barn and plant their first crops. Soon after they married they ordered blueprints from the Sears and Roebucks catalog and built their home. Four years after my grandparents wed there was a picture of Grandfather’s family home taken and to the north of the house in the background is a large tank which caught rain off the roof. Rainwater harvesting comes down to us from ancient times and to get rainwater to their new home, they dug a ditch up to my grandfather's parents’ home, laid some pipes and installed a pump to share rainwater for washing hair and rinsing clothes as a softener. The Texas Water Development Board notes that, "rainwater has long been valued for its purity and softness. It has a nearly neutral pH, and is free from disinfection by-products, salts, minerals, and other natural and man-made contaminants."

More than 80 percent of homes built before 1978 contain lead paint and lead poisoning in kids can cause IQ deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, hearing loss, difficulties in staying focused on tasks, poor impulse control and other behavior problems. A developing fetus can experience serious developmental problems from pregnant mothers poisoned by lead. Paint containing more than 0.06% lead was banned for residential use in the United States in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

*Disclaimer: Please do not concoct this recipe as the inherent dangers of using it is unknown. Any and all consequences to the use of the product will be your sole responsibility.


The Godwin Archives, Volume IV: NEIGHBORLY NOTES, Schoolwork, and Miscellaneous, (2007).

Godwin Family Reunion Cookbook 2007:
Used by permission

Lead and Paint:
Accessed August 31, 2007.

A Rum Site:
Accessed August 31, 2007.

Texas Water Development Board: Rainwater Harvesting FAQs:
Accessed January 21, 2007.

Whit"en*ing (?), n.


The act or process of making or becoming white.


That which is used to render white; whiting.


Whitening stone, a sharpening and polishing stone used by cutlers; also, a finishing grindstone of fine texture.


© Webster 1913.

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