by Camille Myers Breeze
In January, 2011, Mary O'Dwyer brought us her grandfather's 1875 christening gown, to see if we could do anything to help her. We could not believe our eyes when she arrived with a pair of lovely cotton garments the color of robin's eggs. The blue was streaky and could not mask a pattern of brown stains, most noticeable on the front.
Although most of us had heard the term "bluing" we had never seen a dramatic example in person of what could go wrong with the treatment. The principal behind bluing is that the yellowing that occurs with aging in both natural and synthetic fabrics can be neutralized with the addition of a light application of blue dye. This same principal is used by some older women on their hair, with infamous results. The active ingredient in bluing is a fine iron powder containing the pigment Prussian blue (ferric hexacyanoferrate). Several brands of laundry bluing were popular from the late 1800s, including Mrs. Stewart's, which is still sold today.
While Mary O'Dwyer was still in our studio, we pulled an old book from our library shelves and read up on laundry bluing. Laundering and Dry Cleaning, published in 1925 by the Women's Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, Scranton, PA, gave the following advice for bluing in section 81:
This same book states that, "If it does happen that the clothes become overblued, they may be whitened by placing them in cold water and heating them to the boiling point, repeating the process if necessary until all excess bluing is removed." However, similar attempts had already been made without success. An online source gave additional advice to "use a solution of 1 C. household ammonia to 1 qt. of cold water and soak, covered tightly for 48-72 hours. You may need to perform this procedure 2-3 times, washing with detergent following each process."
Mary O'Dwyer decided to try the treatment herself, with some trepidation. Imagine our delight the following summer when out of the blue she emailed us these photos of her family christening gown, clean and white! She reported that her granddaughter had been baptized the previous Sunday and that the dress looked beautiful. The simple ammonia soak was successful in reversing the bluing and did not leave the cotton dry or brittle.
Although we still have no first-hand experience treating blued textiles, we're delighted at the success of this old-school recipe.