Plan Your Work, Part 2

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan:
Housekeeping in a Historic House

Susan Haake

Curator, Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Springfield, Illinois

Part 2

“The only thing self-cleaning around here is the cat.”–Anonymous

In part 1 of this technical insert, we went over the creation of a housekeeping plan. Now it is time to get down to the details of housekeeping. Most of us probably have a general idea of how to safely move and clean the historic objects in the collections: always support the object from the strongest point–usually the base, not extensions such as arms or handles; wear gloves unless handling ceramics and glass; start with the gentlest and least abrasive cleaning methods and work up to stronger methods only if absolutely necessary. Here are some other ideas to try and mistakes to avoid when cleaning artifacts.

General Cleaning


Use soft cloths, such as flat, 100 percent cotton diapers, on horizontal surfaces. The static-cling dust cloths currently commercially available, such as Grab-Its or Swiffer, should not be used. You may have noticed that these cloths–especially the scented versions–leave a residue on your hands; they also leave this same residue on the items that you have cleaned. These cloths have not been available long enough to determine their long-term effects on furniture finishes. Cloths with static-cling or “magnetic” properties, often sold under the brand name Dust Bunny, are available from museum supply sources such as University Products or Light Impressions. These cloths have not been processed in the same way as have Grab-Its or Swiffer and may be used safely. On nonporous surfaces, use a damp cloth, magnetic cloth, or a cloth sprayed with Endust. Endust is the only “safe” spray cleaner recommended since it does not contain wax, silicone, or other materials that can build up over time. As with any cleaner, spray it on the cloth, not the artifact, to control where the spray goes and to prevent it from running into joints. Soiled dust cloths should be washed in hot water and bleach and dried thoroughly. The static-cling cloths may be washed but not bleached and must be dried to renew their “magnetic” quality.

Vertical or intricate surfaces may be dusted using a soft brush or a vacuum hose covered with a fiberglass screen, secured with a rubber band, to catch any loose pieces. Some painted surfaces may be cleaned with water and Orvus soap, a very mild cleaner available at farm supply stores or museum suppliers. Always spot-test on an inconspicuous place first. If a product or method does not work, be sure to mark it in the housekeeping plan or catalog records so that future housekeepers do not try it again.


Remove all window coverings and furniture from the area. A small drop-cloth may also be used to protect the window sill and floor. If ultraviolet filtering material is used on the window, check with the manufacturer for specific cleaning directions. Thoroughly check the stability of the frames and the glass. Be especially careful with stained glass or painted glass concerning the stability of the leading and the finish and do not clean if either is failing. Use equal parts of vinegar and water in a marked spray bottle and, again, spray on the cloth, not on the window. Start from the top and work down and have another person steady the ladder.

Window Coverings

When cleaning blinds and shutters, turn the slats to the closed position and wipe from the top down with a damp, soft cloth. Turn the slats to the opposite direction, switch sides on the blinds or shutters, and wipe down from the top again. Vacuum or brush dirt from the tapes as needed. Dust roller shades with a brush or soft cloth. Nonhistoric draperies can usually be dry cleaned, but check the manufacturer’s instructions first. Historic draperies should be examined by a textile conservator prior to any cleaning.


If possible, install a carpet runner in areas used by visitors. This limits the wear and tear on reproduced or historic carpet. Runners can be removed for cleaning and are relatively inexpensive to replace when worn. Some museums require visitors to wear disposable booties (available at medical supply stores) to protect rugs.

Nonhistoric carpets and rugs may be vacuumed with an upright vacuum. Avoid canister vacuums since it is difficult to keep track of both the vacuum head and the canister tank, especially in crowded areas. Pad the base of the vacuum cleaner, if needed, to prevent marking or damaging baseboards. Historic rugs can usually be vacuumed using the vacuum hose attachment covered with a fiberglass screen to avoid pulling threads into the vacuum.

Wooden floors should be dry-mopped frequently. For a more thorough cleaning, use a damp string mop, making sure not to strike the baseboards. Clean the areas close to the walls by hand. Remember that not every historic home originally had shiny waxed floors. Wooden floors develop a patina that should be appreciated. If waxing is required for a historically accurate appearance, use a nonskid paste wax. To protect the baseboards, it is preferable to apply floor wax by hand, but in reality it may be necessary to use a polishing machine. Remove all furniture, and lift draperies high above the floor and the machine to avoid catching them.

Tile, stone, and marble floors may be mopped using a small amount of Orvus soap and hot water and a damp string mop. Rinse with warm water. Don’t forget to close off the room while the floor is drying, or put a caution sign in place to warn visitors and staff to avoid walking in the room.


The most damage to books often occurs when they’re taken off the shelf. Do not pull a book out using the top of the spine. Instead push back the books on either side slightly, grasp the book in the center on both sides of the spine, and pull straight out.

• Hold books firmly closed and wipe off with soft cloth or magnetic wiping cloth, or vacuum with a brush attachment when dust is extensive. Brush away from the spine.

• Covers and edges of books can be brushed or vacuumed with very low suction. If pieces of the cover are loosened, be sure to save all fragments for conservation.

• Work from top to bottom, remove books in shelf order to a cart, and wipe off the shelf. Remove any acidic inserts like bookmarks, paper scraps, or pressed flowers and place in an acid-free folder. Maintain these items with the catalog records. Return the books to the shelf in order.

• Store volumes of similar size together to discourage warping and distortion.


Do not use polishes containing silicone or linseed and other slow-drying oils. They are all difficult to remove and could cause damage to the original finish by attracting and sealing dust into the surface finish.

Wooden Furniture

Endust sprayed onto a clean cloth can be used on finished wood since the product does not contain silicone. A cloth dampened with water may also be used, but this must be tested first in an inconspicuous spot and immediately followed by buffing with a dry cloth.

• If the furniture has a wax finish, rewaxing is not necessary as long as the existing layer can be buffed to a sheen. Generally a wax finish will last one to four years. Artifacts that are frequently touched may need rewaxing more often.

• If waxing is necessary, use paste wax to polish furniture; test first to make sure it does not soften the finish.

• Never wax furniture on a humid or hot day. The wax will not set properly and will not harden to the finish needed to protect and seal the surface.

• Use wax sparingly; too much wax produces a sticky surface that attracts dust. Two thin layers are preferable to a single thick one.

• On irregular surfaces, apply wax with a very soft child’s toothbrush. After drying, buff with a soft fiber brush, such as a shoe brush, padding the ends of the brush to avoid damaging objects.

• Tinted wax may be used. Check light-colored waxed areas for whitish specks in the pores of the wood after the solvent has dried (this may take several weeks). Remove the specks with a wooden toothpick or use a darker wax next time.

Rush or wicker

• Brush along the grain with a soft brush.

• For rough or hard-to-reach areas, compressed air can be used to blow out the dust. It must not exceed five pounds of pressure. Do not use compressed air that contains chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). CFCs have a damaging effect on the earth’s stratosphere.

Glass and Ceramics

Never soak glass or ceramic artifacts, especially those that have been repaired. Soaking may soften the adhesives used for repairs. Glass that has been broken and repaired can be cleaned with a towel dipped in an ammonia and water solution.

• Record the catalog numbers of the items being cleaned in case the numbers have been improperly applied; they inadvertently may be removed by washing. Numbers applied with permanent ink under acryloid should not be affected.

• Iridescent finishes should not be cleaned often, and only with a damp cloth when necessary.

• Wash the piece in warm (not hot) soapy water with Ivory flakes or Orvus soap. Use two tubs, one for washing and one for rinsing. Wash each piece separately. Rinse with distilled water to avoid mineral build-up.

• For stubborn stains at the bottom of narrow-necked bottles and vases, uncooked rice (not instant) may be used as a last resort to get out deposits. Swirl a small amount of rice with water into the container. Pour out and do not reuse. Make sure all grains have been removed.

• Check for any loose paint or finishes. If none is present, use cotton swabs or a moderately stiff brush to get into crevices. Wash from the top down and rinse with distilled water.

• If the glass does not have metallic decoration, a splash of ammonia can be added to the rinse water to prevent spotting.

• Dry the piece immediately with soft towels, preferably linen or cotton. A hairdryer can aid in drying, but it must be set on cold at low speed and held at a distance as the object is supported.

• To dry the interior of narrow-necked bottles, rinse with alcohol, or roll up a paper towel and make sure it reaches the base of the bottle and still sticks out of the top. The paper will draw the moisture out.

• Do not immerse porous and soft-paste ceramics or Parianware in water. Use damp cotton swabs instead.



Always wear Nitrile scientific gloves, often sold under the name Safeskin. These gloves are similar to rubber or vinyl gloves but do not damage metal; they also protect your hands against the drying effects of metal polishes. Do not use gloves treated with chlorine, which includes bleached cotton gloves, since chlorine leaves tarnish marks almost immediately.

Carefully examine the surface for an original coating. This includes shellac, patina (real or applied), or gilding. Do not remove this coating.

Before removing rust, make sure there is something under it to save. Test with a magnet for ferrous objects. If the magnet is not attracted to the object, no iron remains and the rust should not be removed. The rust may be the only indication of the original size and shape of the artifact.

Never store pewter on or in oak furniture unless it is well ventilated and separated by Mylar. The tannins in the oak will react with pewter and cause corrosion.


• If the piece is structurally sound with no original coating, brush off any loose dirt, guiding the dirt towards a vacuum hose.

• If light polishing is all that is needed, use a jeweler’s cloth to polish and buff. Jeweler’s cloth is impregnated with a dry polishing agent, like jeweler’s rouge, to remove light tarnish. Often a buffing cloth is attached to the polishing cloth for convenience, but use a separate cloth to buff the object. Change the buffing cloth frequently as it becomes dirty; this will help you to avoid rubbing the tarnish and dirt back onto the artifact.

• Tarnish should be removed only when the object is being displayed. It otherwise forms a protective barrier. Remember that polishing removes some of the original metal each time.

• Tarnishing can be slowed by placing objects in polyethylene bags after wrapping them in unbuffered acid-free tissue; store the objects in a very dry area (silica gel in a cabinet creates an ideal micro-climate for metals). A thin layer of microcrystalline wax can also be applied to help slow tarnish.


• Accession and catalog numbers should be recorded before cleaning since polishing may remove the numbers.

• Cover nonmetallic elements with thin sheets of clear polyethylene or Mylar for protection.

• Test an inconspicuous area with denatured alcohol on loose cotton; that may be all that is needed to polish the piece. Follow up with a light buffing using flannel or more loose cotton, changing it frequently to avoid scratching the surface of the piece with dirt and tarnish. Allow the object to dry completely.

• Remove wax or oils with a cotton ball dipped in mineral spirits. Note: Always clean metals in a well-ventilated area. Use a rolling motion rather than rubbing, and change cotton often.

• Do not allow liquid to penetrate hollow areas that are difficult to dry.

• For heavier polishing, mix a small amount of precipitated calcium carbonate and denatured alcohol in a shallow dish until it is the consistency of heavy cream. Lightly rub this onto object with flannel or cotton, changing out dirty pieces often.

• Remove residue with cotton dipped in denatured alcohol, and buff with flannel.

• Coat the object with a tiny amount of microcrystalline wax. Wait a minute or two to let it dry and buff with old silk or old nylon hose.

• Periodically dust with a soft natural-bristle brush. Soft or medium natural-bristle toothbrushes, jewelers watch brushes, oil-painting bristle brushes (sizes 4—6), or stencil brushes should be used.


Surface cleaning can be accomplished with a soft brush after a careful inspection to check for loose or powdery material. A type of loose eraser powder, sold as Opaline and Scum-X, may also be used. Test a small area of print first for stability by placing the eraser powder on the surface and gently rubbing with the pad provided. Wet cleaning should not be undertaken.

• To remove mold, brush off the surface or, preferably, use a low-suction vacuum since mold spores can spread through the air quickly and easily. Try to do this outside in good weather.

• Wax can be removed by scraping off as much as possible with a very dull knife, but take extra care to avoid tearing the paper. Any remaining staining can usually be removed with a cotton swab dipped in mineral spirits. Test in an inconspicuous spot first.

• To remove oil or grease, roll a cotton swab soaked in acetone gently over the stain.

• Mylar encapsulation of nonparchment documents helps postpone the need to clean and provides protection for the documents. Parchment should be stored in unbuffered acid-free folders and boxes.


Vacuuming is the only procedure that is recommended for the nonspecialist to use in cleaning textiles. Both sides of the textile should be vacuumed through a fiberglass screen with the edges taped to avoid catching on any threads, or the screen may be wrapped securely around the hose attachment. The screen will prevent loose threads, beading, or cloth fragments from being sucked into the vacuum.

• Check textiles, especially folded ones, frequently for possible pests. If pests or mold are detected, isolate the textile in a plastic bag until a conservator is consulted.

• Do not allow stains to set over a long period of time. If possible, determine what made the stains before consulting with a conservator. If dry-cleaning is approved, arrange for a consultation with the dry cleaner to examine the textile together. Point out all stains and weak spots.

There are many other types of artifacts that can be cleaned in-house, but a conservator should be consulted first. Check with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) at <> or call (202) 452-9545 to find a conservator who can help.

Tools and Equipment

Keep tools clean; wash brushes with a mild solution of Ivory soap flakes or Orvus and water. Dust cloths can be washed with regular detergent and bleach, but do not use fabric softeners.

The following is a list of the materials mentioned in the discussion of cleaning methods above, as well as other items that are useful for housekeeping. Each material or item is followed by the purpose for which it is usually used. The subheadings in this list give possible locations where the materials may be purchased. However, the sources listed are just suggestions and are not the only places where they may be found.

Hardware or Discount Stores (i.e., Wal-Mart, Big R)

Acetone: removes oil and grease from metals. This will also remove acryloid and ink, so use with caution around catalog numbers on artifacts.

Ammonia: cleaning floors, ceramics, and glass

Brushes (natural-hair, artists, paint, photographic, shaving, shoe): used to clean hard-to-reach places

Buckets: storing cleaning materials, general cleaning

Cloth diapers, 100% cotton, flat: general cleaning

Cotton pads: general cleaning

Cotton swabs: general cleaning

Dishpans: cleaning glass and ceramics

Distilled water: rinsing glass and ceramics.

Dust mop with removable mop head: cleaning floors

Ear syringe: blowing dust out of crevices

Endust: cleaning furniture

Fiberglass screening: vacuuming textiles and furniture

Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol): cleaning metals

Ivory soap flakes: general cleaning

Jeweler’s cloth: polishing metals; may also be found in jewelry stores

Lamb’s wool duster: general cleaning

Loose cotton and/or cotton balls: polishing metal. “Homemade” metal polish paste can be made from precipitated calcium carbonate chalk, distilled water, and alcohol. Recipe: 1 part alcohol, 1 part water, small amount of chalk. Mix until it is the consistency of heavy cream. Apply sparingly and rinse thoroughly. Keep any extra in a tightly sealed glass container.

Mineral spirits: removing old polish from metals or old wax from wooden artifacts

Paper towels: general cleaning

Rice, uncooked, not instant: cleaning narrow-necked glass or ceramics

Steel wool, 000 or 0000 grade: removing light rust from metals

String mop: cleaning floors

Tinted paste wax: polishing wooden furniture

Vacuum attachments: keep one set for “clean” things like textiles; use another, marked “dirty,” for floors

Vinegar: cleaning glass or ceramics


Museum Supply Stores

Call for catalogs: Light Impressions, 800-828-6216; University Products, 800-628-1912; Gaylord, 800-448-6160

Acid-free tissue, buffered and unbuffered: padding folds in textiles

Gloves, cotton and Nitrile (Safeskins): general cleaning and metal polishing; Nitrile gloves may also be purchased from scientific material suppliers

Magnetic dusting cloth (Dust Bunny): general cleaning

Microcrystalline wax (Renaissance Wax): top-coat metal and wood polish

Mylar sheets: protecting areas from wax or polish; storing papers

Orvus soap: general cleaning

Polyethylene bags: small and/or multipart artifact storage

Polyethylene foam (Ethafoam): padding artifacts for storage

Powdered erasers (Opaline or Scum-X): cleaning paper

Silica gel: used with storing metals

Vacuum with hose attachment wrapped in polyester netting and HEPA filter: serves many cleaning purposes; variable speed is preferred

White vinyl (art) erasers: cleaning paper

Pharmacy or medical supplies

Surgical booties, disposable: walking on historic carpets


An asterisk denotes a work that is available from the IHA circulating library.

Reference Works

*Butcher-Younghans, Sherry. Historic House Museums: A Practical Handbook for Their Care, Preservation, and Management. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fred Woods Productions. Housekeeping for Historic Sites. Video. Cambridge, Mass.: National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1996.

*Lewis, Ralph H. Manual for Museums. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1976.

*MacLeish, A. Bruce. The Care of Antiques and Historical Collections. Nashville: AASLH Press, 1985.

Raphael, Toby. Exhibit Conservation Guidelines. CD-ROM. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, Division of Conservation, 1999.

Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of Nineteenth-Century Photographic Prints. Rochester, N.Y.: Eastman Kodak Company, 1986.

Sandwith, Hermione, and Sheila Stainton. The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Schultz, Arthur W., gen. ed. Caring for Your Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Technical Leaflets

The following technical leaflets are offered by various organizations in downloadable form from the Internet or in printed form. Each series covers a variety of topics. Many of these leaflets are available from the IHA circulating library.

CCI Notes. Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0M5. <>.

Caring for Your Artifacts–The Care and Preservation of . . . Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Internet Research Services. Research Center, The Henry Ford Museum, P.O. Box 1970, Dearborn, MI 48121-1970. <>.

Conserv-O-Grams. National Park Service, Museum Management Program, 1849 C Street N.W., Room NC 230, Washington, DC 20240. <>.

How to . . . Congress of Illinois Historical Societies and Museums (now Illinois Association of Museums), One Capitol Plaza, Springfield, IL 62701. <>.

Technical Inserts. Illinois Heritage Association, 602 1/2 East Green Street, Champaign, IL 61820. <>.

Technical Leaflets. American Association for State and Local History, 1717 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37203. <>.

Technical Leaflets. Northeast Document Conservation Center Internet Resources, 100 Brickstone Square, Andover, MA 01810-1494. <>