To protect themselves against rain, Victorians wore boiled wool coats, oiled silk capes, oiled silk umbrellas, or early rubberized coats. I’ve compiled five recipes how fabric and shoes were made waterproof between the 1840s and 1860s.
To make cloth waterproof: ‘Take half an ounce of isinglass (Russian is best), put it into one pound of rain water, and boil until dissolved; take one ounce of alum, put it into two pounds of water, and boil till it is dissolved; take a quarter of an ounce of white soap, with one pound of rain water, and boil till it is dissolved. After each of these ingredients has been separately dissolved, strain them separately through a piece of linen; afterwards mix them well together in a pot’. Spread the cloth on a table, and put the solution ‘on the fire again till it simmers, then take it off, and while thus near boiling, dip a brush into it, and apply it to the wrong side of the cloth’. Let the cloth dry on the table. Then brush it ‘on the wrong side against the grain’. To remove the gloss caused by the solution, brush the cloth with a wet brush, and let the cloth dry again. ‘Three days after the operation has been done, the cloth will be imperious to water but not to air.’ (The Workwoman’s Guide, 1840, p. 229)
Oiled silk hoods ‘are convenient for persons who travel much, or go excursions in open carriages, as a protection against rain; they are made of oiled silk, either black, or light coloured, the former looks best’ (The Workwoman’s Guide, 1840, p. 162) Here’s the pattern for the oiled silk hood: The Workwoman’s Guide, 1840, plate 20 fig. 17,18.
To make oilskin: Ordinary method: Paint the fabric ‘with two or more coats of boiled linseed oil, allowing each coat to dry before the next is applied.’ Improved Dr. Stenhouse’s method (patented in 1864): ‘impregnate the fabric with a mixture of hard paraffine and boiled oil in proportions varying according to circumstances from 95 per cent of paraffine and 5 of oil to 70 per cent of the former and 30 of the latter. The most usual percentages are 80 and 20.’ (Henley’s twentieth century formulas, recipes and processes, 1914, p. 751)
‘Cloth may be rendered waterproof by rubbing the under side with a lump of beeswax’. This makes the cloth ‘practically waterproof, although still leaving it porous to air.’ (Henley’s twentieth century formulas, recipes and processes, 1914, p. 749)
To make Indian rubber varnish: ‘Put in a bottle two ounces of Indian rubber, cut very small; add one pound of spirits of turpentine, and stop the bottle close, that the spirit may not evaporate; leave it two days without moving, then stir the liquor with a wooden spatula, and if the India rubber is swollen, and has absorbed the spirit, add a sufficient quantitiy for it just to swim in the liquid. Stir it every forty eight hours, till the India rubber is quite dissolved, which is ascertained by squeezing a little of it between the fingers; when in this state put it in a glass bottle and keep it well corked till wanted for use; the longer it is kept the better it becomes.’ (The Workwoman’s Guide, 1840, p. 231) Rubber varnish was used to make rubberized coats and balloons.
To make shoes waterproof: ‘One pound of mutton suet, four ounces of bees-wax, two ounces of Venice turpentine, mixed altogether; the bees-wax being melted and strained. Put on the composition with a hare’s foot or brush, drying it before the fire, and repeating it at intervals of time, till all the seams and little cracks are filled up.’ (The Workwoman’s Guide, 1840, p. 227)
Waterproof varnish for shoes, boots, etc.: 8 parts linseed oil, 10 parts boiled oil, 8 parts suet, 8 parts beeswax. ‘Mix with heat and apply hot.’ (The Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts, 1841)
To preserve woodwork: Boiled oil and finely-powdered charcoal; mix to the consistence of paint, and give the wood two or three coats with this composition. Well adapted for water spouts, casks, &c.’ (The Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts, 1841)
- By a lady (1840), The Workwoman’s Guide, London, Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., Stationers’ Hall Court
- By a practical chemist (1841), The Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts, London, John Churchill
- Hiscox, G. D. (1914), Henley’s twentieth century formulas, recipes and processes, New York, Norman W. Hemley