8 Highly Effective Old-School Cleaning Products

published Jun 24, 2022
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Someone scrubbing inside Dutch oven.
Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani

Sure, we love newfangled tools and Instagram stars with snappy names like Blueland, Magic Eraser, and Scrub Daddy, but there’s nothing quite like a Comet canister wrapped in bright-green metallic foil to make you feel like you’re cleaning the kitchen sink the way your mom did. That’s why we rounded up eight cleaning products that have been around for decades — and they’re every bit as useful today as they were way back when.

Credit: Danielle Centoni

1. Dawn Dish Soap

Dawn dish soap is as recognizable today as it ever was, perhaps due to its clever ad campaign and the cute, fluffy duckling that’s imprinted in all of our minds. Dawn’s first iteration was in the 1950s as a bar soap designed to remove facial oils and grease. In 1973, Proctor & Gamble introduced the liquid version, which remains the bestselling dish soap in the country. 

Why it’s a classic: In addition to washing dishes and busting grease, Dawn can be used in all kinds of surprising household applications, including cleaning the grill, taking care of stainless steel appliances, and degreasing cabinets.

Credit: U.S. Patent Office trademarks (Library of Congress)

2. Bar Keepers Friend

Bar Keepers Friend, one of my personal favorite cleaning products, was invented in 1882 by chemist George William Hoffman, who discovered the cleaning properties of oxalic acid when he roasted a pan of rhubarb. Lo and behold, his previously tarnished pot had become miraculously clean. Hoffman formulated an oxalic acid-based cleaning powder that he initially marketed to taverns for use as a brass rail polish — hence the name, “Bar Keepers Friend.” 

The product became a household item after World War II, when a plating shop owner ordered it to serve the customers who kept asking him how to clean metal items. He knew about Bar Keepers Friend because his very own grandma had used it! 

Why it’s a classic: The company is still family-owned, and Bar Keepers Friend is used in many households to tackle all kinds of messes, including tarnished pots and pans, rusty items, and grimy bathtubs. 

3. Comet

Comet is an American scouring powder, marketed as a “scratch-free disinfectant cleanser.” The brand was introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1956 and can be used on delicate surfaces, although it’s advisable to use “plenty of water” while cleaning. Note that Comet, which contains bleach, should never be mixed with cleaners that contain ammonia or acids. (Cleaning products should never be mixed anyway.)

Why it’s a classic: Comet is a star at scrubbing the sink after the dishes are done. Make this part of your nightly routine, and you’ll banish tough stains and grime before they even set in.

Credit: Jeff Morgan 05 / Alamy Stock Photo

4. Fels Naptha

Fels Naptha was created in 1893 by Fels and Company as a laundry soap used for pre-treating clothing stains and as a home remedy for, believe it or not, poison ivy and other skin irritations. Importantly, naptha, aka benzene solvent (which was later found to be a carcinogen), has been removed from the soap. 

Why it’s a classic: It’s particularly effective against chocolate, baby formula, perspiration, and, yes, makeup. 

Credit: Joe Mabel

5. Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing

Even today, Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing just looks (delightfully) like a vintage product. It began in 1883 with Al Stewart, who peddled the bluing in the Midwest. Billed as “the most effective, safe, versatile, economical, environmentally friendly laundry whitener available,” the product is used to restore dingy whites and keep white clothing looking its best.

Why it’s a classic: Plain and simple, it’s a proven optical brightener used in the washing machine or to whiten items while hand-washing them. 

Credit: Hi-Story / Alamy Stock Photo

6. Bon Ami

Bon Ami came on the scene in 1886 as a scratch-free abrasive cleanser. The main ingredient is feldspar, which is softer than other cleansers, enabling it to clean surfaces without scratching them. People continue to love it because it has stayed true to its roots, free from bleach and other additives, such as fragrances.

Why it’s a classic: Bon Ami may be one of the best stainless steel cleaners on the market.

7. Murphy Oil Soap

The formula for Murphy Oil Soap, as it’s known today, was bought by Jeremiah Murphy, of the Phoenix Oil Company, in 1910 from a German immigrant. The soap has a potassium vegetable oil base and no phosphates.

Why it’s a classic: It’s commonly used to clean horse tack, but it also is a champion at cleaning wood surfaces, greasy residue, carpet stains, and even your leather banquette.

Credit: John Frost Newspapers / Alamy Stock Photo

8. S.O.S. Pads

S.O.S. Pads are the brainchild of aluminum cooking utensil salesman Irwin Cox. In 1917, he was looking for a way his customers could keep their new pans bright and shiny. As a result, he invented a pre-soaped steel wool pad. He dipped wool balls into liquid soap and allowed them to dry. The name comes from Cox’s wife, who called the pads S.O.S., which stood for “Save Our Saucepans.” A year later, Cox was issued a U.S. patent for the concept, and the next year, investors began to manufacture and sell it. 

Why it’s a classic: S.O.S. Pads work like magic on cookware, but may also be winners throughout the home, including in the bathroom, garage, and outdoors.

Did we leave any old-school cleaning favorites off this list? Tell us in the comments below.