Has the Meaning of Varnish Changed over the Past Hundred Years?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Thursday, May 8, 1913:  Rufus was busy shining up the piano, desk, etc. with varnish. It’s rather difficult to keep from getting in it, and then you have to handle your fingers so gingerly. I’ve been warned several times.

piano

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

The piano was almost new. Grandma’s mother purchased it on March 29, 1913:

. . . Ma bought a piano. I’m so glad for now I can learn to play.

The meaning of the word varnish must have changed over the last hundred years. When I think of varnish, I think of a lacquer; but it sounds like Grandma was referring to furniture polish.

Grandma called her sister Ruth, Rufus when she was annoyed with her.  I can almost see Grandma’s fingerprints on the shiny piano wood; and Ruth’s exasperated expression.

38 Responses

  1. She may have been adding varnish to further protect the piano.

  2. Interesting! Perhaps your magazines will reveal an advertisement for piano varnish and then we will know :)

  3. Gallivanta had a good thought about finding an ad for varnish. It does sound as thought there was a bit of friction that day between Grandma and “Rufus”!

    • I love the way Grandma used sometimes called her sister “Rufus.” I wonder if she ever actually called Ruth, Rufus or if it just was a name she used in the diary.

  4. Varnish meant Pledge a hundred years ago! ;)

  5. I always thought of varnish as a shiny permanent coating. Doubt that would be put on a piano though.

  6. Wow! She did not know that those words would reverberate 100 years later – such an ordinary task for her turned out to inspire thoughts in her descendants (and others around the world). Isn’t that amazing?! <3

  7. Interesting how word meanings can change over 100 years. I would think that she means furniture oil. My husband oils all of our woodwork and wood furniture once a year (the rest of the year we use a Pledge-type product) and it has to have time to soak in or there are marks (like fingerprints).

  8. Having to “handle your fingers so gingerly” resonates with me – I have trouble with delicate tasks involving chemicals, too.

  9. It does sound that way to me, too. I wonder if it was a homemade concoction.

    • It might have been. I’ve seen “recipes” for making various cleaning supplies in old books. I’ll have look and see if I can find one for “varnish”.

  10. I think it is funny that she has a name for her sister when she gets annoyed with her.

  11. I’m sure I could use some of that ‘varnish’ for my dusty piano! Jane

  12. We’re learning a lot about life 100 years ago, and even finding puzzles to solve.

    • Sometimes I wonder, if someone a hundred years out in the future read something that we wrote, which words and phrases would they find puzzling?

  13. […] Has the Meaning of Varnish Changed over the past Hundred Years by A HUNDRED YEARS AGO […]

  14. So happy to find you thru Diana today! paula

  15. I must be older than all of you as I remember the expression “varnish” referring to applying a protective coating to our piano that was done regularly.
    Enjoyed your post. Diana sent me.

    • It’s interesting how both the meaning of words–and how we care for our furniture has changed across the years. I’m doing really well if I get the Pledge out when I dust. :)

  16. Diana sent me too..what a lovely idea for a blog!

  17. …and we’re back to Rufus again.
    March? That long ago? LOL reading all these so close to each other is mixing me up.
    For the violin, varnish is the coat the maker puts on the wood to make it all shiny, so, yes, I would assume “Grandma” was talking about some sort of polish. Isn’t that also the word for when silver gets, uh, like dull and stuff?

    • Interesting about the terminology. . . I wonder if there are regional variations in the words people use. I’d say that silverware is polished.

      • Hmmm…nonono I think I got my words mixed-up. I looked on dictionary.com and it didn’t say anything about the silver thing. ANYWAY….The violin part was right though.

  18. Sounds like something I might do, make fingerprints on something freshly cleaned. I’m also pretty good at spilling things, I try to be mindful, but it seems like it happens anyways.

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