A newsletter reader wrote this week and asked about the wisdom of using shaving cream on tombstones. I have been reading about this topic occasionally for about thirty years and am still not clear on the answer. I thought I would ask newsletter readers if someone with the proper expertise can give an authoritative answer.
For background, reading the inscriptions on old tombstones often can be difficult. Taking pictures of the stones is even more difficult. One method of improving readability has been used many times by genealogists: the use of having cream to fill in the depressed lettering. The white letters then appear in strong contrast to the stone's surface, making the letters easy to read.
To do this, first wet the stone. Then cover a section of the stone with the moist cream and then scrape the excess cream of with a damp sponge (some say with a straight edged piece of Styrofoam). The result will be clearly readable letters. I have seen photographs of "shaving cream enhanced" tombstones and can verify that this method works well.
HOWEVER, many people will tell you that shaving cream contains chemicals that are harmful to the stone, especially to the softer stones commonly used many years ago. These people will tell you to never, ever under any circumstances use shaving cream on a tombstone.
I would expect the Association for Gravestone Studies would have a lot of expertise on this subject so I checked their web site. Indeed, that organization is strongly against the use of shaving cream. Their site at http://www.gravestonestudies.org/preservation.htm says:
Our professional conservators tell us it is definitely not a good idea to use shaving cream on porous gravestones because there are chemicals, greasy emollients, in shaving cream that are sticky and very difficult to remove from the stone with a simple washing. Indeed, even with vigorous scrubbing and lots of rinsing, the cream fills in the pores of a porous stone and cannot all be removed. The result of leaving it there is that in time it may discolor or damage the stone.
I must admit that the warning from the Association for Gravestone Studies sounds logical to me. However, I have also heard counter arguments from many people although I do not know the credentials of any of these "other people." I do not have a degree in chemistry so I will not make claims as to what is accurate and what is not. Here are some of the claims I have heard:
- Shaving creams of thirty or forty years ago did contain harsh chemicals. In cases of repeated use, those chemicals could harm a stone. However, the old alkaline shaving creams were also harsh on the skin and almost all the manufacturers have now switched to more inert ingredients. Unlike the products of years ago, today's shaving creams reportedly don't harm stones or skin or much of anything else.
- Take along a jug of water to wash off the shaving cream when done. The application of shaving cream for a few minutes supposedly will not create a problem, according to those who recommend rinsing with water.
- Today's acid rain exposes a tombstone to many more acids than those contained in shaving cream. So do bird droppings.
- One person told me that she uses Cool-Whip instead of shaving cream. (NOTE: I have no idea if that is a better or worse solution!)
Again, I would love to hear from knowledgeable readers, preferably someone with a background in chemistry or some other, related discipline. If you can quote some facts, I'd like to invite you to post comments at the end of this article. Many genealogists will appreciate hearing from you, myself included.