A very pretty cluster of Oak Leaves with some Acorns attached, this antique Botanical image comes from an 1890’s book. Image courtesy of thegraphicsfairy.com.

This selection came from “The Household Encyclopaedia; or, Family Dictionary of Everything Connected with Housekeeping and Domestic Medicine Vol. II,” by an Association of Heads of Families and Men of Science, 1859. It provided a nice overview of the oak tree and how to care for oak floors. As with any vintage perspective, I found myself looking up several terms and have provided links to definitions.

EmbonpointPlumpness of person.

Ox-gallThe gall (bile) of cattle, used in cleaning and painting, and formerly for medicinal purposes.

Fuller’s Earth – Fuller’s Earth was named several hundred years ago when wool textile workers or “Fullers” created a time-saving concoction to remove the dense oils from sheep’s wool.

BalmAny of several aromatic plants of the mint family; especially :  lemon balm.


The various species of oak are remarkable for their powerfully astringent properties, for the colouring matters they contain, and for their various other uses in the arts, manufactures, medicine, and domestic economy. The common oak (Quercus pedunculata) is that which is met with so plentifully in this country; but there is also another species called red oak, chestnut oak, or durmast (Q. sessiliflora). The former is distinguished by having no footstalks to its leaves, and by its fruit being borne on long stalks; the latter by its leaves having footstalks sometimes nearly an inch long, and by its fruit being seated close on the branch without any stalk at all. The latter is not nearly so common as the former, but there are parts of the country where it is found in considerable quantity. As these two species closely resemble each other in their properties, products, and uses, we shall not consider them apart, but regard the observations about to be made as referable to both, with this important exception —that the timber of Q. sessiliflora is infinitely inferior to that of Q. pedunculata, being considerably softer and less durable.

The wood of the oak is harder and more solid than that of any other European timber tree, and, as is well known, is largely employed in ship building, carpentry, wagon work, cabinet making, mill work, and coopering. The bark is of great utility, as furnishing in greatest abundance the article known as tan for tanning hides and skins; and this property is owing to the presence of a great quantity of tannic acid. It also contains a peculiar bitter principle known by the name of quercin. After the bark has been used in the tanyard it is employed for making hotbeds in forcing-houses. Acorns, or the fruit of the oak, are highly nutritious to various animals, but particularly to hogs, which rapidly fatten on them; and it has been observed that those are best for the purpose that have been washed and dried by exposure to the air. In Turkey the acorns of several sorts of oak are buried in the ground in the same way as cacao beans are, to deprive them of their bitterness; they are then dried, washed, and reduced to powder with sugar and aromatics. The substance thus formed is called palamonte, and the food that is prepared from it is called racahout, and is used in the seraglios to fatten and keep up the embonpoint of the sultanas. In some parts of Europe acorns are said to be converted into bread. By analysis they have been found to contain in 1000 parts—fixed oil, 43; resin, 52; gum, 64; tannin, 90; bitter extractive, 52; starch, 385; lignin, 319; and traces of potash, lime, alumina, and some earthy salts; by which it will be seen that they contain more than a third of nutritive matter, and that consequently they are capable of being taken as food, particularly when they have been deprived of their resinous and extractive matters. In Italy the oil is extracted and applied to burning in lamps, but it does not appear that much attention has been given to this branch of industry. It is stated by Dr. Barras that he found the infusion of roasted acorns, sweetened with sugar, of great advantage in promoting digestion, if taken in the same way as coffee after meals; and that he has seen dyspepsia, and even disordered stomach, cured by the use of them. The acorns and the cup have been found useful as an astringent in mucous diarrhoea. The acorns of Q. esculus, or Italian oak, have somewhat prickly cups, and are long, slender, and esculent, and may, in times of scarcity, be ground into flour and made into bread. The tree is a native of Spain, Italy, and the south of Europe, and is supposed to be the true Phagus of the Greeks, and the Esculus of Pliny.

Quercus agilops is called valonia oak, because its cups and acorns furnish the article valonia, so much used in the arts for tanning and dyeing. The tree grows abundantly in the Levant, whence the great supplies of valonia are imported. The acorns are very large and short, set in a large mossy cup; and the two together form the valonia of commerce, which is said to contain more tannin in a given bulk of substance than any other vegetable. Q. infectoria is a small shrub, growing abundantly in Asia Minor. It is on the young shoots of this shrub that the gall-nuts of commerce are produced. They are caused by a small insect, Diplolepis gallaetinctoria, the female of which punctures the young growing shoots, and therein deposits its eggs, which occasions an extravasation of the sap and a cellular swelling of the part, which continues to increase in size. The egg in course of time produces a larva, which lives upon the interior of the gall, until, being transformed into a fly, it eats its way out by a small round hole, as may be sometimes seen in galls. But to have galls in the highest perfection they should be gathered before the egg is hatched, or the fly has escaped. At this period they are of a dark colour, and are hence called blue, green, or black galls; but if allowed to remain longer they lose their dark colour, and are then called white galls. Galls are powerfully astringent, and are employed in medicine and in the arts. They form an important ingredient in the making of writing ink, and are employed as an internal remedy in chronic diarrhoea and chronic dysentery, and also as an astringent gargle. Formed into an ointment they serve as a useful external application to hemorrhoidal affections.


To keep these brown, clean, and bright without washing, strew mint, balm, fennel, or other green sweet herbs on the boards well swept, and rub them all over the wood with a long hard brush till it be scrubbed clean. When the wood or boards are quite dry the herbs should be swept off, and the boards, being well dry rubbed with a dry rubbing brush, will look like mahogany, and have an agreeable smell. Greasy spots may be taken out by laying a little ox-gall on at night, and washing them well next morning with a little brush and clean flannel, with some strong lye; but if the spots be slight a little clay or fuller’s earth will do; or, if they be dirt or marks of feet, dry rubbing will remove them, and after these operations the boards will keep a long time bright and brown with only using a little hard brush.

2 thoughts on “An Overview of the Uses and Care of Oak

  1. I didn’t know there was that much to know about oaks! (There is quite a bit more than “Big trees from little acorns grow…”!)

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