"There is so much misinformation available on the right way to document a gravestone marker that it is a wonder that any of them are still standing."
- Maureen Taylor
The World Wide Web has been a godsend to those both trying to provide as well as those searching for information in the area of cemetery preservation. The number of web sites pertaining in some fashion to this area has grown vastly in the past several years. For example, if you were to go to the Google website and enter the words "cemetery preservation" as a search field, you would get back a list of some 355,900 possible matching links. On the words "cemetery restoration", some 49,00 possible links. And more are being added every day. As a direct result of this rapid growth, a problem not limited to this specific area, but widespread over the entire Internet has shown it's face. Anyone, anywhere in the world with access to a computer and a little basic knowledge of the aspects of getting a web page online can put just about any information that they feel like out there. In many cases this could (and should be) be viewed as a positive thing. However, in reality many of these people are placing information out there for others to find that is incorrect and as a direct result encouraging people who are trying to do the right thing to go out to the cemetery and do things that should not be done.
One topic that has been debated for quite some time now is the use of Shaving Cream on a gravestone in order to make the carvings more visible. Most people who have some experience in this area know that this is not a good practice and by doing so you can cause irreparable damage to the stone itself in many cases. And while there are a number of web sites that encourage the reader to not use this method of reading a stone, a good number of them do not go into any detailed explanations as to why it is not a good practice and what effects it can have on the stone. They do not tell you that most brands and types contain, among other things, perfumes and stearic acid. They also do not inform you that the pH of typical shaving cream is in 5 range, which makes it more acidic than acid rain. Many of the newer shaving creams such as the Gillette Series line have replaced stearic acid with palmitic acid which while somewhat safer for use on your skin should still not be used on the surface of a gravestone.
They say something to the effect of "Do not apply shaving cream or other chemicals to the stones, as this can also cause damage", and assume that you will take them at their word and not do it because they told you so. . Even the Association For Gravestone Studies is not constant in dealing with the subject on their web site. If you look for the information on the Preservation page, you find the following somewhat detailed information;
"Why can't I use shaving cream to highlight inscriptions on difficult to read stones?
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 pours 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."
However if you were to look on the F.A.Q. page, it states only:
"Don't use shaving cream, chalk, graphite, dirt, or other concoctions in an attempt to read worn inscriptions".
Found on the Ancestry.com website is the following, reprinted from the November/December 1994 issue (Vol.12 No.6) :
"Put the plastic bag on your hand; squirt shaving cream either into your hand or directly on the stone; rub cream all over the stone, squeegee the stone in one direction over the inscription. If the stone is large, you may want to do parts at a time since the cream will dry quickly on a hot day. If the inscription is not clear, apply the cream again, and squeegee in another direction. Some information may still be illegible, but you may get part of a name or date that you couldn't read with the "naked eye." If the stone is shiny granite, shaving cream in the inscription will allow the stone to photograph much better. Since the cream does not harm the stone, and water or rain washes any excess cream away, this method is safe."
Now to make things even more confusing, if you were to further research the Ancestry.com website you would find this in Ancestry Daily News edition of 6/1/1999:
"Do not apply shaving cream or other chemicals to the stones, as this can also cause damage"
In all fairness, some web sites start to tell you why to not use this method, along the lines of what AGS has done on the preservation page, such as the Texas State Historical Commission, who state on their page "People should avoid using harsh substances with emollients, such as shaving cream, to reveal inscriptions; the oils from these products are not washed off by rain and can cause the stone to deteriorate.". In the Newsletter of the Canterbury Genealogy Society Discussion Group, February 2000 issue, they state "Shaving cream does, indeed, leave an acid residue that does not wash off. It destroys marble and limestone".
However, if you are going to tell people not to use this method, then an explanation of exactly why this should not be done is in order. Otherwise why should someone take those words at face value over those that tell a different story?
So, why not use Shaving Cream in order to make the stone more readable? Careful research of the question yields some insightful and valuable information on the subject. To begin with, the exact formulas for shaving creams are corporate trade secrets however, it is common knowledge that most contain emollients to soften the skin, while at the same time protecting it. Shaving Cream also contains a chemical known as stearic acid (defined by Britannica.com as "a colourless, waxy solid that is almost insoluble in water") which will cause the surface of the stone to exfoliate, especially if that stone is either granite, marble or limestone. Granite is an igneous rock, and therefore highly susceptible to any type of chemical weathering. By putting shaving cream on the stone, you are doing the same thing acid rain does over a long period of time, only you are hastening the destruction. Marble and Limestone are highly reactive to acids, and will actually sublimate in the presence of hydrochloric acid. That means it will go from a solid to a vapor without a liquid stage, as it releases certain parts of its chemical structure. Further reason for not using shaving cream lies in the potential damage over a very long period of time, not just a few years. The chemicals in shaving cream will permeate into the microscopic pores of the stone and will not be readily washed out. These chemicals, which consist of soaps, mineral oil, fatty alcohols and other skin conditioners are all organic compounds which are biodegradable. Since they are biodegradable, they provide food for microscopic organisms, fungi, mosses, etc. The growth of such organisms in the pores of a stone causes expansive forces which will gradually cause microscopic particles of the stone to be flaked off. These enlarged microscopic pores can also collect moisture in wet freezing weather and the freezing action causes microscopic fractures of the stone because, as you know, water expands upon freezing. In other words, only completely chemically inert materials should ever contact a tombstone.
The rule that should be followed is to do no harm, and nothing irreversible. Anything that dislodges bits of stone IS damaging. Likewise, don't use any chemical compounds that are untested or cannot be removed completely. The residue from Styrofoam is inert, therefore not chemically damaging. Shaving creams and other household cleaning chemicals have active (and usually acidic) components. If you ever have an opportunity to observe professional stone conservators work on old stones you will find that they begin cleaning with the weakest possible substance (water) progressing to other cleaners as appropriate. When chemical cleaners are called for they use very weak (non-acidic) cleaners and the absolutely flood the stones with water to wash away as much residue as possible.
So now we have solid, logical reasoning backed up with hard facts as to why not use shaving cream on a stone. But again falling back to the problem at hand, for every web site that will tell you to not us this method, there are just as many sources on the Internet today that will tell you exactly the opposite. For example, if you were to go to the Ghostseakers Genealogy Tip of the Week Web site You find this as a recommended method:
"Shaving Cream Method - Place some shaving cream on the stone. Run a squeegee across the stone so that the shaving cream remains imbedded in the lettering. Photograph. Using your water bottle and spray bottle, clean the stone thoroughly and wipe gently with a soft clean rag."
And Dick Eastman on his Tombstone Rubbing hints web page has this to say:
"There appears to be two successful ways to read old tombstone inscriptions. These are so successful that there are reports of reading inscriptions that have defied older methods. The first method is very simple: use shaving cream! First, wet the stone. Then cover a section of the stone with the moist cream and then scrape the excess cream of with a piece of Styrofoam. The cream goes into the inscription making it readable. The cream must be moist to work. Neither the Styrofoam nor the cream will damage the stone. This works very well when making photographs of a tombstone. Try to photograph in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun's rays are at an angle."
It's interesting that Mr. Eastman not only tells us that this will not harm the stone, but to not bother washing it off, but does not mention at all any cleaning procedures. Are we to assume that we should just leave the cream on the stone? And to further compound the problem, the exact same information, word for word is found not only at www.purleyradio.co.uk/files/cemrub.txt but again the exact same information is found reprinted at: bally.fortunecity.com/mulligan/173/pages/newsletters/i_s_1995-07.txt
The Heritage Tours of Dover, New Hampshire had the following advice to offer:
"** To read or photograph a stone, squirt a mist of water from a spray bottle onto the stone. Then apply a generous amount of shaving cream from a can. Using a squeegee," shave" the stone. The shaving cream will remain in work carved letters and details for a short time, making it easier to read or photograph. Wipe off cream when finished."
Well, at least they told us to wipe it off when finished. Which is somewhat more responsible than The Dallas Jewish Historical Society, who tells us that not only is it safe to use shaving cream, but to not bother cleaning it off the stone as it will wash off during the next rain:
"For dark-colored stones, spray the face of the stone with non-mentholated shaving cream. Squeegee this across the face of the stone with either a squeegee or a piece of cardboard. The white shaving cream will stay in the low areas of the stone and provide the much-needed contrast for your picture. It is also soluble in water. As long as the stone is not marble, the shaving cream will not hurt the stone. It will wash off in the next rain."
John B. Grimes, who on his website CEMETERY KIT informs us that in his opinion :
" The very best way to record the inscriptions is to photograph them and THE best way is to fill the inscription letters with a bright white, temporary, non-damaging material that will bring out the inscription so that it nearly shouts at you - this is done using ordinary canned shaving cream to fill the letters, and a squeegee to remove excess shaving cream from the flat surface - leaving the letters VERY clear and highly readable."
He then goes on to recommends bringing with you to the cemetery the following items:
A large, inexpensive, can of shaving cream. Barbasol works good and is cheap.
A rubber spatula such as is used for spreading body putty at a car body shop. Can be purchased very cheaply at most auto part stores. A 4" or 5" metal putty knife also works, but for the purist, a metal object scraping across a headstone is anathema. This spatula or putty knife is used to spread shaving cream over the face of the grave stone, forcing the bright, white, shaving cream into the engraving on the stone. (Note: The purist will claim that you should not use shaving cream. While I have heard this, there has never been a shred of evidence to convince me that the occasional application of shaving cream is going to do ANY harm.) Certainly a well conducted photo survey of a graveyard, particularly a small family plot that is no longer being cared for, and the forwarding of the results of your efforts to your state Archives, will do more to preserving the information than any other thing you can do, as it obviates the need for others to come to the graveyard and go through the ordeal of clearing it (and possibly damaging some stones in the process) and "defiling" a headstone with shaving cream every decade.
Rubber window washing rubber squeegee, about 9" or 10" in width (an old windshield wiper works in a pinch). This tool will wipe away the shaving cream on the surface of the stone leaving an amazingly clear and readable stone face, suitable for photographing. You will be amazed at how formerly unreadable headstones become crystal clear. You can use your hand for all of this shaving cream spreading, but by the time you have done two or three stones, you will be covered in shaving cream, as will your camera, tools, friends, bushes, etc. It is diabolical stuff.
Paper Towels - to keep the shaving cream at bay and wipe your sweated brow."
Dan Maxson recently authored a web page entitled "Cleaning and Reading Tombstones" located at http://www.enchantedmountains.com/Tombstones/Tombstones.htm . In the page he manages to give just about every single piece of bad advice that he can think of on the subject, including the following:
"I cannot find any possible way that shaving creme can damage a stone. You men have used it and know that it does not contain abrasives that will damage your skin; so, it will not wear the stone away. The big objection that I have heard is that shaving creme is acid and will eat the stone away. If you read the label, you will note that it does contain stearic acid."
"The main reason that I rinse the stone is for esthetic reasons. People will feel better about it. If you leave the shaving crème, the next rain will wash it off and it will help neutralize the acid rain or soil to a small degree. I use a pump up garden sprayer for rinsing the stones."
And just so you do not think that this problem of disinformation exists only on the web, we have the words of wisdom that John Kent had to offer on VAROOTS mailing list:
"The sky is falling! The sky is falling said Chicken Little. Now y'all stay out of these big ole sky scraper buildings made of all this stone that the janitorial crews put all this nasty cleaning stuff on cause the building might collapse on top of you. I'm surprised the Stone Rights Advocates don't jump up and down and have a little hissie fit every time they see a cleaning crew desecrating the stone on these sky scrapers with all their strong cleaning reagents. Think of it like this: if you can't read the markings on a tomb stone it isn't doing you much good. Gutson Borglum would roll over in his grave if he knew he could have used shaving cream instead of a chisel to create all his masterpieces. Just rub a little bit here and a little bit there and the stone would dissolve and disappear right before his eyes and leave his design."
And finally, John is not alone. In what in my opinion has to be one of the best examples of arrogance that I have seen to date, Judy Harris on the CEMETERY mailing list voiced her feelings on the subject of shaving cream in the following words:
"I have cleaned several family tombstones dating back to 1800 with shaving cream and yes, folks, I even have tombstone rubbings from this small family cemetery in Southern Indiana. Sue me if you want, but they are MY, I repeat **MY** family and some of these stones were unreadable any other way. One was not readable (period). This is *my* family. *I* carry their blood in my veins as do my children. I take those children 400 miles round trip every year to pay respects to great great grandparents who were dead before my grandparents were even born. The last burial there was well over 100 years ago and I am the only person who has visited for many many years."