By Norris Chambers

             Very few modern kids have heard the word soot and if they did hear it they would not know what it is. The kids in the old days were familiar with the word and its meaning. Soot was the black stuff that formed on the lamp chimney when the wick was turned too high. It was also the black powder that stuck to the back wall of the fireplace if you burned green wood. You might find it on the bottom of the stove caps on your wood burning cook stove. When you opened the front door of the heater you were likely to find a coat of it on the inside of the stove.

            The soot that formed in the globe of a kerosene lamp was usually referred to as “lamp black” and was removed by crumpling the sheet of a newspaper and dragging it through the globe. The black powder seemed to stick to the paper better than any other cleaning material that was readily available. The caps of the cook stove could be cleaned by scraping with a wire brush. If a wire brush was not available a dried corn cob could be used.

            When Clifton and I were in high school our science teacher told us that soot was a form of carbon and was produced when a fuel was burned without enough oxygen to properly maintain the fire. He said it was produced commercially in factories that burned oil or other fossil fuels in specialized furnaces and collected the residue. The resulting black soot was known as “carbon black”, or just plain carbon. He told us that carbon black was used in the manufacture of printing ink and some paints as well as any product that required the carbon element.

            As mischievous kids we were not as much interested in what soot really was as we were in what it could do in the preparation for April fool or Halloween tricks. Old time kids expended their Halloween energy on tricks since there were no choices then between tricks or treats. The “trick or treat” thing came years later.

            One of the favorite tricks with soot was to mix it with lard, thus producing a mixture that when applied to the skin was difficult to remove. The object of the trick was to deposit some lard and soot on the victim’s hands, arm, face or other exposed area. This prank provided fun for the trickster who deposited the mixture and a little woe to the one attempting to remove it! An ideal way to deposit the lard and soot was to spread a generous amount on the front door of the victim’s house or on the latches of the various other buildings around the farm.

            At school the blackboard eraser was an excellent dispenser of soot. A watercolor brush could be used with a thinned solution of the lard and soot and a word, such as FOOL, written in reverse on the eraser. When the eraser was slapped on the top of desk or in a seat the word was printed in a very visible form that would remain soft almost indefinitely. An unsuspecting victim would rub his hand across the word and encounter a traumatic cleaning process!

            Probably the worst prank I ever saw where the soot and lard were used occurred at school on a morning after Halloween night. Some fun-seeking kids had painted the big blackboard with the mixture. The soot being the same color as the blackboard was not obvious until someone tried to write on it with a piece of chalk. When the chalk was moved across the board no white mark appeared and the end of the chalk turned black. In a matter of seconds the writer examined the end of the chalk with a bare hand and the victim was involved in a long hand cleaning process.

            On another occasion the lard and soot mixture was applied generously to a light switch near the door. When the light was turned on the finger turned black!

            At a community program in the school auditorium one pleasant night some trickster entered most of the unlocked automobiles and applied the black substance to the underside of the steering wheels. It is unnecessary to tell how upset the drivers were when they discovered the condition of their hands.

            I was never mischievous enough to trick someone with the mixture, but I was evil minded enough to laugh when someone else darkened a victim. Since Halloween has come and gone it is a little late to try something like soot salve for a trick! Try to forget about it by the next goblin night. Of course if you must be mean, you might apply a dab to the door bell button on the night of Halloween’s eve! But don’t dare test it to see if it works.

            The use of soot for tricking is to be discouraged – especially by those who have tried to clean a tricked hand.