In a recent article, I wrote about the development of the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment. No article on the subject would have been complete without at least a reference to Blanco. Since then, I have decided to explore the subject further. The website Blanco and Bull has the most complete description and history of the product itself that I have seen. This article, then, is intended as a social history of the use of Blanco by the common soldier.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the qualities that were considered most essential in a British soldier were a well-turned out appearance, and the ability to perform drill. Buttons and boots had to be immaculately polished. Leather equipment was typically issued in a light buff color, but had to be whitened by careful application of pipeclay; this chalky powder was mixed with water to make a paste.
Forcing soldiers to maintain a smart appearance was far more than just regimental vanity; it helped instill both pride and discipline. This discipline was vital for the tactics of the time; smoothbore muskets were most effective when fired in large volleys, and it took an iron will to withstand an enemy’s fire while maneuvering into position. More than anything else, it was this discipline that set the British soldier apart from his enemies.
While weapons and uniforms underwent significant transformation during the Victorian era, the attitudes of officers and NCO’s remained consistent. Rifles replaced muskets, yet “spit and polish” was still considered more important than marksmanship.
Around 1880, the Joseph Pickering & Sons company developed a replacement for pipeclay; this was Blanco, promoted as a cleaner that could “remove stains and discolorations” from leather shoes, equipment, and sporting goods. Blanco was produced as a cake of compressed white powder; like the pipeclay it replaced, it formed a paste when water was added. It was promoted to both soldiers and civilians; however, the advertisements were somewhat misleading, as Blanco covered over discolorations rather than removing them. Regardless, Blanco was found superior than pipeclay, and was officially adopted by the Army.
Blanco: 1950’s production Khaki Green No. 3 made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd. along with an Indian-made copy of the original white Blanco. While the Indian version is noticeably smaller, the deep well is based on Pickering’s earliest products. All photographs in this article are by the author.
While the soldier on home service or garrison duty was expected to have an immaculate appearance, standards were more relaxed on active service. By the close of the 19th Century, British soldiers increasingly found themselves fighting enemies armed with rifles rather than swords and spears; soldiers on campaign were allowed to stain their leather equipment with tea to make it less visible. The Army even adopted khaki uniforms for use overseas, although troops on home service still wore scarlet. In response, Pickering’s developed Khaki Blanco, essentially the same product but with a coloring agent.
In the early 20th Century, cotton web equipment replaced leather. Blanco was found to be even more effective on the new webbing; when applied with a stiff-bristled brush, one could get it into the weave of the material. Khaki Blanco was already similar in color to the base webbing, but Pickering’s created new colors, including Web Blanco, which was a light pea-green.
After the Great War, Pickering’s adopted a numbering system for their products. Khaki Blanco and Web Blanco were replaced by No. 61 Buff, No. 103 Khaki Green (Light), No. 97 Khaki Green (Medium), and others. No. 97 was the color used by most units at the outbreak of World War II. By D-Day, most units had adopted Khaki Green No. 3, or simply KG3. While KG3 became the most common color, there were some units that retained other shades for the sake of their own traditions.
Impact on Soldiers
What was intended as a simple item to help give the soldier a smart appearance took on a life of its own. Like its forebear, Blanco was one of the dreaded tools imposed on new recruits, who spent hours slaving over their webbing, polishing the brass and applying just the right thickness of Blanco. This mindless and repetitive task was part of the Army’s procedure for turning individuals into well-disciplined soldiers.
To add insult to injury, Blanco was not typically an issued item; soldiers had to purchase their own from the NAAFI*. Fortunately, NAAFI was a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of British servicemembers; they contracted with Pickering’s to make bulk purchases of Blanco to sell at the lowest price possible.
When first purchasing Blanco, the soldier would get it in a round box made of zinc, which would not rust when wet. Refills were simply wrapped in paper. Each cake was made as a flat-bottomed disc; the top was dished for holding a small amount of water to get mixed with the product.
Post-WWII cake of K.G.3 in the zinc box designed to hold Blanco. Zinc was chosen because it does not rust when wet.
Like many items in the British Army, the word Blanco was originally a noun but frequently used as a verb; a soldier Blancoed (or blanco’d) his webbing. In this usage, capitalization and spelling lost any consistency. Additionally, the Mills Equipment Company, the primary contractor for webbing equipment, created their own “web cleaner”; this was a loose colored powder sold in a shaker tube, but was still called Blanco by the soldiers.
Stanley Swift enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1940 and wrote of his experiences.
“We were given blanco, a greenish type of chalk which when dipped in water became a liquid mass. We had to blanco our equipment and polish our brass, which was a gorgeous shade of green when we received it, and clean and spit and polish some more. It was punishment of the first order. And it was evil the way we were expected to do everything in ten minutes and turn out on parade.”
After his initial training, Swift was transferred to the 5th Royal Horse Artillery.
“We arrived about 3:00 a.m. at Coggeshall, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the south of England, and we were immediately told to blanco our webbing as it was the wrong color for the regiment. At 3:00 a.m.!”
After further training, Swift was sent to Egypt to join 8th Army. The Allies had not yet taken control of the Mediterranean, so the convoy of troopships and escorts sailed all the way around Africa to the Suez Canal; the journey took several weeks.
“Such a great number of troops on board ship must be kept occupied, so each man was given a great lump of blanco. This we were told to daub on our webbing equipment. We didn’t take very kindly to this enforced activity, so everybody as one man threw his blanco into the ocean. This time we must have dyed the sea green. Nothing was ever said. Our restlessness in being locked in a ship for a full month, crammed like sardines, was no joke, so it was well-meant to try to keep us occupied but not very successful.”
Oh, What a Lovely War! A Soldier’s Memoir
Underside of the zinc box. While zinc does not rust, it does slowly oxidize, and this tin developed a hole through the Pickering’s trademark.
James Sims had a similar experience when he joined the Royal Artillery in 1943.
“I completed almost a year at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain with the 4th Field Training Regiment, Royal Artillery, and didn’t much care for it.
If you had any spirit at all the RA seemed determined to break it. Their attitude has been summed up as follows:
If it moves – salute it!
If it stands still – blanco it!
If it’s too heavy to lift – paint it!”
After meeting a recruiting sergeant from the Parachute Regiment, he volunteered for the Airborne Forces.
“…We had to report to Clay Cross, the Airborne Forces Depot near Chesterfield. Here we were taught battle drill. We were also given special lectures and shown training films. There was some bull but it was nothing like as bad as in the RA. We did, however, have to blanco our equipment for guards, even our para steel helmets.”
“Bull” was originally a term for polishing boots, but became soldier’s slang for any mindless, repetitive task. Based on the statement about the helmet, it seems likely Sims was issued a jump helmet with a webbing chinstrap, which was typically Blancoed, as opposed to the earlier leather chinstraps.
After World War II, conscription continued through the 1950’s, and was known as National Service. Even though the world had changed by this point, the British Army’s attitudes and methods had not. Tony Thorne wrote of his experience of National Service.
“We were issued khaki belts and gaiters. These have to be Blanco’d. Blanco is not white as the name might imply, but khaki. It is like a slab of chalk, which must be dissolved with water to exactly the right consistency, so that it can be painted on to the webbing smoothly. In fact it produces tiny lumps like mother’s gravy, which then increase in size when they dry on the webbing. The belt has little brass clips and the gaiters have little brass buckles at the opposite end to the black leather straps. The brasses must be shone with Brasso and the leather straps must be polished with boot polish. One of the miracles of military design is that all these cleaning materials are chemically allergic to one another. If the tiniest spot of Brasso makes any form of contact with the Blanco on the webbing, a small white ring appears which remorselessly spreads outwards in ever-increasing circles until it forms a huge unsightly stain. No man has ever discovered any method of removing this stain other than re-painting the dreaded Blanco about two hundred times. Even then, one can collapse exhausted into the pit thinking that the damned spot is out, only to be greeted by it poking its head out anew at 5.30 am just half an hour before the morning inspection.”
Brasso, Blanco & Bull
While Blanco was consistently used in Britain and the European Theater, it was not suitable to all conditions. Troops in the Far East learned that Blanco quickly washed off their webbing in the Monsoon rains; webbing had to be vat-dyed a jungle green color. Troops sent to North Africa typically arrived with green-Blancoed webbing unsuited for the desert. While some units used khaki Blanco, most troops used salt water and a stiff brush to scrub the green Blanco out of their equipment and allowed the webbing to get sun-bleached to a nearly-white color.
In the 1950’s, Pickering’s created a new webbing renovator, which was sold as a tin of colored paste. The colors were based on Blanco, but the product was easier to apply. The Army then adopted 1958 Pattern webbing equipment, which was manufactured in dark green. While cadets and reservists continued using 1937 Pattern equipment through the 1980’s, Blanco finally became obsolete, and Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd., went out of business.
Many years ago, my friend and I attended a public event; we wore our best battledress, and we had given our boots and cap badges a good polish. We were approached by a pair of gentlemen who had served in the British Army and fought in Burma. Living in the United States, meeting British veterans is a rare treat. One of the pair had been a Regimental Sergeant Major; the other joked that the RSM had spent so much time up a tree in the jungle that he had grown a tail.
The former RSM said he had seen many reenactors over the years, but had never been impressed with them. But he paid us a tremendous compliment by saying that we were by far the best he had seen, because we held ourselves with the correct military bearing, and we had taken the time to polish our boots and badges. However, he then asked why my webbing belt was not Blancoed.
I was hugely embarrassed. I tried to explain that Blanco had become extremely rare; at that point, I had only ever seen Blanco cakes on display at military museums. He was astonished that something that had once been completely ubiquitous had become a collector’s item.
Millions of cakes of Blanco were produced over the decades, but most were used for their intended purpose. Real Blanco was discontinued in the 1950’s; a post-war cake can occasionally be found by diligently searching internet auction sites, but it is rare, and it is not cheap.
Fortunately, a number of Blanco reproductions and substitutes have become available. Two of the largest UK-based reenactment suppliers carry products they describe as “liquid Blanco”; these are essentially custom-colored paint. I have not used these personally, but several friends have been pleased with these products.
Another vendor in the UK has managed to develop a true reproduction Blanco, that is, a cake of compressed powder. The reproduction cake is somewhat smaller than the original, and the well is very shallow. However, it is the closest item I have found to the original; it looks, feels, and even smells like original Blanco. It even comes packaged in a reprint of Pickering’s paper wrapper, which is a nice touch.
A company in India produced its own version of Blanco for the Indian Army, and it is currently available through a US-based reenacting vendor. Unfortunately, it is only available in white and khaki. The Indian cake is smaller than the original, but it has a deep well on top like the early versions of Pickering’s.
The zinc box only needed to be purchased once. Refills came in a simple paper wrapper. After World War II, the traditional printing was eliminated.
Some reenacting genius discovered a shoe cream that is a similar color to KG3 and applies easily to webbing. A small amount of model paint can be mixed with the shoe cream to get even closer to the right color. This shoe cream seems to be fairly similar in consistency to the post-war Pickering’s web-cleaning paste. I have had very good results with the shoe cream mixture; it is easy to apply and is overall less messy than the liquids and compressed powders. My only complaint is that it is not very durable and needs frequent touching-up.
1937 Pattern belt and braces drying after having been treated with a mixture of shoe cream and model paint. The original Blanco was used to ensure correct color matching.
The Blanco and Bull website is an excellent resource; not only does it have more detail on the history of Blanco, it also compares the different reproductions summarized above.
Whatever method is used, do it outside and put down newspaper or plastic sheeting. Just staging the photographs for this article turned my fingertips green; the stuff gets everywhere.
*The Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute, or NAAFI, is the organization responsible for maintaining shops and canteens for British servicemen and women.