Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century
How do you feel about spring cleaning? For some, it’s a welcome opportunity to freshen the home; for many, a detestable chore; and for others, something not worth bothering with. At least anyone undertaking the task today can rely on modern appliances to help. Spare a thought for 19th-century housekeepers, for whom spring cleaning involved considerable time, elbow grease, and disruption.
Topsy-turvy the order of the day
The great spring house-cleaning [is] going on in the village just now, and a formidable time it is in most families, second only as regards discomfort, to the troubles of moving. Scarce an object about a house seems in its proper place – topsy-turvy is the order of the day: curtains and carpets are seen hanging out of doors, windows are sashless, beds are found in passages, chairs are upside down, the ceiling is in possession of the white-wash brush, and the mop ‘has the floor,’ as reporters say of Hon. M.C.’s. Meanwhile, the cleaners, relentless as Furies, pursue the family from room to room, until the last stronghold is invaded, and the very cats and dogs look wretched.
Singular as it may appear, there are some active spirits in the country – women spirits, of course – who enjoy house-cleaning: who confess they enjoy it. But then there are men who enjoy an election, and it was settled ages ago that there is no arguing upon tastes. Most sensible people would be disposed to look upon both house-cleaning and elections as among the necessary evils of life – far enough from its enjoyments. One would like to know from which ancestral nation the good people of this country inherit this periodical cleaning propensity; probably it came from the Dutch, for they are the most noted scourers in the old world, though it is difficult to believe that such a sober, quiet race as the Hollanders could have carried on the work with the same restlessness as our own housewives. …
Most civilized people clean their dwellings: many nations are as neat as ourselves; some much neater than we are; but few, indeed, make such a fuss about these necessary labors; they contrive to manage matters more quietly. Even among ourselves, some patriotic women, deserving well of their country, have made great efforts to effect a change in this respect within their own sphere, at least; but alas! in each instance they have, we believe, succumbed at length to general custom, a tyrant that few have the courage to face, even in a good cause.
It must be confessed, however, that after the great turmoil is over – when the week, or fortnight, or three weeks of scrubbing, scouring, drenching are passed, there is a moment of delightful repose in a family; there is a refreshing consciousness that all is sweet and clean from garret to cellar; there is a purity in the neighborhood, the same order and cleanly freshness meet you as you cross every threshold. This is very pleasant, but it is a pity that it should be purchased at the cost of so much previous confusion – so many petty annoyances. (1)
Complaints of a literary housekeeper
Another American writer, Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern), offered these reflections on spring cleaning, published in 1857.
‘Spring cleaning!’ Oh misery! Ceilings to be whitewashed, walls to be cleaned, paint to be scoured, carpets to be taken up, shaken, and put down again; scrubbing women, painters, and whitewashers, all engaged for months ahead, or beginning on your house to secure the job, and then running off a day to somebody else’s to secure another. Yes, spring cleaning to be done; closets, bags, and baskets to be disemboweled; furs and woolens to be packed away; children’s last summer clothes to be inspected (not a garment that will fit all grown up like Jack’s bean-stalk); spring cleaning, sure enough. I might spring my feet off and not get all that done.
When is that book of mine to get written, I’d like to know? It’s Ma’am, will you have this? and Ma’am, will you have that? and Ma’am, will you have the other thing? May I be kissed if I hadn’t more time to write when I lived in an attic on salt and potatoes, and scrubbed the floor myself. Must I turn my house topsy-turvy, and inside out, once a year, because my grandmother did, and send my [manuscripts] flying to the four winds, for this traditionary ‘spring cleaning.’ Spring fiddlestick! Must I buy up all Broadway to be made into dresses, because all New York women go fashion-mad? What’s the use of having a house, if you can’t do as you like in it? (2)
Instructions for spring cleaning
A manual for young housekeepers provided these instructions for spring cleaning in 1869.
Were you, reader, some day in spring, generally in the week before Easter, to take a walk through villages which we know, you might be ready to suppose that a general emigration was contemplated. You would see chairs and tables, kneading-toughs and cradles, bedsteads and bedding, all put out for an airing, while the busy cottagers are scrubbing and whitewashing, and perhaps painting and papering within doors. Neither is the practice confined to the poorer class only….
Perhaps not many even inexperienced housekeepers would begin at the downstairs passages and parlours, and proceed upstairs to bedrooms, &c. Still it may not be quite needles to some to say, begin at the top, and work on downwards. Should you clean the lower rooms first, they will be sadly dusty by the time the rest are completed.
While sweeping keep all doors shut, that the dust may not spread. And let those who are not active assistants in the operations know as little as possible of what is going on; have no brooms and brushes here and there to proclaim it, and no water-pails and dust-pans standing about to endanger people’s shins.
The first thing to be done in a room is to remove any drapery and carpets, to be carried out, and brushed and shaken; and if for this purpose they are put into a charwoman’s hands, it may be well to see that they are not thrown down in the yard or doorway, to be trampled upon until it suits her to attend to them.
Pictures, looking-glasses, and ornaments are best moved and cleaned under the care of one who is an interested owner of them.
If circumstances prevent a room from being entirely emptied out…all that is left in it should be covered over; and before any cleaning commences, the chimney, if needing it, should be swept, and the ceiling and walls brushed down before the floor is scoured.
If boards are very dirty, a handful of unslaked lime thrown into the water assists in cleaning them; or wood-ashes, used with soap, will make the boards very white and sweet.
Housekeepers who wish to avoid expense…will find it by no means necessary to employ a plasterer to whitewash a ceiling; any active charwoman can do it, by laying on with a brush a mixture of either quicklime and water, or whiting and water. …
If a good wall paper is soiled, it may be refreshed by rubbing it lightly with a piece of bread-crumb. …
Should the carpets have soils, which brushing and shaking will not remove, they may be cleaned by soaping the dirty parts, and then using a clean scrubbing-brush dipped in boiling water, and then well rubbed with a rough dry cloth.
China ornaments may be cleaned by washing in warm water with a little soap and soda; a bit of flannel or a soft brush should be used to the crevices, and then well dried and polished with a soft cloth.
A soapy flannel is the best thing to clean looking-glasses, but it requires the greatest care not to touch gilded frames with anything damp. … The frame may be dusted with a brush, and polished with an old silk handkerchief. An old handkerchief is the best rubber for highly polished tables. For mahogany that is not French polished, there is nothing better than bees’-wax and turpentine, provided it be rubbed afterwards until the rubber and the rubbed are quite warm.
For paint, use soft soap and a sponge to clean it; then clear it of soap with cold water, and polish with a soft cloth. …
Cleaning-up time gives a good opportunity for putting, with a feather, a little oil to creaking hinges or rusty locks.
Emery paper, with elbow grease, will be wanted for the fire-irons and polished parts of the grate, and the latter article with black-lead for the black parts of the grate, though these articles are, of course, used every week, if not every day.
Bedrooms which are in use should be scoured early in the day, that there may be time for them to thoroughly dry and be set in order before night.
If one sunny day in the year, at least, all bedding could have a good airing out-of-doors, it would be very beneficial: a feather bed put in the sun for a day will have received almost as much benefit as if it had been sent to be cleaned and steamed. A feather should be put into all the screwholes and crevices of a bedstead, to clear it of dust; and if there is suspicion of any unwelcoming visitors, the feather should be dipped frequently in turpentine.
Nearly all the foregoing remarks may of course be as suitable for any other time of the year as spring; and we hope no young housekeeper will suppose that we are recommending neglect of cleanliness all the year through, to be atoned for at that particular season. (3)
A man’s view of spring cleaning
This poetic grievance about spring cleaning, penned by someone identified as “a sufferer” (presumably male), was published in 1853. It might be considered an example of stupid news, as it regularly reappeared in newspapers over the next 30 years.
The melancholy days have come, the saddest of the year,
Of cleaning paint, and scrubbing floors, and scouring far and near;
Heaped in the corners of the room, the ancient dirt lay quiet.
Nor rose up at the father’s tread, nor to the children’s riot;
But now the carpets are all up, and from the staircase top,
The mistress calls to man and maid to wield the broom and mop.
Where are those rooms, those quiet rooms, the house but now presented,
Wherein we dwelt, nor dreamed of dirt, so cosy and contented?
Alas! they’re turned all upside down, that quiet suite of rooms,
With slops and suds, and soap and sand, and tubs and pails and brooms;
Chairs, tables, stands, are standing round at sixes and at sevens,
While wife and housemaids fly about like meteors in heaven.
The parlor and the chamber floor were cleaned a week ago;
The carpet shook, and windows washed, as all the neighbors know;
But still the sanctum had escaped – the table piled with books,
Pens, ink and paper all about, peace in its very looks –
Till fell the women on them all, as falls the plague on men,
And then they vanished all away, books, paper, ink and pen.
And now, when comes the master home, as come he must of nights,
To find all things are ‘set to wrongs’ that they have ‘set to rights,’
When the sound of driving tacks is heard, though the house is far from still,
And the carpet woman on the stairs, that harbinger of ill,
He looks for papers, books or bills, that all were there before,
And sighs to find them on the desk, or in the drawer no more.
And then he grimly thinks of her who set this fuss afloat,
And wishes she were out at sea in a very leaky boat,
He meets her at the parlor door, with hair and cap awry,
With sleeves tucked up, and broom in hand, defiance in her eye –
He feels quite small, and knows full well there’s nothing to be said,
So holds his tongue, and drinks his tea, and sneaks away to bed. (4)
You might also enjoy:
- Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (New York, 1850), pp. 43-44.
- Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern), Fresh Leaves (New York, 1857), pp. 289-290.
- The Young Housekeeper as Daughter, Wife, and Mother, Forming a Perfect ‘Young Woman’s Companion,’ (London, 1869), pp. 105-107.
- “Spring Cleaning,” Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 37 (Boston, April-June 1853), p. 754.
Must I turn my house topsy-turvy and inside out once a year because my grandmother did, and send my [manuscripts] flying to the four winds, for this traditionary ‘spring cleaning’? Spring fiddlestick!