Maid scouring bowl

7.4 Next to Godliness: A History of Housecleaning

Next to Godliness: A History of Housecleaning

Women have done an enormous amount of cleaning over the millennia, but precious few bothered to write down what that meant. The picture is largely hidden from history, but this episode is some of what we do know.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

The feminist movement has done enough to draw attention to women in history that women who ruled, wrote, and protested do get lots of attention. According to historian Susan Strasser (writing in 1982), “Women leaders have become almost as accessible to the historian as presidents and kings. Housewives remained hidden from history, however” (Strasser, xii).

Never have I found that more true than in this particular episode. Everyone agrees that women have done a lot of cleaning over the millennia, but precious few bothered to write down what that meant. Clean what, exactly? With what products? To what standard? On what time schedule? And if you don’t think those questions are of vital importance than either you’ve always lived alone or someone is doing a lot of work for you and you never noticed.

In the historical record, virtually none of those answers get written down. Even when women themselves are writing, the details are sparse. Here are some extracts from the diary of Mary Lois Walker Morris, a woman in Utah, writing in 1885:

“Sat 21st arose about 7. W[eather] mild and fine, did housework all day, retired about 11. …

Mon 23rd arose soon after 6. a.m. fine p.m. cloudy, did housework till 4 p.m. …

Tue 24th arose before 6. W[eather] fine, did housework and ironing; repairing in the eve feel almost sick with fatigue, retired about 10.”

(Milewski, 426)

Undoubtedly, much of that housework was cleaning, but the details are lacking.

Since the sources are scarce, I cannot give a cleaning-through-the-ages-and-across-the-continents rundown as I’d like. Instead this is going to be fragments of what cleaning was like It’s definitely not a complete picture.

At the time I am recording this, it is the month of May and the weather has warmed up and for many historical women that would have meant time for spring cleaning. Spring cleaning was an annual ritual for the heavy-duty cleaning, and it was not just a woman’s irrational mania for making the world fresh and new like the season. It was done in spring because you have spent the winter cooped up inside with an open flame for heat, light, and cooking. The coming of spring meant windows and doors could be opened for fresh air, the fire could be reduced (but not eliminated) and daylight could replace some of the need for lamps and candles. And what all that air flow and daylight would reveal is a layer of soot and ash on everything, everywhere. To an extent that those of us who are blessed with electric lighting and a modern stove cannot really imagine, the house was filthy.

So your housewife was advised to start her spring cleaning on the ceiling. Yes, you had to clean the ceiling. Borax in water would work if it was painted. (Strasser, 63). Then you work your way down the walls. All draperies were carried out for laundering. All mirrors and pictures were taken down for polishing. If you had wallpaper, you could get out grease spots with a little blotting paper and a hot iron. If you had scratches in the paper, you could water-color them in (Frederick, 175). If your walls were not papered (and most weren’t), then you’d be repainting them or perhaps whitewashing.

Whitewash is a very cheap paint made from limestone. Whitewashing your buildings was not just about making them look pretty.

A whitewashed wall allows moisture to trickle down the outside of the wall without soaking in. Therefore less rotting and mildew. It can also kill mosquito larvae, lessen odors, and even reduce heat. You can paint it on wood, brick, or metal, and these qualities made it well worth the effort (Frantom).

Image: A whitewashed homestead in Ireland, Wikimedia Commons

Limestone is found all over the world (it’s 15% of the earth’s crust), so it is not surprising that white washing was a task for many housewives. Evidence of lime wash goes back to Mesopotamia and also includes the Tower of London (Band), Viking halls (Sorenson), the Krishan Mandir temple in the Punjab, town houses in Zanzibar, and facades in the Mayan town of Chicanná (Corran).

If you’re thinking that a lot of those don’t sound like your ordinary housewife was doing her own home, that’s true. But again, no sources on ordinary housewives. But I think that if a civilization knew about limewash and had a kiln to produce it, there’s a good chance some housewives were using however much they could get their hands on.

Moving further down the walls, we get to the furniture. All of which has to be moved out of the room, possibly a heavy job in and of itself. Wood furniture would be polished and oiled. The 19th century writer Helen Campbell recommends boiled linseed oil for that. Any upholstery would be swept or rinsed so far as it was possible to do so. Ottomans and sofas can be cleaned by rubbing wheat bran on with a little flannel. I have not tried this at home, and I am a skeptical person, but that’s what the source says (Beecher and Stowe).

And finally you arrive at the floor. This job depends on what type of floor you have.

Carpets could be removed by pulling up the tacks, dragging them outside and beating a year’s worth of dust, dirt, and soot out of them.

Image: Woman beating rungs in London, 1941, Wikimedia Commons

Helen Campbell says to sprinkle them with a pound of salt, and then sweep that out to brighten them up. But carpet would have been prohibitively expensive for many housewives. For some of them, spring cleaning the floor would have meant sweeping out the rushes. Rushes are a common type of grass, the same type that I mentioned last week to burn for light. A cheap flooring was to simply strew the floor with rushes, which would serve as both insulation and debris collection. In the spring you sweep them out and strew new ones. Even a dirt floor could use some maintenance, sanding down the rough bits and sealing the whole thing with oil. If your floor was wood, it needed polishing, oiling, and maybe whitewashing (something anyway). You don’t have a supermarket full of products to help you with any of this. Manuals recommended cleaning with sand, milk, salt, soda, borax, camphor, lye, vinegar, turpentine, lamp oil, clay, and various other acids and oils (Never Done, 89)

And only when all that is done can you start moving everything back in. At that point, you may want to add black pepper to your carpets and draperies to keep out moths. You will also need some kind of moth protection on your clothes.

As you can imagine, doing this kind of deep clean on your house (without the benefit of modern technology) was enormously disruptive.

Emily Dickinson, the poet, wrote irritably one spring: “House is being cleaned… I prefer pestilence” (quoted in Strasser, 62).

Helen Campbell admitted that spring housecleaning was “a terror to everyone, and above all to gentlemen, who resent it from beginning to end. No wonder, if at the first onslaught all home comfort ends, and regular meals become irregular lunches, and a quiet night’s rest something sought but not found” (quoted in Strasser, 62).

Nellie Kedzie Jones wrote that spring cleaning was “an abomination of desolation. It breaks women’s backs and causes men to break the Ten Commandments” (quoted in Strasser, 62).

I myself have way more sympathy for the women and their breaking backs, than I do for the men with their irregular meals, poor dears. But the point was, this was not just women being neat freaks. This was not just women being judgmental and preaching that cleanliness was next to godliness and all that. The house and everything in it represented an enormous investment of time or money. You couldn’t just go to Ikea to get new drapes or armchairs. Fires, elements, and pests were wreaking havoc on your belongings, so housecleaning was a regular and necessary battle.

But many people must have resonated with the opening to the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, which begins:

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. . . . It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. . .  [and] at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. ‘This is fine!’ he said to himself. ‘This is better than whitewashing!'” 

Grahame, opening to Wind in the Willows

You’ll notice that Mole is male, and yes, these tasks did have to be done even in a bachelor establishment.

Okay, so let’s say you survived spring cleaning. What do you do the rest of the year?

Well, less, but not none. I mentioned last week the regular need to wash your oil lamps. Certainly sweeping. Dusting as well, though you’re not going to move all the furniture every week for that. You will be sweeping and brushing the carpets and rugs, not just the hard floors, because that’s the best you can do. Before you sweep it, you might cover all the nice furniture with drop cloths to prevent the dust going all over them. And actually if you have really nice parlor furniture, you might leave the drop cloths on all time, except when company is expected. Feather beds have to be aired, turned, and shaped. And of course, all beds have to be made up daily. Of course, they do. Who doesn’t do that on a daily basis?

Yes, moving on. . .

Obviously the bigger and better furnished your house, the bigger this job is. Marie Kondo had not yet been born, so women weren’t yet tossing out everything that didn’t spark joy, but for many women this would not have been as big a job as you might think because they may not have had many rooms to cover, or much furniture to polish.

Still, it was a task that had to be done, and it was generally the housewife’s job to do it. Or the maid’s.

By 1925, there had been plenty of time to think about how to make this easier on women, and one of the women doing the thinking was Christine Frederick. She looked at the principles that had revolutionized industry and applied them to the home. She calls it “the gospel of home efficiency” and the testimonial to her book boldly declares that “Nothing is more worthwhile than bringing efficiency into the home,” which seems just a tad overstated to me, but no one can accuse her of lack of enthusiasm. Among other things, she explains that cleaning involves sweeping, wiping, dusting, and polishing. The four tasks require different muscular movements and every time you switch between them, you waste time. “Efficient cleaning, therefore, depends on avoiding rapid changes in shifts of work” (Frederick, 449). So instead of doing one room at a time, you should do one task at a time in every room. Then go back and do the second task in every room.

She even includes some helpful charts She imagines you have three rooms. If you work a room at a time, you spend 18 minutes preparing for sweeping, 21 minutes sweeping, and 19 minutes dusting for a total of 58 minutes. But if you do the same rooms, a task at a time it will take, 15, 17, and 15 minutes respectively for a total of 47 minutes. Giving you a whole 11 extra minutes in your day all to yourself (Frederick, 150-151).

As I say, I am skeptical soul, but then I’ve pretty much given up housecleaning in favor of podcasting, so what do I know?

I am rather more impressed when Frederick begins to wax lyrical about the benefits of the vacuum cleaner. This is a development I can support. No more moving all the furniture and tearing up carpet tacks.

As with so many other inventions, there are multiple possible claimants for inventor of the vacuum cleaner. But the one I’m going to talk about is a certain asthmatic janitor named James Murray Spangler. He was convinced that his job was destroying his health, and he was right. So in 1907 he invented a portable electric vacuum out of a tin soapbox, a sateen pillowcase, a broom handle, a motor, and some fan blades. He sold the idea to his relative W.H. “Boss” Hoover, who then made a fortune selling the things (Scott and About Us, Hoover).

Cochran’s Patent Application

So much is verifiable from reputable sources. Unfortunately, it’s only the less reliable websites that mention that Spangler and Hoover were related through Susan Hoover, Spangler’s cousin, Hoover’s wife, and it was she who tried it, liked it, and told her husband it would sell. I can’t prove it is true, but would it surprise me if her role was dropped from the official narrative? No, it would not.

Door-to-door salesmen and a free trial period ultimately convinced hundreds of thousands of women to buy one or a competitor’s version. The Hoover company was so ubiquitous in England that hoover became a generic word for vacuum in British English.

So carpets and rugs were now easier (assuming you had electricity and a vacuum), but standards went up. No one expected your carpet to be pristine all winter when it only got pulled up and beaten in the spring. Now, some women wanted to see the vacuum lines all the time. If cleanliness is next to godliness, God’s commandments just got a lot more strict.

You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing about the dirtiest parts of the house: the kitchen and the bathroom. Both are going to feature in a future episode, but we won’t have time for dishes, so let’s talk about it now.

As with so many things, the burden was heavier because technology wasn’t doing half the job, but also lighter because you just plain didn’t own that many dishes. For those dishes you do own, Catherine Beecher gives complete instructions. First gather your materials, which are:

  • a swab, made of strips of linen tied to a stick
  • two or three towels and 3 dish-cloths
  • 2 large tubs, one for washing, one for rinsing
  • a large tray for draining
  • a soap dish, hard soap, and a fork
  • a slop pail for food scraps
  • 2 pails for water

Catherine neglects to mention that you need actual water, which of course you will be hauling yourself. And heating yourself.

The soap she had in mind was lye mixed with fat. The exact same stuff I talked about in episode 7.1 for laundry. Even if you were able to purchase that, it came only in hard form, so you used that fork to scrape off shavings into your water.

Once you have the supplies, Catherine says to scrape the dishes. Sort by level of dirtiness. Wash the nicest ones first. Rinse. Wipe. Put away. Pour in more hot water. Repeat the whole process for the greasy dishes with a fresh dish cloth. Then repeat again for milk pans, buckets, and tins. Then repeat again for roaster, gridiron, pots, and kettles. Then empty the slop pail, which generally means feed some animals with it. Then wash it. Then put the fire-place in order, and sweep and dust the kitchen (Beecher and Stowe)

Even a small number of dishes would be a big job here, especially if you didn’t have running water.

Waterworks required a huge financial outlay by your government, which they were generally unwilling to do, even though the basic concept had been known at least since Roman times.

As cities grew, though, it became apparent that ignoring your water problem is unwise. In the US, waterworks first appeared in Philadelphia, but only after the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s laid waste to the city (Strasser, 92).

By the turn of the 20th century, half of America’s population had public water works. But don’t get too excited because having a public option didn’t necessarily mean a poor woman actually had a faucet. And if she did have one, she had only one. Do a mental tab on how many places in your house provide water, and you’ll see that hauling was still an issue. Plus, your faucets are probably situated near a drain. Not necessarily the case in a time when water works were new.

However, technology was on the horizon. The advent of electricity was good for housecleaning, mostly because it reduced the level of grime from all those open flames. But also because it powered things like vacuum cleaners and dishwashers.

The origin of the modern dishwasher is a great story about a woman named Josephine Cochran. She was a New York socialite who gave lots of dinner parties and definitely did not have to wash the dishes herself. However, she had lots of heirloom china and the servants kept chipping, cracking, or breaking it.

Josephine was made of stern stuff, nor was she proud, and she said she’d wash the dishes herself. So she did that for a while before deciding, “No, no, I’m not going to do that after all,” and who can blame her?

She came from a family of engineers, and she was still made of stern stuff, so she said—and this is a direct quote—”If nobody else is going to invent a [mechanical] dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself” (quoted in Ram), and she went to the shed out back and did it. A few people had actually tried to invent one, but Josephine’s was the first to clean by water pressure, rather than scrubbers. And hers was also the first to have wire racks to hold different types of dishes in place.

In the meantime, her husband died, leaving nothing but debts, and all she had to rely on was this dishwasher idea. She got a patent in 1886, founded a company in the early 1890s, sold her first machine to Chicago Palmer House hotel, displayed her machine at the Chicago World’s Fair, and received an award for it.

Cochran’s Patent Application

Image Source

When Josephine died in 1913, most of her sales were still to restaurants and hotels. The average housewife didn’t have the money, the water supply, or the furnace big enough to supply a dishwasher. But hotel and restaurant owners weren’t Josephine’s real goal. She wanted to help the ordinary housewife. In 1926, her company was acquired by a company that still exists today: KitchenAid. And by the 1950s the infrastructure existed to allow American housewives to buy dishwashers in great numbers.

But there are two caveats to that. Some sources are written under the assumption that now that we live in our modern glorious present, everyone has a dishwasher. Such is not the case. I lived for six years in an apartment without one, and if I piece a few online statistics together, my household was one of about 40 million such households in the United States. Outside the US, dishwasher ownership is even more in doubt. 60% of households in Canada, 45% in Europe, and lower in every other part of the world (Dishwasher Ownership).

The other caveat to the dishwasher is that not everyone wanted one. Dishwashing was once a shared task as one person washed, another dried. It was mother-daughter bonding time. Or a sister-sister bonding time. Some women said the dishwasher altered the family relationships and not in a positive way. One said, “A lot of elderly women curse the dishwasher. It takes away the one thing they were useful for… If we didn’t want our mothers around at least we would put up with them because they would do what we didn’t want to do. They would do the dishes and they would change the curtains. But with the advent of the automatic dishwasher we got rid of our mothers” (Strasser, 279).

One last thought about housecleaning. A lot of women weren’t doing all this sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, and dishwashing because they were hiring other women to do it. But it was a rare woman who did none of it. Most women with servants were working right alongside their servants. In times and places where labor is cheap there has always been resistance to the labor-saving devices because they are an upfront cost. It might be cheaper to hire a maid. And many women would not have dreamed of living without them. Agatha Christie, for example, did not consider herself rich, had both a full-time maid and a full-time nurse when her daughter was young. She said later that “looking back, it seems to me extraordinary that we should have contemplated having both a nurse and a servant, but they were considered essentials of life in those days, and were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with” (Christie, 268). They penny-pinched in other ways.

As labor costs rose, all that changed. Labor-saving devices became very appealing. And what has also become common, among those who can afford it, is professional housecleaning services. Many of the lower income women who would once have entered domestic service, whether live-in or live-out, now work for businesses. They do some of the same jobs, but not alongside the mistress of the house. There is no longer a personal relationship there. Such businesses were pretty much nonexistent in 1970, but ubiquitous by 1980 (Strasser, 179). This is often good for the women who work there. Domestic service was fraught with abuse of all kinds. But as seems to be the theme of this entire series, it also meant that we generally clean in isolation, whether we’re professionals at it or not.

Or maybe not completely in isolation. If you love cleaning, there are Youtube channels where you can watch people clean. Yes, this really exists. Run a search on Jessica Tull and others like her. If you clean with some of these people, you’ll be joining 3 million other people who have watched. Maybe while cleaning themselves, maybe just sitting back and eating popcorn. Who knows?

In some parts of the world, of course, labor is still cheap enough that a domestic service is still a thing. But for those of us who have neither a maid, nor a regular cleaning service, these tasks are part of a complex and emotional negotiation between family members, and I’ll be talking more about that in the final episode of this series.

The sources were all over the place today: books, articles, websites. My website will have the list at herhalfofhistory.com. Look me up on Facebook or on Twitter as @her_half. And next week come back for the continuation of Housewives of History. Thanks!

Selected Sources

“About Us | Hoover Company History.” Hoover, hoover.com/pages/about-hoover.

Beecher, Catharine Esther, and Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The American Woman’s Home, Or, Principles of Domestic Science: Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical Healthful Beautiful and Christian Homes. United States, J.B. Ford, 1869, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6598/pg6598-images.html. Accessed 20 May 2022.

Band, Lara. “Lime.” Weald and Downland Living Museum, 4 Sept. 2004, http://www.wealddown.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Lime.pdf. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Carran, Dorn and Hughes, John and Leslie, Alick and Kennedy, Craig. (2012). A Short History of the Use of Lime as a Building Material Beyond Europe and North America. International Journal of Architectural Heritage. 6. 117-146. 10.1080/15583058.2010.511694.

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1977.

“Dishwasher Ownership around the World | Finish® CA.” Www.finishdishwashing.ca, http://www.finishdishwashing.ca/en/our-values/sustainability/dishwasher-ownership-around-the-world/#:~:text=In%202015%2C%2045%25%20of%20European. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Frantom, Marcy. “Limewash: An Old Practice and a Good One (U.S. National Park Service).” Www.nps.gov, http://www.nps.gov/articles/limewash-an-old-practice-and-a-good-one.htm. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Frederick, Christine, and American School of Home Economics. Efficient Housekeeping: Or Household Engineering, Scientific Management In the Home. Chicago: American school of home economics, 1925. Available online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924003530932&view=1up&seq=7&skin=2021. Accessed 20 May 2022.

Goodrich, Joanna. “This Socialite Hated Washing Dishes so Much That She Invented the Automated Dishwasher.” IEEE Spectrum, 6 Oct. 2020, spectrum.ieee.org/this-socialite-hated-washing-dishes-so-much-that-she-invented-the-automated-dishwasher. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Grahame, Kenneth. Wind in the Willows. UK, Methuen, 1908, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27805/27805-h/27805-h.htm. Accessed 20 May 2022.

Milewski, Melissa Lambert, ed. “1885: ‘My Husband Has Thought It Wisdom to Absent Himself.’” In Before the Manifesto: The Life Writings of Mary Lois Walker Morris, 420–56. University Press of Colorado, 2007. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt4cgqgf.12.

Ram, Jocelyn, and Eric Atkisson. ““I’ll Do It Myself.”” Www.uspto.gov, http://www.uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation/historical-stories/ill-do-it-myself. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Scott, Peter. “Managing Door-to-Door Sales of Vacuum Cleaners in Interwar Britain.” The Business History Review 82, no. 4 (2008): 761–88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40538806.

Sørensen, Asbjørn Mølgaard. “Prosperous Vikings Whitewashed Their Walls.” Sciencenordic.com, 13 Oct. 2013, sciencenordic.com/archaeoloy-chemistry-denmark/prosperous-vikings-whitewashed-their-walls/1391621. Accessed 16 May 2022.

Spangler, James M. “Carpet Sweeper and Cleaner.” Google Patents, patents.google.com/patent/US1021731A/en?q=vacuum+cleaner&inventor=Spangler&oq=Spangler+vacuum+cleaner. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

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