Progressive House Cleaning vs. New England Style Spring Cleaning

Hello, again History Lovers,

Every once in a while an article comes along that fairly jumps off the page with enthusiasm and character. So it is with this article submitted by Martha Elizabeth (sadly no last name nor where she was from was given) to The Farmer’s Wife–A Magazine For Farm Women in 1922. With great flair, she turns what she calls the New England style of Spring Cleaning on its head by recommending that housewives work away at housecleaning projects throughout the year as opposed to a marathon rework-the-whole-house project in the spring just when its time to start planting the garden. Her advice is very logical. Martha Elizabeth says that the purpose of her article was to help other women “so we might feel more lovingly about our [housework].”

Enjoy!

Progressive House Cleaning

That Is To Say, Progession Through Fifty-Two Weeks

Women who have been reading The Farmer’s Wife for, well, let us say seven years, will perhaps turn up their noses at “another article on house cleaning—as if we do not know how to clean house!”

Of course, we know how to clean house, we women who have had houses for years, but every season along comes a crop of newlyweds and among these girls who were either at school during housecleaning time in their mothers’ home or who, not having direct responsibility, did what they were asked or told or expected to do, “theirs not to question why, theirs but to do or die,”—and let it go at that. Now cobwebs have invaded as they always invade and the young things are waking up to realize that here is a job indeed and they’d better be up and at it. But first, they will dive into the pages of the ever-reliable Farmer’s Wife to see if it has any help for them.

It has. But the help can only be very general for what is to be done in an old-fashioned, three-story-and-basement house built along in the 1860s does not need to and cannot be done in the two-room shack of the pioneer or the rambling ranch house or the compact little bungalow built in 1921. Still, dirt is dirt—a perfectly all right thing in its place which is not anywhere within reach of a broom or brush, or vacuum cleaner.

I have called this little spiel Progressive House Cleaning because I used to follow this system and it worked so well that I gave up forever and a day the old-fashioned general upheavals [of Spring Cleaning] that drove the menfolk to despair and put the women in bed for a week o’ Sundays. Please do not think me untruthful or a snob when I say that I used to clean house all year and when spring came, except for renewal of walls or floors, there was really nothing to do but take off storm doors and windows and “let a little sunshine in.”

This that I have just said, would shock a New England housewife of even as late as 1900 but I wonder if New England and old England and all the rest of English-speaking humanity have not progressed in the matter of house cleaning as well as in other matters.

Really, the woman who KEEPS her house sweet and clean does not need upheavals. She does certain things at certain times and each comes along in its own place and order as certainly as do horseradish and marbles in the spring and oysters in the R-months.

I found this good list of things that one faces in a general-upheaval house cleaning: floors, rugs, hangings, furniture, beds, bathroom, kitchen sink, icebox, pantry, cellar, attic, porches, windows, stairs, fireplace, furnace. This leaves out the walls and closets—I wonder why.

In my Progressive House Cleaning, I kept furniture in good condition by always repairing immediately when accidents happened and by the steady use of a good cleansing polish; beds were never permitted to be in anything but a sweet, speckless condition; for example, when a mattress needs renovation, it needs it, and housecleaning time is not a good time for such extra specific jobs as this; porches need painting when they need it—I never chose garden planting time to have that done; the attic, when I owned that inconvenient convenience, I never permitted it to get into a musty-fusty condition for it was fun on rainy days to “get into” boxes and bags and set things to rights as I discovered wrongs; windows I took care of as they needed it which was with more or less regularity all the year round; I always had the window screens mended and given new coats of paint when they were taken out, not just before they had to be put in, so my work with storm windows became spring work.

You see what I mean. It is easier to keep the house in good condition than to let it slump and then have to have a volcano to pry things loose in the spring. I believe most of us follow this first good way.

If I had a house to clean from top to bottom, having had to let it go because my little family had kept my hands full or because someone had been sick or for some other reason, I should begin my campaign on paper. I would make a plan and schedule because this would help me to marshal all my forces, be systematic, do things in a logical order, not double on my own tracks, and manage so as to keep part of the house always perfectly comfortable for the family at mealtimes and rest times. It is a fact that some women delight in having an orgy of disorder at housecleaning time. It seems to be a good time to indulge in something which the well-ordered days did not permit to come to the surface, so they reduce the house to one glorious mess and then enjoy the misery of restoring it to its usual good condition. No wonder the menfolk take to the woods!

To return to the suggested plan and schedule. I should first make a simple little list of the rooms and then, without stirring out of my chair, visualize each room and write down just what I thought needed doing to that particular room. When the whole list was made out, I should study it and would discover that there were certainly similar things that had to be done for several or all of the rooms: painting or papering or rug-cleaning or curtain-washing or shade-mending. Discovering this would help me to plan just when was the best way to have these little—or big—separate jobs taken care of.

Then I should, still sitting with my paper and pencil, make a list of what I should need to work with. “Would you put down so common a thing as soap?” I most certainly should for I might thereby discover or remember that the last order of soap was just about out and it was high time to place another order. Here is a good list of cleaning agents:

Soap, kerosene, washing soda, borax, lye, ammonia, whiting, rottenstone, bath brick, steel wool.

Then we shall need brooms, brushes, carpet-sweeper, vacuum cleaner, and rags and cloths of many sorts and kinds. It is AWFUL to be on a stepladder cleaning a window only to discover that the cloth is too wet and there is not another dry piece unless someone finds the rag bag and digs one up. One evening spent assembling all the rags needed for the whole campaign would be time well spent.

One part of housecleaning time is EATING. One reason why so many women practically collapse during some of the long, difficult jobs that housekeeping may involve, is because they think it part of their devotion and perhaps somewhat religious not to “bother about eating.” If they treated their prize chicks like that–! Part of the real fun of housecleaning should be to see how easily and jollily one can pull it through. Lay in picnic eats. Huge crocks of cookies and doughnuts; a big pan of gingerbread; several dozen rolls that can be heated in the steamer or oven; an especially fine ham; an extraordinarily good meatloaf; some of the very best of the canned goods and preserves: these things to have at housecleaning time and they can be ready beforehand.

Women should learn the secret of the rest-lunch. When we are under a prolonged strain of work, we should eat little and often. A tin container filled with some tasty sandwiches which can be easily fished out and eaten while one perches on the upturned mattress for a five-minute rest is a magic-worker. It is foolishness to think one can go and go and tug and tug and not pay the piper. When I have to do a long stint of hard work, I eat a little every two hours and gain great help thereby. I call it stoking the inner fire.

This is not a practical article, you see. It is just a neighborly chat. Your home demonstration agent is on the wire—call her up and have her tell you how to make that old bureau new, how to convert great-grandmother’s four-poster into a garden seat, how to finish the kitchen floor so it will be at once sanitary, easy to clean and lovely to look at, how to change the color scheme of the gloomy room, how to upholster with the lovely cretonnes (heavy cotton upholstery fabric) of the day. All I have tried to do is to give you a little hunch or two which will take the Ouch! out of housecleaning. The psychologists account for everything these days by calling this, that, and the other, “a state of mind.” If this be so, and there may be something in it, then let you and me rejoice that Mother Nature out-of-doors is having her spring cleaning: the springs are carrying winter’s accumulations out to the ocean: the big winds are blowing the flu and doldrums and the dumps away to the poles; the rains are cleansing the trees and bushes and grass as lovingly as ever a mother washed her babe; old things are passing young things are being born…Oh, come! Let’s tie a towel around our heads or put on our prettiest dust cap and go to it!

A neighbor read this before I sent it to The Farmer’s Wife and remarked that I certainly had not burdened my readers with information. I never meant to! I just wanted to talk the Big Job over with Us and Company so we might feel more lovingly about it. And we do, don’t we? –Martha Elizabeth

~FWM

The above article was originally published in The Farmer’s Wife–A Magazine For Farm Women, April 1922, Page 828; Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota. Articles may be edited for length and clarity.

4 thoughts on “Progressive House Cleaning vs. New England Style Spring Cleaning

  1. So many articles have been written about housekeeping and house cleaning over the years. Some break their backs doing it, while others ‘go with the flow’. I sometimes wonder if modern ‘conveniences’ such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, tumble driers, dishwashers and the like have made much difference … the articles keep coming a century later 🙂

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  2. I have often wondered why we, here in New England, subscribe (still) to the two season marathon cleaning. I can only surmise that the spring cleaning was essential with wood fired stoves (we still heat with them!). But why the fall cleaning? Anyway, as I age, my list gets shorter and shorter!

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    1. I have read that oil heating back in the day was a dirty heat as well necessitating the Spring Cleaning marathon. I have to spread my projects out over the year. I’m not as young/tough as I once was 😉

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