Spring cleaning is an important part of some cultures and religions. In the Iranian culture the vernal equinox marks the beginning of a 2-week festival celebrating Nowruz or the New Year. Each year before it begins, Iranians thoroughly clean their houses to get rid of the old year’s dirt and to welcome the new year in as good condition as possible. In the Jewish culture, Passover, in March or April, marks the departure of the Jewish people from Egypt. It is important that no leavened product, not even a crumb, be in the home during that celebration, and so houses are rigorously cleaned from top to bottom.
For others, spring cleaning has a much more practical history. In the past, houses were kept shut tight throughout the winter to keep in what little heat they had. Coal and wood fires spread soot and dust throughout the house. Curtains and bedding could be beaten or washed and dried outside in the spring sun, while furniture could be taken outside, dusted or disposed of and replaced. Of course, through much of history, the state of the house was considered the responsibility of a woman, and she heard loud and clear that her worth as a woman was judged in large part by the cleanliness of her house.
By the end of the Victorian era, newspapers in March and April were filled with ads for “modern” products and equipment such as an electric vacuum cleaner that would make life and spring cleaning much easier. “You simply guide it, electricity does the work. Decide now to end the drudgery of housework.”
In April of 1929, the Milwaukee Sentinel carried a column written by Mrs. Christine Frederick, “The distinguished authority on household efficiency” in which she described some “efficient tools for the spring cleanup”. It began, “No matter how poetic Spring is with its blossoming flowers and trilling birds, for the practical housewife Spring is another term for cleanup. Whether she lives in city, suburb or country, some sort of Spring cleaning, both in and out of the house is inescapable. And every housewife relishes this chance to go from attic to cellar, from closet to closet, sorting, laying away and disposing of the useless and worn.”
But finally, in May 1939 the Montreal Gazette ran the column “Spring Cleaning is Not Necessary if House Run by Modern Methods”. It declared “A house that is run on the keep-clean-as-you-go plan certainly doesn’t need to be turned inside out each spring and fall.” Admittedly their premise was based on how disruptive a full cleaning was to the man of the house, “for if there is anything a man detests, it is being routed out of his particular chair and made to eat catch-as-catch-can meals”. However, the column ended with the very valid point, “Don’t think that because mother cleaned house furiously twice a year that you must too. Mother might not have had the tools at hand, besides which she probably did not have the courage of her convictions. Women are learning to do things the easy way, and why on earth not?”
Even by 1967, an article in the Reading Pennsylvania Eagle newspaper, while giving instructions about cleaning venetian blinds, reminded women just how lucky they were.
“The eyelids of your windows – the Venetian blinds – can be cleaned easily, no fuss, no muss. First, wipe them with a damp clean cloth, then don a pair of old cotton gloves for a little ladylike polish. Dip the tips of the gloves into the polishing wax and rub it into the slats. And – for a dazzling finish – clean the white tapes on the blinds with white shoe polish. Voila! Windows with lots of lustre.
When spring cleaning does get you down, count your blessings by remembering that you live in an age of cleaning agents, detergents, and electric appliances. Thank your lucky stars that you’ve come a long way since grandma’s day – when spring cleaning ladies not only had to whitewash their own walls, but make soap to clean with and their own furniture polish.”
Obviously, the responsibility for the condition of the house still rested with women during the wartime and for some time after, but recognizing that there might be other things in a woman’s life than cleaning was a start.
Even after the war, it was clear in newspaper ads that cleaning the house was women’s and girls’ work, but the focus was beginning to shift to using modern equipment and supplies rather than spending hours on the task.
Slowly but surely, advertisements reflect the change in public expectations. Most ads today that mention spring cleaning at all are for professional cleaning services. It seems, at least from the vantage point of advertisements, that a major clean of the house is seen, not as the responsibility of a man or a woman, but rather something to be outsourced so that it is done better and more quickly and costs the family only money – not time.
Of course, our Mrs. Christine Frederick – the Milwaukee Distinguished Authority of Household Efficiency – would find all that very sad. In her 1925 Spring Cleaning column she said, “I believe that most women who are real homemakers just thrive in and revel in a good house cleaning. Other women may play golf, or spend dollars taking some fashionable “baths,” but the woman who cleans house “gets something out of her system” and after it is all over, is ready to be calm and satisfied for the rest of the Summer.” That sounds suspiciously like decluttering and ‘sparking joy’. Nah, couldn’t be – that’s modern thinking, isn’t it?