Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning - A Moral Duty

It is officially (and finally!) spring, which necessitates the "spring cleaning" frenzies. In my research for last week's post about kitchen's in a Victorian middle-class house, I discovered the genesis of our spring cleaning habits. (An excerpt from 1872 from The Manufacturer and Builder, a "practical journal of industrial progress.")

During the time when houses, and kitchens, ran on coal for heating and cooking, the main reason for spring cleaning was to remove the winter dirt produced by coal, oil, gas, and candles. Also with the longer daylight hours and warmer weather, the need for the constant fires in every room diminished. The servants had more time without the daily cleaning of grates and caring for fires. 

Rather than fight the dirt and dust produced by these fuels, people adapted to its presence with some inventive tools and practices: 

  • latches to both street doors and inner doors had small plates or curtains fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt
  • plants on window sills trapped dust as it flew in
  • muslin was nailed across windows to stop the soot or windows only opened at the top to limit the amount of soot and dirt that came in
  • tablecloths were laid on tables just before meals. If they were kept out all day, dust settled from the fires, quickly making the tablecloths dingy

Thankfully we do not have coal-burning stoves and fires, oil and gas lamps, and dripping candles to clean up and care for. But it still is a common practice to throw open the windows, shake out the rugs, flip the mattresses, and air out the house after the long winter months. And there are plenty of advice books, magazines, and articles to inform and 'guide' the modern housewife on what to do and how to do it. (see any Martha Stewart article in any spring publication). Even in the nineteenth century there was a publishing market that targeted the mistresses of houses to maintain order and cleanliness within the home.

Our Homes, an advice book from 1881 by Shirley Foster Murphy stated: "If once we commence a war against dirt, we can never lay down our arms and say, 'now the enemy is conquered.'...Women - mistresses of households, domestic servants - are the soldiers who are deputed by society to engage in this war against dirt."

The war against dirt wasn't just for reasons of hygiene but also carried the banner of status. The status symbol moved from the act of possessing objects, as it was easier to own more with the rise of the mass production of products, to the expensive and time-consuming obsession with keeping clean. In addition to her physical duty, it became the housewives' moral imperative to keep a respectable house. A house many not be any cleaner than it was before, but the air of respectability indicated that it was a decent household. And a clean house was a moral house and thus reflected the clean and moral people who lived within.


Source: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, Judith Flanders

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