Spring cleaning - in search of the perfect sparkle

Spring is proverbially the season when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. But it's also the time of year when many people's thoughts reluctantly turn to something far less romantic: housecleaning.

By March, windows are streaked with wintry grime. Fireplaces are filled with ashes from months of cozy fires. Dust bunnies are multiplying under beds, and floors have lost their shine. It's time to haul out the Windex and Mop 'n Glo, or to call in Merry Maids.

In an age of once-over-lightly, lick-and-a-promise housekeeping, a hasty swipe of the dust cloth and an efficient sweep of the vacuum now passes for what once was called spring cleaning. What a contrast to the time-consuming domesticity of a century ago, when the arrival of spring heralded a full-scale attack on dirt that lasted a week or more.

My great-grandfather, who kept a diary for 60 years, chronicled spring cleaning in his tiny town in central Wisconsin. Decade after decade in March and April, he recorded the domestic activity swirling around under his own roof. The seasonal chores even affected him as the owner of a general store. On April 7, 1910, he wrote of one employee, "Marion did not work - is cleaning house."

On April 6, 1917, after solemnly noting that "US declared war vs. Germany," he added prosaically, "Lena and Mary cleaning Ethel's room (finished) and housework." Other references to washing and ironing dot the diary pages.

Even husbands occasionally played a role. On April 3, 1918, my great-grandfather listed the activities of various men in town: "Frank, Fred, Irwin working in store. Pike fixing fences across river. Leo hauling manure. Alfred helping wife clean house." On April 15, "Alfred helped clean house in A.M. and pulled stumps in P.M."

Day after day for 13 days that year, the spring-cleaning entries continued. April 4: "Wife, Ethel, Lucille, Mattie, and Ona cleaning attic." The next day the same five women "cleaned woodshed and housework." Yet they also found time for other activities. The following week they added "Red Cross work" to their tasks. "They are gathering up old clothes to send to the Belgians," he wrote. And of course there were regular family duties as well. April 12, 1917: "Wife, Ethel, Lena, and Mary - housecleaning and babies."

The descriptions are enough to make a 21st-century diary reader want to take a nap. They also unwittingly promote an appreciation for modern appliances.

It was the invention of the vacuum cleaner in 1901 that revolutionized housework and began making spring cleaning less necessary. With the arrival of Hoover's first portable home model vacuum in 1908, a primitive device that has been described as "a bagpipe mated with a breadbox," homemakers no longer had to haul rugs, draperies, and upholstered cushions outside and whip them with a rug beater. Regular vacuuming helped keep dust at bay throughout the year.

Yet maybe our great-grandmothers had the right idea after all. However difficult their marathon attic-to-cellar efforts might have been, they knew they would reap their rewards at the end. When the furniture was back in place and the last brooms and rags put away, they could smile at the sight of a totally clean house. It marked a fresh beginning, a reassuring sign of order and control - until they repeated the process in the fall.

That longing for pristine rooms, tidy drawers, organized closets, and domestic perfection may be driving the success of an 884-page book on housekeeping, "Home Comforts," by Cheryl Mendelson (see interview, Jan. 26, P. 13) . Who could have imagined that a doorstop-sized tome explaining how to make hospital corners, hang clothes on the line, and fold laundry would rise to No. 11 on Amazon.com's best-seller list?

Then again, why not? In a fast-paced world, where corporate success has become more important than a clean house, home remains an essential sanctuary. The glint of sunlight on gleaming floors, the scent of lemon oil on furniture, the shine of polished silver - our grandmothers would understand.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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