Spring cleaning is based on practices from generations ago

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just how did spring cleaning become an annual guilt trip?

A 2000 Smithsonian exhibit on the history of housecleaning included this diary entry from a housewife in 1864: "Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times." Drudgery journals, such as this one of women's rights activist Lydia Maria Child, detail housekeeping rituals and shed light for historians on why the biggest housecleaning of the year traditionally happened in spring.

Because homes used to be lit with whale oil or kerosene and heated with wood or coal, the winter months left a layer of soot and grime in every room. With the arrival of spring, women would throw open windows and doors, and take rugs and bedding outside and beat dust out of them and start scrubbing floors and windows until sparkling.

"In most climates, you can't clean very effectively in the middle of the winter," says Barbara Clark Smith, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "Warmer weather made it possible to get the house really clean."

In many homes, men would get turned out of the house while women completed the week-long spring chores. "The house would literally be emptied out," says Susan Strasser, history professor at University of Delaware, who wrote the book "Never Done: A History of American Housework."

Families today have less time to clean, and standards may have slipped. But spring is often a catalyst to undertake chores that aren't part of the weekly laundry-vacuuming-dusting routine.

"I think the tradition has carried on because life really does seem to open up in the spring with the lengthening of days and warmth," says Strasser. "Our bodies respond to the change in seasons."

Strasser's plan for spring cleaning at her Takoma Park Dutch colonial: "I plan to clean out drawers. I don't beat rugs, but I'm thinking about window washing."

-- J.K.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company