american woman's home, disaster, miss parloa's young housekeeper

the care of rooms

My apartment is located in a grand old house, the kind with high ceilings and ornate trim and bay windows. It’s beautiful. I love coming home every afternoon, because I feel warm and cozy within the elegant architecture. There’s something comforting about living in a beautiful place.

However, there’s also something dusty about living in an old place. Cleaning–something I hate to do at the best of times–really has to be done once a week to keep the apartment looking spiffy. Most of the time I’m too busy to care about sweeping and dusting all the hidden corners. (Of course, when friends come to visit, that’s another story.)
Recently, though, I was forced to face my least favorite chore. Last Friday I discovered that some moths had been having a grand old time with a few sweaters stored over the summer. Tragedy! It seems as though cedar chips actually stop working when they’re a few years old, and I should have replaced them or sanded them or sprayed them with cedar oil to keep the moths away. But it was too late now, and I had to deal with the consequences.
I won’t go into the details of my cleaning frenzy, except to say that my dry cleaners have never been so happy to see me, and that it is awfully difficult to find cleaning solutions that don’t destroy the environment. Luckily the damage wasn’t too severe, and my apartment is now (hopefully) moth-free.
Because I’m a nerd, though, my thoughts turned to history. When I interned at a living history museum, we watched clips from 1900 House, a fascinating documentary that follows an ordinary British family that lives in a period-accurate Victorian brownstone for three months. One of the first things the wife and mother discovers is that cleaning the house is never done and takes forever. So she hires a maid, who happily takes to the bizarre cleaning methods of the turn of the century. I remembered some entertaining clips in which the maid has to take apart all the beds in order to rid them of bedbugs.
Over the course of my long evening of domestic endeavor, I started wondering how a Victorian woman would rid her house of moths. Would she scald all her clothes in hot water and dry them in the sun? Would she use some form of poisonous naphthalene?* Would she turn to some other cancer-causing cleaning solution?
my 21st-century arsenal
I turned to that pillar of domestic wisdom, Catharine E. Beecher. Beecher was an advocate of women’s education and domestic tranquility. In her book The American Woman’s Home, which she co-wrote with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine described methods of designing and caring for a home that were far more modern than the 1869 publication date would suggest. Her recommendations for ridding clothes of moths were surprisingly innocuous:

Airing clothes does not destroy moths, but laying them in a hot sun does. If articles be tightly sewed up in linen when laid away, and fine tobacco put about them, it is a sure protection.

Granted, Beecher was far ahead of her time. Just for kicks, I looked up another domestic advice book, Maria Parloa’s Miss Parloa’s Young Housekeeper. Parloa takes an entirely different tack:

Soiled carpets and garments may be cleaned by sponging with naphtha. Buffalo bugs and moths can be destroyed with it. For stuffed furniture use naphtha freely. Put the article on the piazza and pour the fluid into it, being sure that every part is saturated. After a day or two, repeat the process, and I think you will find that both worms and eggs are destroyed.

Pour the fluid into it? Saturate the garment? What was she trying to do, suffocate her readers with the fumes? She does note that one should always keep the room well-aerated and not light any fires for a few days, however.
Lesson learned? Unless you’re a follower of Catharine E. Beecher’s wisdom, you’d probably hasten your family to an early death by trying to rid the house of moths. Man, do I love the modern age.
* the primary ingredient of old mothballs. Or, the ingredient that gives them that pungent smell.

3 thoughts on “the care of rooms”

  1. Wow! Your house is PRETTY! …and as always, thanks for the history lesson. For now, I”ll stick to my fancy, turn of this century studio to avoid cleaning that thoroughly.


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