miss parloa's young housekeeper

When cleaning house

Ah, spring! The daffodils are blooming, the grass is green, the air is crisp, the snow is falling…

Yes. Although it’s the end of March, New England thinks it’s still time to throw down a healthy mix of snow and rain. What a dirty trick, after 70-degree weather a few weeks back.

No matter. Spring has a sense of newness about it, a feeling of being able to start over again. Maybe that’s why I got the urge to clean house recently. After a few weekends of hosting friends, dashing down to D.C. to meet fiances, and preparing to lead an upcoming field trip, I was ready for a quiet couple of days at home.

So last weekend I decided to hold a mini-spring cleaning in my apartment. I swept out all the nooks and crannies, discovered that my baseboards do indeed collect dust, and wiped down my sinks and dish rack. I took my winter clothes to the dry cleaner’s and washed three loads of laundry. Then I settled down to all that schoolwork that still awaited me. By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted, but my apartment looked better for it.

But like the last time I deep cleaned the apartment, I started wondering what spring cleaning had been like before women had washing machines and vacuum cleaners. So I turned to Maria Parloa’s Young Housekeeper (1894) once again. She didn’t disappoint.

Miss Parloa introduced her chapter on seasonal cleaning with the following:

“The season of house-cleaning is greeted with different degrees of welcome, or horror, by the different members of the family.”

Sounds intimidating, right? Well, with good reason. Miss Parloa goes on to describe in great detail how to clean the various rooms of the house. Here’s a paraphrased list (with commentary):

1. Wait until you don’t have to light daily fires for warmth (so you can clean the furnace and stove). I guess March is not really the time to start.

2. In the cellar, remove the cinders from the furnace, then clean the whole furnace in pieces. Sweep the whole room (including the ceiling!), then whitewash the walls. I am so glad I live in an apartment.

3. In each room, brush and wipe all storage boxes and closets, then saturate with naphtha to keep out bugs. Line each box with new paper before replacing the stored goods. I suppose I moved some of my winter clothes to storage boxes…but since I’d recently cleaned all of them in the January moth scare, this was as far as it got.

4. Brush down the furniture, then place outside the room. You wouldn’t want the furniture to get dirty!

5. Brush down the walls, ceiling, and windows of each room. Sweep the floor, wash the windows, woodwork, and the floor. Let dry for an hour, then replace all the furniture.

6. To clean carpets, remove the carpet tacks with a tack-lifter, then roll up the carpets in old sheets. Take the carpets outside and beat them on both sides, then let them lie on the grass until the room is ready. I don’t even know where to start with this one. I guess carpets were held down with tacks before the days of rubbery carpet liners–that makes sense. But tack-lifters? You need a whole different tool just to pick up the carpets?

7. Clean the floor of each room once the carpet has been removed. Sprinkle the floor with wet sawdust, then sweep it up. Clean all surfaces with a broom covered with flannel. Wash the floors with lime water to make the floorboards “whiter and sweeter.” Parloa also includes a recipe for making your own lime water (unslaked lime and water). This is getting awfully serious, friends. I am suddenly grateful that there are companies who spend all their time making cleaning products so I don’t have to.

8. In bedrooms, take each bedstead apart. Pour naphtha into the grooves of each piece to prevent bedbugs. Dip the ends of slats into a bowl of naphtha. The only time I plan on taking my bedstead apart is when I move. That thing is tricky.

9. When you replace the carpet, rub the soiled spots with naphtha and flannel. Then wipe the carpet with ammonia water (that you have also made yourself). How did these people not die of naphtha poisoning?

10. Repeat appropriate steps for downstairs rooms, and make sure to beat the draperies. Good Lord. We’re only halfway done?

11. In the kitchen and pantry, remove all china and dishes from the cupboards, and wash and dry the shelves. Cover with new paper. Scour the tinware, tables, and sink. This is a little more like what I did last weekend…but it’s pretty much the only similarity.

Then, when the young housekeeper is finished cleaning the house, Parloa also recommends that “the piazza and yard should be put in order.” At that point, were any of them still standing? No wonder she recommends hiring extra help for the week (week!) of spring cleaning. I’m not sure how anyone could manage that by herself, much less keep the meals going for the rest of the family. Apparently whole families tended to dread spring cleaning because the woman of the house would be so harried, and because she could only provide cold meals (if anything). Poor husbands.

The moral of this story is practically banging me over the head. Thank goodness for modern conveniences, and for the fact that we don’t have to worry about bugs to the extent that 19th-century families did. It’s fun to read between the lines for details like that: dust seems to have been a big issue, too, given the sweeping of walls and ceilings. I’m guessing soot from the furnace and gas lamps would have built up in the house as well.

Now I’m curious to hear about your spring cleaning. What have you done (or what are you planning to do) to get ready for spring? Hopefully no one’s going to haul out their tack-lifter…


2 thoughts on “When cleaning house”

  1. What is naphtha? Sounds a little to close to napalm.

    I read somewhere (don't remember where so I have no way to determine if this is true or not) that people now actually spend more time cleaning because the availability of house cleaning technology has raised our standards of cleanliness, and we have many more possessions to maintain than in prior centuries.

    Regardless, I'm thankful that tack-lifters are not a part of my life!


  2. I think they were referring to naphthalene, which is the sharp-smelling ingredient in mothballs. Apparently being exposed to high amounts of it can destroy red blood cells. Rather terrifying.

    And I've come across that idea in research, too–as well as the argument that women in particular have suffered from new technologies, because they're expected to maintain even higher standards. It's fascinating how little things change…


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