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1800s Spring House Cleaning

Updated: May 17, 2022

Image created by Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. Black and white photo of two people holding a broom smiling
Summit Historical Society Collection; SHS-F.056.

I’ve always loved to clean and through this research I’ve learned why I love to clean. I’ve learned how it was done in the 1800s and the history involved with this subject! I had no idea how much this act of labor and love was connected to human biology, tradition of religions, and cultural history for thousands of years.

In the early 1800s the origin of “Spring Cleaning” was one of necessity. Homes, throughout their interior, were covered with soot and grime mainly due to the sources of heat - coal, wood¸ and kerosene oil. People realized that clean air was healthier than dust accumulated through the long winter months.

Spring Cleaning 3,000 years BC was an Iranian tradition recorded in their writings. Jewish customs included thoroughly cleaning the house in preparation for the spring feast of Passover. A whole book can be written on how traditions, cultures, and religions affected our Spring Cleaning habits.

In the 1800s house cleaning was definitely a woman’s lot. Nowadays men are doing more household work than ever before. Now there’s a swing towards paying outside help and companies to do the cleaning because with professional women, there is less of a tendency to do it all. In the 1800s only the very rich paid outside help. Spring Cleaning typically lasted a week with mostly women householders working dawn to dusk while also being responsible for daily meals, cleaning chores, and tending to children and husbands.

Spring Cleaning was so time consuming that cartoons of the era featured husbands lamenting they would not be receiving a good dinner during Spring Cleaning week. Journals and diaries chronicled a series of cold meals because there was no time for plucking poultry or firing up of wood stoves.

Spring is a more natural fresh start for people. Spring is a season of rebirth when everything is green. Spring Cleaning encourages everything from properly disposing of pharmaceuticals to removing litter from public parks. It is now a collective movement that has established cleaning as a ritual throughout the modern world. During the 1800s little was known about this subject other than it was a ritual of their springtime.

We now have a National Spring Cleaning Week, the 4th week in March. It’s become very popular during the earlier months of our COVID-19 Pandemic of 2019. Thrift shops and recycle centers were inundated with things collected through the years that were not needed anymore. Areas in our homes were torn apart and cleaned like never before in our busy lives. It’s a week that can produce improved moods, decreased stress, and increase creativity. Imagine though waiting for March to begin cleaning. In America since the 1800s, cleaning has gone through quite a few changes. Now daily and weekly cleans often are a priority and not just seasonal. The best time for dusting and cleaning was March because it was getting warm enough to open windows and doors. The winds of March would carry the dust outside from the attic to the basement.

Every square inch of dwellings would be cleaned from top to bottom, attic to basement cellars. Using vinegar and water was one of the best cleaners during that time period. It was much cheaper than soap and required less time to prepare. Although water was the essential source of cleanliness, it was a laborious chore since most houses didn’t have indoor plumbing. It had to be hauled from a spring, stream, or hydrant, then strained for debris and placed on a wood stove to heat. After it was used, it had to be hauled away - a back breaking chore! Water was used for cleaning the ducts and flues of the fireplaces and stoves so that in warmer weather they wouldn’t emit crummy smells.

Spring cleaning began in the attic with opening dormers and windows to allow fresh air in. Attics were highly organized and kept free of cobwebs and tightly sealed to keep out critters of all sorts. Many tightly sealed or locked trunks contained certificates and documents of importance. Journals and chronicles of the past and present were also preserved in airtight trunks and suitcases. All had to be dusted and wiped down. Baby clothes were stored, clean and pressed, for the next child to be born. Toys were stored clean and repaired and ready to play with.

The debris in cobwebs included unburned fuels, straw, feathers, human hair, animal hair and probably much more! Cobwebs which collected during winter would be dusted and removed from every square inch of the ceilings, walls, and floors with a broom wrapped in soft clean cloths. The trusty broom has been around for centuries; first ones were made of broom corn silk. The broom is still the key to any outdoor endeavor of cleaning.

Ceilings, walls, baseboards, and floors were scrubbed with stiff brushes. Then perhaps a thin coating of white wash plaster made from a flour paste was spread on the cleaned areas. It was tinted with a pale spring-colored dye made from vegetables, berries, or flowers.

Windows were washed with vinegar and water to remove all the haze and soot from smoke and kerosene lamps. Next, window glass was polished with newspapers and scraps of cloth. Vinegar and water are still an excellent window cleaner today. Windowsills were rubbed with onion water to keep out flies and bugs.

It was recommended to rub down the heater stove with kerosene and then apply a layer of varnish mixed with cooking oil to prevent rust. Gilt picture frames that were stained by fly droppings and dust were gently wiped with cotton clothes dipped in a sweet sugar oil. Layered sheets of paper, sprinkled with turpentine, were placed between stored winter clothes to repel moths while in storage.

Beds that had metal frames, head and footboards were pulled away from walls and remained there for the summer months because lightning storms were attracted to wall areas by this type of bed. Safety was a factor of furniture placement. Cooking oil and varnish was used on all the wooden bedsteads each spring. It was made sure that cooking oil and varnish got in all the crevices so that all the bed bugs died and were then removed with stiff brushes.

Linens were washed, starched, and pressed to remove all foreign matter and kill all germs of which they had very little knowledge. It’s a wonder they didn’t get sick since arsenic was used in the starching process. Quilts and blankets were aired, fluffed, and beaten on the clothesline to also remove bed bugs.

Mattresses were dragged outside to be aired, repaired and restuffed with straw and again checked for bed bugs. Upholstered furniture was dragged outside and briskly rubbed with brushes. Wood trim was polished with oil. Herbs were placed under cushions for a fresh spring scent.

Some of the homes had grand staircases, art on the walls, dozens of windows and china cupboards, all of which need dusting and polishing. Clocks needed to be cleaned with a gentle bath of soap and warm water. Chandeliers needed to be dismantled, soaked in vinegar water, and then rubbed to a perfect shine with soft cloths. Fancier homes’ rugs and carpets were given a good beating outside in the wind and sunshine. They used wooden paddles or wire tennis racket shaped paddles. They spot cleaned them with vinegar and water, left to dry in the sunshine.

A non-scratch kitchen cleaner made of 3 parts warm water to 1 part baking soda with added lemon juice for fragrance, was used to clean and polish pots and pans. It was used as a stove oven cleaner as well. Another chore of the women of the household was to pick and dry herbs to make the house smell sweet. Lemon balm, mint, and pennyroyal were used in the summer to keep away flies and other critters.

The cellar or basement was a major area to clean. In preparation for the growing season after a long, cold winter, was to make sure the moisture level was controlled with stones, earth, and sand on the floor. Shelves were wiped down for the busy canning season. Storage areas were dusted and organized for the tools that were used in winter. Herbs were placed throughout the basement to create a sweet fragrance and feeling of cleanliness.

Those living in sod houses might repack the earth underfoot on the ground floor with sawdust or sand. This could be a regular chore during any season. Those homes with wood floors needed daily brooming or mopping and then layers of varnish were applied as wear became more apparent. In log cabins, chinking was removed from between the logs to let the breeze inside the house. It was easily knocked free, being made of mud or clay mixed with straw and small stones. More established and grander homes, such as Barney Ford’s, often had paid outside help to do the Spring Clean.

Perhaps if the housekeepers of the 1800s knew as much about bacteria and germs as they did about bed bugs, life span might have increased beyond the average of 45 years. Could it be that Barney Ford and Edwin Carter not only walked a lot, but they lived in cleaner dwellings? Rising warmer temperatures in spring promoted germ growth. So, to prevent infection and disease a good scouring is vital!

A surprising and huge factor in the history of Spring Cleaning is the Pineal Gland and Melatonin!!!! Some say the ‘Art of Spring Cleaning’ means to wake up from a Melatonin slumber of spirit and mind. Spring Cleaning begins in March or whenever your body wakes up or feels like it. Our pineal gland is responsible for producing melatonin which causes sleepiness in humans. The pineal gland responds to darkness increasing in fall and winter and decreasing in spring and summer. We actually experience an awakening in spring. It boosts our energy and motivation, which seems true in conjunction with Spring Cleaning. In reality Spring Cleaning has more to do with human biology than anything else. As a species, our behavior is bound to the cycles of our bodies and seasons.

This research on Spring Cleaning has made me feel even more appreciative of living in the 20 and 21st century. I feel it’s a luxurious activity of pride in my present lifestyle. It’s also a time to purge and declutter. In the 1800s it was still a similar activity, but required much more physical labor than today’s Spring Cleaning. With the invention of the vacuum cleaner in 1901, Spring Cleaning took on a whole new face. In the 1800s it was beyond most women’s imagination.

Several books were written on the subject of Spring and House Cleaning in the 1800s. I now have two in my library. One is “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” by Marion Cabell Tyree and “Spit and Polish: Old Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt Dust and Decay” by Lucy Lethbridge. Amazing that this info was available to women of this time period.

Author and poet Emily Dickinson said, “I prefer pestilence to Spring Cleaning” and Erma Bombeck, humorist said, “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance”. That being said!!!!!!! Could it be that my pituitary gland doesn’t slow down or increase its production of melatonin like most people’s? Increasing or decreasing of daylight hours doesn’t seem to affect my love of cleaning. Could it be that in one of my past lives I was really Cinderella?

Thank you and Happy Spring Cleaning in the 21st Century!

Written by: Sharon E. Trumbore

January 2021

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