Sweeping Changes: Thoughts on Keeping a Clean House

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My grandmother knew how to keep a fresh, uncluttered house. The brick patio under the wisteria was always swept free of blossoms, ready for a picnic lunch. The living room was tidy enough for drop-in guests, the teakettle whistled on a spotless stove, and when you got tired, you simply folded back a neat bedspread and crawled between clean sheets.

Keeping house was a central part of my grandmother’s life in a way that’s uncommon these days. Even though a healthy, revitalizing home environment is still important, many of us have tossed housekeeping into the corners of our lives. Others squirt newfangled chemicals around the house for a quick but risky clean. Perhaps instead we could incorporate some traditional skills into our modern routines–and remind ourselves of the value of keeping house.

Reflect on your goals

“If a woman wanted to maintain her self-respect in the neighborhood, she had to finish hanging out her last piece of laundry by ten” every Monday morning, writes Phoebe Louise Westwood in Yesteryear’s Child (Heritage West, 1993), a memoir of growing up in the early 1900s. Today, lacking such a framework of social constraints, we possess the freedom as well as the burden of determining our own personal priorities, routines, and standards.

Sit back and let a few motes of dust collect while you do a little old-fashioned thinking. Do you prefer a practical, down-to-earth approach to keeping house, or a more mindful, spiritual approach? My sister wants her home to be ready for spur-of-the-moment visitors in twenty minutes or less. I’d like ours to be a haven from allergens. Perhaps you want yours to be a nurturing retreat from the world or an orderly workplace.

Think too about what level of general cleanliness you desire–or need. Take stock of what’s working and what’s not. Even at our house, where clutter tends to procreate wildly, I cook regular, wholesome meals and keep us in clean, albeit unfolded, laundry.

Reflect on what might get in your way. Are you trying to keep house without clear goals, a system, or proper tools? Can you remove some items from your plate to make room for housekeeping, or must you either scale back your goals or get help? (See “How to Hire Green Help,” page 89.) Throw out the shaming attitudes that kept many of our foremothers on their hands and knees–or labeled them slovenly. Adopt a nonjudgmental, inquisitive attitude as you get to the bottom of any difficulties.

Set up systems

“Each day had its own proper work,” wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods (Harper and Row, 1932). Every morning, after washing the breakfast dishes and making the beds, Laura’s ma knew what work came next: “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.”

If undone household tasks call out to you, a schedule can free your psyche from tasks not slated for a particular day. Ma’s work may never have been done, but she certainly knew the satisfaction of finishing a day’s tasks. Consider laying out a daily, weekly, monthly, and sea­sonal routine. Don’t forget to include a regular day of rest.

Gather your supplies

Tuberculosis, dysentery, and other serious infectious diseases are less a concern now than they were a century ago. However, we’re creating some new health problems for ourselves by sealing up our houses, using toxic cleaning products, and overusing antibacterial products. Don’t underestimate the importance of your household product choices. By selecting wisely, you can reduce your risk of allergies, cancer, birth defects, and poisonings–and you can avoid contributing to air and water pollution. By avoiding antibacterial cleaning products, you help prevent the specter of antibiotic resistance. Peruse labels closely, keeping in mind that no legal standards exist to define terms such as natural or safe for the environment.

You might actually spend less time by mixing up a few homemade cleaning products than you would in standing around a store inspecting labels. You can concoct an amazing array of products with nothing but water, white vinegar, baking soda, and liquid soap (see “Home Chemistry,” page 88).

When it comes to tools, remember a few old standbys. Early household manuals and modern indoor-air-quality specialists talk a lot about airing; throw open those windows when you can. Rags are free, reusable, and more durable than paper towels–and you get one last fling with that favorite nightgown or T-shirt. Finally, an apron lets you throw yourself with abandon into wet or messy work.

Observe as you act

“It helps to notice if there is any of [our work] that we dread to do, and if there is, then study that thing and find some way to do it differently,” wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder in a 1913 essay targeted to farm wives. Scrutinize and tweak your routines regularly. As you work, don’t forget your reasons for scouring that counter with baking soda or folding warm sheets. “It is a good idea sometimes to think of the importance and dignity of our everyday duties,” philosophized Wilder in 1916. “It keeps them from being so tiresome.”

When the day’s work is done, stop for a moment to feel the peace and space you’ve created. Enjoy the fruits of your labor: a clean cup for tea or a free tabletop on which to play double solitaire. And congratulate yourself: With your commitment to keeping house, you are nourishing yourself, your family, and the earth in a time-honored way.

Home Chemistry