Housecleaning each spring and fall used to be a huge but important task for most every housewife (unless she wanted to be known as slovenly by her neighbors).
Della T. Lutes, (1872 to 1942) wrote in the May, 1937 issue of Farm Journal magazine of her memories of her mother performing this semi-annual ritual and observes, “I remember with a definite sense of well-being and pleasure, the air of extreme complacency with which my mother viewed her house after the Herculean task of house cleaning was done.”
She continues, “This was especially true in fall when the carpets were taken up and fresh clean straw laid before they were put down again. Straw newly threshed and muskily sweet with the odor of grain.
Oh, yes, indeed, carpets had to be taken up to be cleaned. And not just rolled up either, but the tacks pulled out — rusty tacks that defied the tack puller. Then you got hold of the carpet edge, sat back on your heels and yanked until the tacks gave way (or, if it was old, the carpet ripped).”
Lutes explains that most carpets were rag or ingrain (the dark, patterned napless rugs common in the late 19th century and still common in many houses when I was young), of loose weave and “(W)hile the broom swept off the top layer, the real dirt sifted down into the straw which lay at first fresh and thick and later, as wear began to shred it down became a fine, dusty mess itself.”
After the rugs were up, this entire “fine, dusty mess” was swept out. Of course, prior to taking up the rugs, all the furniture was removed, usually into the front yard, where it “could be brushed, wiped with a damp cloth and aired. Then you tied a cloth over the broom (and another over your head) and proceeded to sweep walls and ceiling.”
Next were the windows: “A pan of clean warm suds, with another of clear water and a few drops of ammonia, together with plenty of rags comprised the equipment. You stood on chairs and stepladders to reach the top. Panes, frames, and sills were thoroughly cleaned and dried. Next, the floors were scrubbed, and you got down on your hands and knees in order to do a good job of it.”
In the bedrooms, “Straw ticks were freshly filled, feather beds and pillows hung on the line to freshen and get plopped up. Blankets, quilts and comfo’t’bles, curtains and shams were washed. The big high wooden double bed was dusted and the slats washed.
Sometimes we took a cloth dampened with kerosene and rubbed on the place where the slats bore on the side rails just in case. Drawers of bureaus were cleaned out and fresh papers put in.”
Lute’s description of putting the carpets back down may be interesting to modern housewives.
“In spring and where newspapers were available, having been carefully hoarded for a year, these were spread, layer upon layer over the clean floor, the carpet was then stretched and tacked down. In case of an old carpet already adjusted to the room this was not so difficult a job, but when a new rag carpet was to be laid, especially over straw, it was a back-breaking job
Some people had a carpet stretcher, but most of us just used brute strength.”
The carpet finally laid to the housewife’s satisfaction. Lutes says, “It was a grand feeling, the carpet once in place, the curtains hung and looped back (all previously laundered and stiffly starched), the pictures in place, the furniture again placed against the wall, to look around and enjoy the result of your effort.
To be sure, the straw is a little difficult to walk on yet. Your feet sink in and your toes stub against the little hummocks, but that is a minor detail compared to the general satisfaction and will be corrected with time after we let the family in.”
Most farm houses had a large pantry where provisions were kept, dishes stored, and butter made. Della Lutes refers to the room as “the butt’ry,” a contraction for “buttery.”
She writes, “The butt’ry was about the hardest place of all to clean — and the least satisfactory. Except for the freshly scalloped newspapers on the shelves, it looked about the same afterward as before, although every last shelf had been stripped, every last dish washed even to the very best china that was used only when special company came and would have to be washed again then.
And all the extra goblets and pickle dishes and sauce plates and everything. All the drawers had been emptied, washed, and clean papers put in.”
Down in the cellar, the shelves and cupboards were scrubbed, the bins for potatoes, apples and such cleaned, the stone walls whitewashed, and the windows cleaned. Last on the list was the kitchen, which was scrubbed and maybe the woodwork painted.
A new oil cloth laid on the floor, the stove freshly blacked, a gay curtain hung at the window, and the job was done.”
Lutes sums up with, “Yes, we were thorough with our house cleaning and well we deserved the exquisite sense of accomplishment with which we viewed the results of our labor. That it was labor is beyond doubt. Hard, wearying, muscle-straining, back-aching work. But, after all, there was a lot of fun in it. The house, after a long winter of snow and wood ashes and dust and tracking in, looked dingy.
We longed to get at it. Our fingers had itched for weeks. If, as was quite likely, we had made a new rag carpet, pieced a new quilt, tied a new ‘comfort’ with which to embellish the newly cleaned house, we could hardly wait to put them in place.”
And finally, she writes, “Our homes belonged to us, and we to them. We were part and parcel of the home and if it demanded our lifeblood to keep it going, the transfusion was gladly given.”
I recall my own mother, aunts, and grandmothers going through some of these same rituals (no straw on the floor though, except what fell from our overall cuffs and pockets), and I wonder if they felt the same way about their homes.