Spring Cleaning: a Spotty History

In addition to dusting off my bicycle, I’ve also got to dust my house this spring, thought I must admit that my spring cleaning always gets delayed by the academic calendar:  I don’t really get to it until the semester is over in early May.  By that time, it’s a refreshing break from school, but the two pursuits–scholarship and housekeeping–are not entirely disconnected in my mind and life.  For the past few years, I’ve been slowly working on a book, tentatively titled The Practical Renaissance, about the practical applications of print and information culture in Elizabethan England.  My primary sources are popular “how-to” books which provided instructions for the improvement of health and household, several of which take on the brave new world of hygiene.

Standards of hygiene were obviously very different in the sixteenth century than they are today, but two concerns  really manifest themselves in my sources:  spot removal (and the care of textiles in general) and bugs.  One of the most versatile of my Elizabethan “practical” authors, Leonard Mascall, wrote about tree-grafting, fishing, animal husbandry and horticulture, as well as stain removal in his Profitable boke declaring dyuers approoved remedies to take out spottes and staines in Silkes, Velvets, Linnen and Woollen clothes.  Multiple editions of Mascall’s little book (which was a translation of  an earlier Dutch work) were published after 1583, testifying to its popularity.

Mascall and his fellow dispensers of household knowledge provided soap recipes (containing alum, egg whites, ashes, and various herbs) for “brightening” various fabrics, but one gets the sense that fumigating and perfuming were the main tasks of “cleaning” in Elizabethan households.  There are many recipes for “sweet bags” containing fragrant herbs that would be spread among the linen, a practice that would both “clean” household textiles and prevent their infestation by moths and other pests. Various herbs boiled down in a “perfuming pot” or cast into the fire would mask annoying household odors.  Instructions were also given for the delousing of both beds and bodies, which must have been a constant occupation.

Bed bugs in Hortus Sanitatis, 1536, and a page of very random recipes from John Partridge’s Widdowes Treasure, 1595.

In the seventeenth century, more comprehensive and detailed guides were published in multiple editions, becoming more authoritative in the process.  Two domestic bibles, seldom out of print, were Gervase Markham’s English House-Wife, first published in 1615, and Hannah Woolley’s Compleat Servant-Maid, or the Young Maidens Tutor (1677).  The books are longer but the recipes for cleanliness are still the same:  spot-cleaning of fabrics, sweet bags and sweet waters, perfumes and pomanders, musk balls and soap balls, shake the bedclothes to get the bed bugs out.  Unadulterated water is still a suspicious substance, with good reason.  You can see from the long title of Markham’s work that the seventeenth-century English housewife was supposed to possess a wealth of skills, encompassing everything from healing to distillation to maintaining the dairy.  Writing later in the seventeenth century, from a completely different perspective as both a woman and a former servant herself, Woolley’s very practical guide was geared towards prospective domestic servants who aspired to work in “great houses”.

The last two household compendiums to be published before the Industrial Revolution were Eliza Smith’s Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion (1727) and Hannah Glasse’s Servant’s Directory, Improved, or Housekeeper’s Companion (1762), with instructions on how to mix up paints and varnishes, whiten fabric, and, of course, banish bugs and vermin.  Glasse’s work also contains the following directions for cleaning wood floors, a “green” approach that sounds like it might work today:  “Take tansy, mint, and balm; first sweep the room, then strew the herbs on the floor, and with a long hard brush rub them well all over the boards, till you have scrubb’d the floor clean.  When the boards are quite dry, sweep off the greens, and with a dry rubbing brush dry-rub them well, and they will look like mahogany, of a fine brown, and never want any other washing, and give a sweet smell to the room”.  You can see Glasse’s instructions enacted by the curators of the Rhode Island Historical Society on April 21 when they scrub down the John Brown House in eighteenth-century style (and eighteenth-century clothing).

The title page of Hannah Woolley’s Compleat Housewife and a popular mid-18th-century print of “The Housewife”:  She claims you Praise, who keeps all sweet and clean:  for Tidy Housewife is no Title mean”.  Mezzotint after Gerrit Dou by Richard Purcell for Henry Parker, 1759-66.  British Museum.

Of course, in the nineteenth century, everything changes:  there is a revolution of soap…and detergent, disinfectants, and bug spray.  The housewife (or her maid) still has to do the work, but she doesn’t have to make the products anymore.  Given their domain over the household, housewives add a new role to ther varied tasks:  that of targeted consumers of the myriad of cleaning products on an ever-expanding market, all promising cleaner homes, in the spring time and all year round.

British advertisements for household soap from the 1870s and 1880s from the British Library; John Henry Vanderpoel poster for Armour’s Laundry Soap, 1890s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

“Spring Cleaning” acquires a metaphorical meaning in the modern era, first and foremost when applied to gender politics as in the two images below from just before World War I, and later more generally.  Finally, a scene of futuristic domestic liberation from Popular Mechanics in 1950.

Women’s Work (cleaning up the house) and Men’s Work (cleaning up the city) as a Suffragette confronts her husband in a Puck cartoon from 1912, Women’s Suffrage sweeping away the evils of prostitution, drinking and gambling in a 1914 cartoon, and the housewife of tomorrow (2000) doing her spring cleaning, 1950.  All, Library of Congress.

10 responses to “Spring Cleaning: a Spotty History

  • susangeckle

    I can see how this would have been such an important thing back in the day. Various plagues had an unfortunate way of wiping out people, before modern medicine. One of the few defenses was probably keeping things as clean as possible.

    • daseger

      You’re right, Susan. The relationship between plague and sanitation is one of the themes of my book but I wanted to keep it a bit lighter here!

  • markd60

    I would like to read some of those old books. The last pic is funny, The Housewife or 2000 can just hose everything off!!

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I, too, love last the last picture. And there was likely many a time when my mom would have preferred to have just brought a hose in and washed everything down after I’d tramped through the house.

  • daseger

    The last picture is great: Popular Mechanics is a mine of information!

  • Bernadette

    Great post, I have been busy spring cleaning and decorating in past couple of weeks,I love that feeling of clearing out cupboards,throwing out things I no longer need, doing a bit of decorating and sorting out the garden but all that came to a standstill today when I fell out the door of my utility room and spent the day in the Accident and Emergency! Now my foot and leg are all bandaged up! Love all the images, especially the last two.

  • The Dusty Victorian

    I certainly can relate to this post. Our first B&B guests came and went this weekend and we were on cleaning mode for the last two weeks – inside and out. Great post!

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