Last month we looked at the origins of the great Spring Clean and the invention of the domestic vacuum cleaner. This piece of kit undoubtedly made life much easier, and homes much cleaner, as it evolved throughout the 20th century to the lightweight, dust-busting wands we use today. However, the Spring Clean has always been about more than the floors and architraves, and today we will explore some of the other labour intensive practices carried out in households just 100 years ago.
Spring was not a popular time of year with everyone, as it caused a huge disturbance in even the smallest of homes. An American newspaper published a poem in 1853, the author being simply named as ‘A sufferer’. The first verse sums the Spring Clean up nicely…
The melancholy days have come, the saddest of the year,
Of cleaning paint, and scrubbing floors, and scouring far and near;
Heaped in the corners of the room, the ancient dirt lay quiet.
Nor rose up at the father’s tread, nor to the children’s riot;
But now the carpets are all up, and from the staircase top,
The mistress calls to man and maid to wield the broom and mop.
There were numerous housekeeping manuals of the period that advised on the key items required for cleaning: carbolic soap, bicarbonate of soda, linseed oil, methylated spirits, beeswax, turpentine, benzene, black lead, emery paper and disinfectant. Ready-made cleaning products were scarce and people were used to making their own solutions with everything from simple kitchen ingredients to an arsenal of lethal chemicals.
Every house had wooden floors which were sprinkled with damp, used tea leaves to help settle the dust before being swept. They would then be thoroughly scrubbed with warm water and carbolic soap. Brands such as Sunlight soap, made in Liverpool from the latter years of the 19th century, were the housewife’s friend. They provided an effective alternative to caustic soda crystals which left hands red and raw. After a good scrub a wooden floor could then be polished with a mixture of beeswax and turpentine.
Other wood around the house would also see a good polish as part of the spring clean. Furniture, doors and architrave would be given a protective coat, either with one of the recently-developed commercial brands such as Briwax, or with a homemade mixture, such as Mrs Beeton’s recipe of linseed oil, turpentine, vinegar and methylated spirits. Once the treatment had been applied with an old rag the wood was buffed to a shine with a clean, lint-free cloth.
Windows were wiped with vinegar and newspaper to clean off the coal dust and create a smear-free shine. Walls were washed with soap and water and ceilings whitewashed. Wallpaper was brushed and hard to get to corners cleaned with white bread, rolled into a stodgy ball.
Brass items, such as door knobs and lamps, were polished up with a bit of soft leather. If heavily tarnished they would need something a little stronger to restore their shine. One option was a mixture of white vinegar, flour, salt and warm water, which was applied with a cloth to the tarnished surface, left for an hour and rinsed off, leaving the brass clean and tarnish-free. Ready-made cleaning products such as Brasso did not appear in the cleaning cupboard until 1921 when it was introduced by Reckitt & Sons.
In affluent establishments the gold and silver would get a similar treatment. Mrs Beeton instructs us in the task:
‘This is done by preparing clean soap-suds… Dip any article of gold, silver, gilt or precious stones into this lye, and dry them by brushing with a brush of soft badgers’ hair, or a fine sponge; afterwards with a piece of fine cloth, and, lastly, with a soft leather’.
Cutlery and serving articles were cleaned by placing them in a bowl with baking soda. Once the chemicals had worked their magic, bubbling away, the items could be removed and polished to a shine. Another job that left the hands in tatters!
Finally all fabrics needed a clean. Curtains were taken out and beaten, nets washed and any other household linen subjected to yet another launder. Edwardian Winterbourne might have been lucky enough to boast a hand-powered washing machine like the one in the image made by Morrison of Birmingham in 1904. Larger items would have gone in the copper, the fire set beneath to heat the water. Detergent was made by grating hard soap. If you were able to afford it, you could save hours of additional labour by using the new soft Lux soap flakes, introduced in 1900.
A day of scrubbing all the household fabrics against a washboard, pounding them with a wooden ‘dolly’ and then running them through the mangle before hanging to dry, must have had housewives and laundry maids praying for fine weather to dry their day’s labours quickly in preparation for ironing. No plug in electrics available for these ladies, their task involved assorted weights and sizes of cast ‘irons’, heated on the grate, with silent prayers said for no soot marks!
So, as we give the furniture a quick spray of polish, wipe down with our micro fibre cloths and pop our feet up with a cuppa, watching the ‘robot vac’ make its way around the living room while the washing machine and tumble dryer work their magic, we might think ourselves extremely lucky. However, is life really all that much easier?
In 1930, the English economist John Maynard Keynes predicted his generation’s grandchildren would work around “three hours a day”—and probably only by choice. He calculated that ever-more time-saving tools and appliances would guarantee more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists expressed concern about what people would do with all their free time? It makes you ponder on Parkinson’s law of 1958, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”; the household chores may not take the time they once did but we have managed to fill that time with chores of different kinds…I wonder what will keep people busy a hundred years from now?