Good Clean Fun
The care and keeping of one’s home has transformed through quite a history of outdated sexist ideology, strange concoctions, cultural shifts, and television shows dedicated to either one extreme of not caring for your home (hoarding) to being obsessed with how loved your socks feel in their drawer (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo)
Let’s start at the beginning. According to the American Cleaning Institute, soap was invented in about 1500 BC. The Ebers papyrus describes people combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like product used for washing and as an antiseptic. (The Cleaning Institute, 2022)The term “soap” refers to those observing rain running down Mount Sapo in Rome, mixing with animal fats and forming a helpful clay that functioned as a rudimentary soap product. (The Cleaning Institute, 2022)
While it is known that ancient Egyptians were particular about cleanliness, the habit of regular bathing of both one’s body and home fell out of favor in Europe during the middle ages. This lack of basic hygiene in the house and for one’s person resulted in horrific diseases like the black plague.
While Europeans in the middle ages wallowed in filth, the Japanese still practiced daily bathing, and those of Icelandic heritage regularly bathed in the hot springs that still dominate the country today. However, both countries experienced plagues, with Iceland’s plague wiping out half their population between 1402-1404. (Richard Streeter, 2012)
Bathing became fashionable again in the 1700s throughout Europe, particularly within wealthier classes. A hefty tax was placed on commercially made soap in many countries, but once lifted, soap and the use of it to bathe oneself and at home became more prevalent. (The Cleaning Institute, 2022)
The advent of the industrial revolution changed everything. Before this massive shift in how we manufacture goods, making soap from soda ash and fat was a dangerous, tiresome chore that was dreaded by most. After the industrial revolution, soap production left the confines of the home and became one of the fastest-growing industries of all time. (Castle Keepers)
The industrial revolution also separated the work habits between men and women. Whereas men typically left the home to work in a factory, women stayed behind to care for children and the house. Both situations created long, dirty, hot working conditions with little joy. Housekeeping as a profession became one of the few opportunities women had to earn money outside of their homes. It became typical for large and even more modest Victorian households to have maids. The male counterpart of this institution was the Valet; however, these positions existed only for the wealthiest families both here and abroad.
Let’s fast forward to what many believe was the height of pride surrounding the keeping of one’s home in America, the 1950s.
According to the author of the article I Kept Up With a 1950s Housekeeping Schedule for a Week, and I am Exhausted, newly minted 1950s housewives regarded keeping their homes immaculate as a full-time job. One demanding close attention to detail. To prepare for approaching a typical week in the life of a 1950s housewife, the author of the article read excerpts taken directly from the pages of the holiest of advice books on the subject, The Good Housekeeping Housekeeping Book (yes, the word is repeated, probably for emphasis) edited by Helen W. Kendall and published in 1947 by the still relevant Good Housekeeping Institute. In this revered tomb of household knowledge, the author of the Exhausted article found this schedule:
- Monday: Grocery and Kitchen
- Tuesday: Laundry
- Wednesday: Bedrooms and Bathrooms
- Thursday: Linens and Living Room
- Friday: Groceries, Defrost Fridge, Dining Rooms & Halls
- Weekend: Free Day/Family Day
The publication also outlines daily tasks that one should complete each day, which include:
- Kitchen: Put away food, clean coffee grounds, wash dishes & sink, sweep, empty wastebasket.
- Bedrooms: Hang up night clothes, make beds, straighten & dust, dust/vacuum blinds.
- Living Room: Discard faded flowers & old magazines, dust furniture & plump pillows, stack magazines & return anything out of place, and remove surface litter.
- Dining Room and Halls: Same as living room, sweep after each meal.
As I read this list, a smile forms in my heart. Everything on this list is included in the book I read when I was married at 23. My reference book is from a more modern source, but the advice is the same. Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson was and still is my companion regarding keeping a modern home as tidy as homes from the past.
Notice the author of the article I first mentioned states that she found the schedule exhausting. Let’s dive into how the chores of the past became the tension of today.
An article titled Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms in the academic journal Sociological Methods and Research found that it is not just that women do more housework; it is also that the expectation that women perform more housework and higher standards is deeply rooted in American cultural gender norms. Included with this research is that men are seen as having lower standards for cleanliness than women. Also, it is shown that women often feel their moral worth is tied to their skills as a home keeper. These gender stereotypes are strong. The belief that housework is linked to women regardless of their earning status has remained among the most formidable American gender barriers to break open. (Thébaud, 2019)
To examine this cultural phenomenon, I invite you to think about your perspectives surrounding the care and maintenance of the home and how your division of labor is handled. Here is my own experience.
When I am not writing to you, I am often in trees with a chainsaw tethered to me. Fear is not something I feel regarding performing one’s joys, so chainsaws, woodchippers, heavy equipment, falling trees, noise, dirt, and the occasional bee sting are all part of practicing my greatest joy; being a Heritage Orchard Specialist.
As for our home and who takes care of it, this is my domain. I do not see housework as a chore. It is a skill, and I consider myself an expert with decades of experience. Leaking pipe under the sink? Fixed. Does the front door need to be refinished? Done. Does a fence need to be installed? Give me two days alone, and it is done. Change the color of the living room? I pride myself on my edging skills. Ten yards of dirt need to be moved to the garden? I will rent a machine and have that pile where it needs to be before the sun sets.
Can I cook, clean, and manage specific household needs? Without a doubt. I have been cooking since I was seven years old. I was raised knowing how to make a meal from a can, a protein, and a base. I can also make a souffle, a beef Wellington, homemade bread, and occasionally decent hootch. I make three meals a day, and they are rarely the same. I grow some of our food, forage for some of it, and know what to do with any vegetable I encounter. I can also butcher a chicken and have it roasted and on the table for dinner.
Cleaning my home is not a chore. It is an immense privilege to live in the house that I do. I felt the same way when we lived in a single-wide trailer. To clean one’s living spaces is to practice grace. Every time I use my time-saving appliances, I smile and give thanks for my blessings. I know that most people worldwide, including many in my community, do not have access to the same conveniences that I do. When I clean, I am actively moving in my gratitude. I invite you to lean into yours.
I am good at keeping our home in order and proud of it. The clean spaces allow for beauty to shine and for negativity to leave. I never have nor will accept that my desire to clean concerns my gender. This is for others to create energy around. Trust me, society does, and it is too bad. Try writing that you have been an expert housekeeper for 30 years, then list your extensive skillset on a job application. You will not receive the recognition that you have richly earned. Try doing this as a man. You would be laughed at. Collectively, we need to stop placing gender at the center of being an expert housekeeper and instead appreciate how keeping a home is an art that involves many skill sets.
To place housekeeping where it needs to be has nothing to do with gender. It involves prioritizing what matters to you and remembering that if you do not have a good foundation, your desire to preserve and protect all that surrounds you will fall short.
In the 1950s, the idea that we needed to keep up with the unknown family of persnickety Joneses was king. Women wore themselves out, even taking “mommies’ little helper,” also known as valium and created and marketed by the Sackler Brothers (who also gave us OxyContin), to get through the day. (Keefe, 2021) To have anyone see that you were not picture perfect was so pervasive that American society shifted its attention to extreme levels of judgment that are still in various forms with us today.
So, there it is. Tradition, cultural norms, gendered prejudice, history, and the truth that no matter what, you still need to clean your house unless, of course, you accept what my dearest muse Henry David Thoreau stated in the chapter Where I Lived and What I Lived For in Walden and Civil Disobedience.
“Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects, the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.” (Thoreau, 1983)
Castle Keepers. (n.d.). Castle Keepers. Retrieved from The Long & Interesting History of Housekeeping: https://castle-keepers.com/how-housekeeping-started-what-history-cleaning-products
Daggett, B. (2019, June 10). Apartment therapy. Retrieved from I Kept Up With a 1950’s Cleaning Schedule for a Week—and I’m Exhausted: https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/1950s-housewife-schedule-31000739
Keefe, P. R. (2021, April 21). ‘Empire Of Pain: The Secret History Of The Sackler Dynasty’ Profiles Pharma Family. (A. Chang, Interviewer) NPR. Retrieved May 10, 2023
Norman, J. M. (2023). History of Information.com. Retrieved from The Ebers Papyrus, the Most Extensive Record of Ancient Egyptian Medicine: https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=1353
Richard Streeter, A. J. (2012, February 12). PNAS. Retrieved from Plague and landscape resilience in Premodern Iceland: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1113937109#:
The Cleaning Institute. (2022). The Cleaning Institute. Retrieved from SOAPS & DETERGENTS HISTORY: https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/why-clean/soaps-detergents-history
Thébaud, S. e. (2019, May 30). Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms. Sociological Methods and Research, 50(3). doi:doi.org/10.1177/00491241198523
Thoreau, H. D. (1983). Where I Lived and What I Lived For. In H. D. Thoreau, & M. Meyer (Ed.), Walden and Civil Disobedience (p. 40). New York: Penguin. Retrieved May 10, 2023