Just because your mom and her mother did it, doesn’t mean you have to launch an all-out seasonal assault on your house.
The days are warming, the daffodils are blooming, and all across the land people are fretting about the spring cleaning they think they should be doing. What they really ought to do is find something else to do.
The truth is spring cleaning is a relic, a throwback, an archaic ritual that made sense for our great-grandmothers, but not for us.
“Spring cleaning is an example of our expectations not catching up to our domestic realities,” says Cynthia Townley Ewer, founder of the home-management Web site Organizedhome.com and author of the new book “House Works.”
For one thing, who has the time for an old-fashioned, top-to-bottom house scouring?
Marathon spring-cleaning rites date from a long-ago era when the domestic sphere was a full-time job for most women. But between 1965 – when women started entering the workforce in greater numbers – and 1995, the amount of time women spend on housework has fallen from 32 hours a week to between 18 and 19, according to time-use research done at the University of Maryland. (Women still spend nearly twice the number of hours on housework each week that men do: 18.2 for women, 9.8 for men, the research shows.)
For another thing, Ewer says, “We don’t have the kind of old-fashioned, smoky heating sources that made spring cleaning necessary. We can live without washing our walls.”
Design historian Gail Winkler says the practice of spring cleaning dates from the early 19th century, even before gas lighting and coal-fired furnaces began to leave their sooty marks on a home.
“Spring cleaning was also about taking a house from winter dress and switching it over to summer dress,” says Winkler, who teaches in the preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania.
That switch involved taking up wool carpets, which had to be beaten and spot-cleaned before they were stored, and replacing them with grass matting. Furniture was slipcovered to protect it from dirt blowing in open windows, and draperies were either “bagged” in what looked like long pillow cases, or were replaced with washable muslin.
Before window screens were invented, even the frames of mirrors and paintings were covered with cloth, says Winkler.
“That was to protect them from all the flies. Fly excrement has an acid that can eat through a finish.”
Popular women’s magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book devoted countless pages to the subject of sprucing up for spring. Household-advice tomes covered the subject, too. One guide from 1912 devoted an entire chapter to spring cleaning, calling it “one of the most crucial tests of a housewife’s capabilities,” and prescribed a three-week program that assumed the help of two servants.
But ever since clean central heating, air conditioners, and efficient vacuum cleaners were introduced, there’s been no need for an old-fashioned spring cleaning, Winkler says.
“We probably maintain a much cleaner household all year round than our predecessors ever did.”
Even so, the notion of spring cleaning still seems lodged in the collective unconscious. According to a survey sponsored by the Soap and Detergent Association, 61 percent of Americans agree that spring is the best time to rid the house of clutter and dirt.
Carolyn Butko of Havertown, Pa., says spring cleaning is something the women in her family always did.
“I inherited the ritual from my mom, and she from hers,” says Butko, a stay-at-home mother with a 3-year-old, a 10-month-old, and a third child on the way.
Every spring, Butko and her husband wash windows and walls, launder or dry-clean curtains, hose down the sidewalk, and organize the basement and garage.
Butko also does a thorough house-cleaning in the fall. That’s actually the best time to do a seasonal home overhaul, according to Ewer. With open windows and kids running in and out, a home gets dirtier in the summer, she contends.
“So why not tuck yourself in for the winter into a clean house?”
The best strategy of all, Ewer says, is to develop a household-cleaning plan that integrates seasonal chores into daily or weekly sessions.
“That way, your home stays reasonably clean all year round,” says Ewer, whose book and Web site offer tips on creating such a plan, as well as advice on cleaning techniques and methods for tackling clutter.
That’s the kind of approach Fairmount, Pa., resident Lisa Lobree uses.
“I don’t do spring cleaning,” Lobree says. “I try to keep up with that stuff during my weekly cleaning. I usually try to clean something extra in each room in addition to the basics. For example, in our bedroom, I always clean the bathroom, dust, and Swiffer the floor. Then, if I think the baseboards need cleaning, I’ll dust those off, or I’ll clean the windows, or organize a shelf in the linen closet.
“It’s only ever one thing, but it helps me keep up with it.”
Lobree says she adopted her technique from the popular home-management Web site Flylady.net, which divides a house into zones, with daily cleaning and de-cluttering tasks corresponding to each zone.
“You don’t have to do it the way your mother did it, and you don’t have to be a fanatic about cleaning,” says the Flylady herself, Marla Cilley, a North Carolina author who argues against the idea of spring cleaning in her book “Sink Reflections.”
“Perfectionism is what pushes us overboard,” says Cilley. “When we think we don’t have the time to do it right, some of us throw the baby out with the bath water and say, “Well, I won’t do it at all.”‘
“And you don’t need to spend a week spring cleaning. You don’t need to have a whole day to clean. If you can clean for 15 minutes every day, you can do a lot.”