Do you feel the call of spring cleaning when the weather starts to warm up? While today it’s largely personal preference whether we spring clean or not, it was a practical necessity up until about 100 years ago.
Why Was Spring Cleaning Necessary?
Until the 20th century, homes in the United States were typically heated with wood or coal during the winter, and candles and oil lamps were used to light rooms at night—all of which left soot and smoke coating walls, windows, and other surfaces. Few roads were paved back then, so dirt, manure, and other detritus would get tracked indoors. Bugs and vermin were a problem in many homes as well.
Families did their best to keep their homes clean during the winter months, but cold temperatures and bad weather prevented a thorough cleaning, since many cleaning methods necessitated taking furnishings, carpets, and bedding outdoors. So when spring came with its sunshine and warmer weather, it was time to clean the home of the accumulated winter grime.Sun, Mar 26, 1905 – Page 59 · Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia) · Newspapers.com
Depending on the area of the country, spring cleaning was typically done during April or May, when the weather was warm enough that the family would no longer need a sooty fire or stove to heat their home. The weather also needed to be pleasant enough that household furnishings could be shifted outdoors to be cleaned and windows opened to air out the home.
What Did Spring Cleaning Involve?
Spring cleaning in past centuries was labor intensive, and the task fell almost exclusively to women—who either did the cleaning themselves or (income permitting) oversaw the work of others. The children of the house were often also pressed into service, but husbands were not usually involved due to traditional gender roles.
Common spring cleaning tasks of the time included:
- Cleaning the walls and ceilings
- Re-applying homemade whitewash (more common in rural homes) or replacing wallpaper/paint (in homes that could afford it)
- Cleaning the windows
- Washing the curtains and switching out heavy winter curtains for lighter summer ones
- Wiping down and polishing wooden furniture
- Pulling up any rugs or carpeting and beating them outdoors
- Scrubbing the floors
- Airing out the bedding (re-stuffing mattresses if needed) and treating the bedsteads to kill and repel bugs
- Packing away winter clothing and blankets
- Dismantling the stoves used to heat the home and/or cleaning the chimneys
These spring cleaning tips we found in 19th-century papers on Newspapers.com give a sense of what the process was like during that era:Sat, Jun 12, 1869 – 4 · New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts) · Newspapers.com
Sat, May 13, 1871 – 3 · Aurora of the Valley (Newbury, Vermont) · Newspapers.com
Thu, May 23, 1872 – 6 · The Clinton Public (Clinton, Illinois) · Newspapers.com
Why Did Spring Cleaning Change?
In the late 19th century and early 20th, spring cleaning began to change. The invention of modern appliances—notably the vacuum cleaner—and mass-produced cleaning products made routine cleaning easier. And the widespread adoption of electricity, gas furnaces, central air, and paved roads greatly reduced the indoor dirt and grime that had made a thorough spring cleaning so essential.
By the mid-20th century, spring cleaning had become more of a tradition than a necessity in the U.S.—a reality that was reflected in a number of newspaper columns that questioned the need for an annual spring cleaning.Thu, May 16, 1940 – 2 · The Gotebo Record (Gotebo, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com
Today, spring cleaning remains a part of American culture, with a 2019 survey revealing that 77 percent of Americans commit to spring cleaning every year. Are you one of them? Let us know in the comments!