On the House | In spring, thoughts turn to . . . cleaning?

Every year for who knows how many, about mid-January, I start receiving reminders that "spring cleaning is just around the corner."

I've always considered such reminders an occupational hazard. Each week, my name appears in a couple hundred newspapers in North America (no, not in the police blotters), and clipping services dutifully notify their clients. I get lots of e-mail in return.

This year seems to have produced a bumper crop of spring-cleaning reminders, and I've decided, using a word from the vocabulary of half my ancestors, to shout "Basta!" To my ear, it sounds much sterner than "Enough!"

I look around my suburban neighborhood at all the people working full time - men and women, including my wife and I - and ask, "Who has the time to spring-clean?"

So eager am I to come up with the final word on spring cleaning that I contact my older sister, asking whether our stay-at-home mom, daughter of Italian immigrants, ever did a spring cleaning. She who ironed sheets and pillowcases and climbed a ladder to wash second-floor windows, who scrubbed linoleum floors on her hands and knees. . . .

No, my sister said, there was no official spring cleaning in our house, but "Mom cleaned every day as if it were spring."

We spring-clean periodically during the year, especially when company is coming. For the church food cupboard's annual party in late January, I washed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees (OK, it's family tradition), vacuumed what little hair our beagle Emmy sheds from along the baseboards, and cleaned the bathrooms.

I doubt anyone would have noticed if I hadn't washed the quarry-tile kitchen floor, but I would have known, and when you're your own worst critic, just knowing is enough.

The Soap and Detergent Association (I'm not kidding, there is one) surveyed 1,014 male and female heads of households nationwide in March and found that not only do 65 percent routinely engage in spring cleaning, they appear to do it because they've been embarrassed "by their own clean home in front of guests."

Not only that, but "72 percent have felt that someone else's home was unusually dirty," according to the survey.

This has made me self-conscious, in retrospect, about the food-cupboard party. I mean, did I clean enough? Are my standards lower than my fellow volunteers? Will one of them get up the courage to take me aside some Sunday at church to lecture me, and end it by saying that "cleanliness is next to godliness?"


The idea of spring cleaning appears to be another leftover from the Victorian era. If you watched the PBS/BBC series 1900 House a few years back, you saw a modern-day English family of six living as if there had been no tomorrow.

Fear of disease caused the Victorians to obsess about cleaning, not an easy task before vacuum cleaners and disinfectants. When bubonic plague killed 13 people in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1900, the preventative was to wash everything in a solution of borax and alum, which, when compared with Spic and Span, has the disinfectant properties of chocolate milk.

Victorian houses were filled with heavy, dark furniture, bric-a-brac, curtains and wooden blinds, carpets and wallpaper - all of which collected dust.

Their obsession with cleanliness caused Victorians to switch to metal bed frames from wood because metal frames could be taken apart easily and cleaned.

Middle-class people often hired a maid to do the cooking and cleaning, which could keep her busy for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. They could afford her because maids were paid about $100 a year.

Hands were in water constantly, which turned them red and cracked the skin.

Some of you probably have seen Don Aslett, the self-proclaimed "Don Juan of the John," offering his cleaning tips and books on QVC. Aslett says that if we spent just 31/2 minutes a day tidying up the bathroom, we could get housecleaning easily under control.

But then, what would we do with all that free time in the spring?

I know not what course others may take, but as for me, a long nap would be in order.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.