Rites of spring

February 19, 2019

Do you have a tradition of spring cleaning in your home?  If so, you’re following a rite of spring that goes back at least two centuries in America.  This seasonal desire for cleanliness turned whole households upside down in the late 19th century as the women of the house declared war on dirt.  And, after a long winter, there was plenty of dirt to be had!


In the absence of the electric Dustbusters and ionizing air filters of today, dirt and dust were relentless in the Victorian household.  Spring cleaning was the one time during the year when everything in the house was dusted, aired, washed, polished and otherwise cleaned.  Many women also engaged in a round of autumn cleaning, but it usually was not as extensive.


In the spring, rugs were taken out and beaten; every piece of furniture was taken outside to be aired; walls and wallpaper were dusted; curtains were taken down for cleaning; floors were mopped, swept and polished; bedsteads were taken apart and checked for insects; bedding and other linens were washed and aired; chimneys were swept.  Closets, chests and cabinets were emptied of clothing, dishes, silver and glassware, all of which was aired, washed or polished.  Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) once declared, “House is being ‘cleaned.’ I prefer pestilence.”


Men of the household were often completely lost during the process of spring cleaning.  Most husbands despised the ritual, not knowing where they were allowed to walk or sit, as well as being denied a hot meal for the duration of the cleaning ritual.  Men could see that when their wives appeared in the parlor after a day of tiresome cleaning, there was nothing in their “countenance indicative of love, sweetness or dinner.”


The process of spring cleaning was exhaustive and exhausting.  By the late 19th century when parlors contained so many knick-knacks, textiles, and pieces of furniture, the process that could take several weeks.  The surge in textile manufacturing in the late 18th century and early 19th century meant that fabrics and carpets became cheaper, and houses filled with more and more textiles.  In spring, these textiles made for some of the most difficult things in the house to clean.


In the early part of the 19th century, before Oriental carpets were fashionable, wall-to-wall carpets covered up the soft-wood floors that most houses had.  These carpets were secured to the floor with thousands of tacks which housewives had to pry loose every spring for cleaning, and hammer in every fall when the carpets went back down.  If moths were a problem, cracked black pepper, small cedar branches, or tobacco were placed under the carpet to ward them off.  A bed of straw was often placed on the floor to allow the dirt to sift through the carpet, helping the carpet to last longer.  In the latter half of the 19th century, straw matting was often left down on floors year round, with the carpets placed on top of it in the winter.


In Cape May, spring cleaning seems to have taken place in March, April and May.  The Cape May Ocean Wave (Forerunner of the Star and Wave) reported on March 27, 1889, that “House cleaning is in sight.” In May 1886, the newspaper reported that

                                “House cleaning is now fully on.  Bedding is picturesquely

                                Hung from windows and carpets ornament dooryard fences.

                                There’s nothing like giving everything about the house a

                                Good sunning.  Let the good work go forward till the town

                                Is as clean as a new pin.”


On May 9, 1896, the newspaper reported that, “It’s housecleaning wherever you go.” Year after year, the community-wide task of spring cleaning and its effects on the populous appeared on the pages of the Wave.


“Summer preparations” (as mentioned in the newspaper) probably referred to lightening up the house for summer by doing things like replacing heavy carpets with grass matting, taking down and storing velvet curtains for the summer, leaving only the lace curtains or none at all, and perhaps even slipcovering the furniture with muslin.  Gilded picture frames, mirrors and lighting fixtures were often covered in netting or muslin as well to prevent flyspecks.  However, after wire window screens became widely available in the 1880s, most homeowners didn’t have to worry about being invaded by flying insects, and the tradition of bagging the chandeliers fell by the wayside.  Historic photographs of the outside of the Physick House show us that the Physicks did make use of window screens on their exterior porches and in their windows.


The whole process of spring cleaning must have lasted through most of the months of March and April, and then wound down in early May.  The Cape May Ocean Wave reported on May 10, 1888, that “the victims of house cleaning time begin to be more cheerful.”


Today, efficient vacuum cleaners and commercial cleaning products make spring cleaning a little easier than it was more than 100 years ago.  However, there’s no substitute for good ol