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 ce