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Spring cleaning

Food For Thought

I remember the days when everybody engaged in what they called “spring cleaning. This activity could begin any time the housewife felt overwhelmed by winter blahs and felt the need to clean out closets or make new kitchen curtains. Timing depended largely on the personal ambitions of the housewife in charge and the availability of reliable help. The weather might also be a factor, though it didn’t figure in any long-range goals because of its unpredictability. Many of the cleaning rituals that were necessities during my childhood have long since become unnecessary, due to improvements in several different fields.
Up to and during WWII, houses in my hometown were mostly heated by coal-burning furnaces. (Coal mining was part of the local economy and coal was the least expensive fuel for central heating– unless one had a good stand of timber and cheap manpower to cut it.) Coal in the basement coal bin meant black dust throughout the house. Coal burning in the furnace meant soot traveling through the heating ducts and depositing itself on all surfaces in the house. This meant dark accumulations on walls near heat registers, furniture, windows, curtains and the top of the refrigerator. Smoke from the chimney filled the outside air with the gassy odor of burning coal and turned the snow gray within a few hours of a snowfall. Indoors, the smell and the dirt permeated rugs and bedding, draperies and upholstery.
Not everybody owned an efficient vacuum sweeper in those days. The Fuller Brush man might sell you a carpet sweeper, which was simply a device combining the dustpan, broom and housemaid of a past era into a handy little box with a handle so that the housewife could gather up surface dirt and crumbs for herself. The deep-seated soot and grit, out of reach of the rotating brush, would wait until spring cleaning when the rugs and carpets could be hung outdoors and the dust beaten out of them with a tool much like a giant flyswatter– one of those jobs delegated to older children.
Most homeowners relied on wallpaper to provide both decoration and clean wall surfaces in family living areas and bedrooms. Kitchens and bathrooms often had painted walls because painted surfaces could be washed often, but most wallpapers were not washable. Wallpaper cleaner offered a solution for getting rid of those sooty stains on walls near heat outlets. The material felt and looked like Silly Putty or those kneaded erasers some artists use. It generally started out a fresh pinkish color and gradually turned dark gray as it was rolled and wiped across the wallpaper to absorb those sooty deposits. It was a fairly effective but time-consuming method of avoiding the cost of new wallpaper each year, and this tedious chore was often given to children (in my case, as a redeeming activity for those who had defaced walls with crayons and pencils in the past).
Once the weather turned reliably benign, it was time to pack away heavy winter coats and sweaters, and to wash the windows. Window washing was usually combined with exchanging the winter’s storm windows for window screens that would let in fresh, cooling breezes while keeping out flies and other insects. At my house, this activity always took place on weekends because it required my dad’s help with the storms and screens. It also included a fire drill, which none of us girls recognized as such at the time.For several years, we lived in a small house with two bedrooms finished off in what would have been half of the attic space. The bedrooms were reached by way of a narrow, enclosed stairway that went up from the dining room in the center of the house. There was one window in each of the bedrooms and our parents feared that the stairway could easily become cut off during a fire and that we girls needed a way to escape quickly from the upstairs. We were allowed to help put up the screens so that we knew how to remove them, and then we played “jumping out the window” over and over until we were not just comfortable, but eager to leap from the window into Dad’s arms as he stood below. One of my clearest memories of this ritual rehearsal occurred during the last spring we lived in that house. My youngest sister, around age 2, was reluctant to jump at first and hung back, clinging to Mother. Our oldest sister, by then a budding teenager, pushed her aside and climbed onto the window sill, ready to show her how it was done. Dad, waiting below for the littlest girl to make up her mind and gather the courage to jump, was relaxed and not expecting a 100-pound missile to come hurtling down at him.