How To Control Your Life

Part 71


The late Victorians and Edwardians made a Big Thing of Spring cleaning. The ceilings were dusted inch by inch, then the chandeliers had each crystal cleaned individually and the metal parts were carefully polished (with handmade pastes of course) before the whole thing was bagged up and the cleaning progressed lower down in each reception room. Every last ornament - and there were a dreadful lot of them - was collected up and they were all put on trays before being carried carefully down to the bottom of the house where they were washed, or cleaned (with more specialist handmade pastes and powders), sometimes being taken apart before cleaning and reassembled after. Then the paintwork was washed down (and perhaps redone), the woodwork polished with beautiful natural polishes (oils, beeswax and the like - none of your silicone sprays here). Fine wood furniture took a smidgeon more care:

Powdered pumice-stone or rotten-stone, with linseed or paraffin oil, haircloth, felt, and linen cloths, are needed for this purpose. A “ rubber” is a help in this work, and may be made at home. Cover a piece of hard wood eight or ten inches long and three or four inches thick and wide with several thicknesses of cotton batting. Over this fasten several thicknesses of old cotton cloth, and finish with several thicknesses of old linen. The felt or haircloth is used first, and this should be five or six inches square. Mix pumice-stone with oil to a thin paste. Spread this over a portion of the table top, and rub gently with the felt or haircloth, using first a circular movement. Then rub across, and at last with the grain of the wood. Renew the liquid paste as needed to obviate any friction, and add oil as well as paste, if the haircloth or felt does not run smoothly. Continue the rubbing until the whole surface has been gone over. Polish with the second piece of haircloth or felt until the surface is dry. Take equal parts of oil and turpentine. Wet a soft cheese-cloth in these, and go over the whole surface. Then leave the table for about an hour. Then sprinkle the surface with fine tripoli or rotten-stone, that it may take up any surplus oil. Wipe off the tripoli with the grain of the wood and with a very soft cloth. Give the final polishing with the “ rubber.” Powdered pumice-stone is very satisfactory for use on ordinary pieces of furniture, but for very fine and handsome pieces tripoli is preferable. Haircloth, such as is used in stiffening coats and dresses, or pieces of felt cut from old hats, are quite as satisfactory as the felt purchased from a painter, for the former may be burned after use, while the latter, being expensive, needs be washed with care, and put aside for future use.
A Guide for Victorian Servants by Janet McKenzie-Hill

And so it went on: carpets were removed entirely, taken out of the house and beaten with rug beaters (those twisted cane, rattan or suchlike implements which are still around today in some old-fashioned ironmongery stores) - and if you’ve ever tried that, even with a small, light rug, you’ll get an idea of the effort involved; every single textile was taken down, off or up and cleaned in its own appropriate way, and everything was done by hand and often on hands and knees. Hands must have dried out and bled with the effort, let alone from using all the various cleaning products (no rubber gloves in those days).

It was all very exhausting work - so much so that the actual ‘family’ decamped en masse to another house (theirs, someone else’s - anywhere) rather than be around while it was all happening; the work was done by the servants.

The only upside to the whole exercise was that it was done by a group of people, so at least there was a sense of teamwork and joint enterprise and all that kind of thing. This didn’t obtain in the 1950s in Britain, where the ‘lady of the house’ suddenly found herself isolated in a small nuclear household with perhaps only a single ‘domestic’ to help her with the annual Spring Clean, and of course cleaning through the rest of the year as well; terminal boredom had as a consequence set in by the end of the decade - adding, possibly, significant fuel to the ‘Women’s Revolution’.

If you’ve ever lived with other, non-familial, people (in student accommodation, for example, or in house- or flat-shares and the like) you will know that you usually find two schools of thought about cleaning:

♦ It’s best to clean as you go
♦ It’s best to let it all get completely grotty and then do a Great Big Clean

The first school of thought is usually adopted by those who favour some kind of cleaning rota; the second by those whose turn in the cleaning rota has just come round.

The truth, of course lies (doesn’t it always?) halfway between these two schools of thought: you should do both. The more you can ‘clean as you go’, the easier and more pleasant life in your home will be - but there is also nothing to beat a Big Spring Clean.

We’re lucky now: we don’t have to make our cleaning products from scratch (although we do have to do a fair amount of research into whether or not the confounded things are bad for the environment, tested on animals, allergenic, carcinogenic…) - for everything you need to clean there are at least six different products from which you can choose before breakfast. However it can still be a lonely business because getting other people involved in your Spring Cleaning efforts is not necessarily an easy task.

So why do it? Why the annual ritual of the Spring Clean?

Note that word: ‘ritual’. A rite, a ‘procedure, especially religious’. The whole thing is more than spritzing a bit of Mr Sheen around the place and clearing out the odd cupboard, isn’t it? Spring. New beginnings. Renewal. All that sort of stuff. It’s important, isn’t it? Fundamental.

It also, of course, is a worthwhile exercise to clean out the accumulated gunge from behind the cooker, the mouse-bitten packets and bags from the back of the larder or food cupboard, the so-far-past-its-use-by-date-it’s-crawling items from the fridge and freezer, and the dust bunnies (dragons?) from under everything which doesn’t move with a one-handed push. You don’t really want to live with all this indefinitely, do you?

Cleaning out cupboards means assessing whether or not you need all the things which are in them - and that’s a Good Thing. Cleaning out wardrobes (have you seen the dust and unmentionable bits of insects which gather in even the best of wardrobes?) means reassessing all those clothes, shoes and accessories and answering such questions as “Am I ever really going to wear this?”, “Am I ever really going to fit into this again?”, and even “What the hell was I thinking?”. Your favourite charity is going to love you, and what an easy way to feel virtuous without actually putting your hand in your pocket and handing over your hard-taxed cash.

Spring Cleaning makes you re-evaluate your house and its décor - and that’s a Good Thing too. Has that paint passed beyond the point of chipped and reached the point of repainting? Would those chairs actually look better in the kitchen? Are there too many ornaments in this room? Can I get away with telling Auntie Primrose that I’ve moved her vase into the bedroom where we can appreciate it more? Or even: “This room looks so inviting now I think we should have more people round/to stay”.

Better still: when your house is deep down clean (‘bottomed’ is the wonderful word they use in the North of England), when everything is sorted out and tidied, when there are no ‘nasties’ lurking anywhere and even the windows are sparkling and letting in the new Spring light, it’s time to look forward to Summer. This is the real ‘new year’, the time when everything feels as if it’s reinvigorated, energised, really fresh and, er, springy. You will feel ready to face it all, join in, with (oh dear) a spring in your step.

Go to it. Take control of your house and energise your life. Go spring clean.

Twitter: Maryon Jeane

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