April 12, 2013

Spring has sprung. Well, according to the calendar at any rate. Some of us are under a winter storm warning as I tap this into the computer.

 I wrote about Spring last week: the sense of awakening we have at this time of year and the yearning for new life. This week I’m going to write about something near and dear to my heart: cleaning.

 I know, I know! I’m crazy. I can’t help loving to clean you see, it’s in my Dutch genes. Cleaning, cheese, and tulips. Surely other nationalities are tidy too, but the Dutch would win gold medals in every extreme cleaning event. Example: I had a friend years ago, seemingly normal person on the surface, but she too, was Dutch, and so she vacuumed her attic. Every week. My mom taught me to wash, dry, and wax our floors on my hands and knees. I was nine.

Spring cleaning at home involves washing curtains and walls. Cleaning implements are sanitized regularly. My sister carries on the cleanliness obsession with a fondness for vacuuming and a touching delight in the capacity of bleach to kill germs dead. As for me, well, I wash the dustpan after I use it, though that may tread on the border of obsession rather than cleanliness.

It’s fascinating to learn about how things used to be done. I read a novel years ago that I haven’t been able to find again since that I would like to own, not strictly because it was such a wonderful story (about two brothers farming in the early 1900s) but because of the vivid descriptions of housework. I learned about the lengthy and laborious laundry routine, and how a parlour woodstove would be taken apart, cleaned, and stored away once warm weather set in.

There is a television series available on TVO about farming in different time periods –Georgian Farm, Victorian Farm, World War II Farm. There was even one set in the middle ages. In each series, the same three people committed to living a year on a farm as if they were actually in that time period. The two men tended the pastured livestock, farmed the fields, maintained the property, while the woman prepared the meals, looked after the barn animals, and, of course, cleaned everything. You know what it’s like in the winter when the furnace runs all the time, how everything seems covered in dust, though you just dusted yesterday. Imagine heating and cooking with wood or coal. It was important not just appearances but for safety to eliminate coal dust from all surfaces, so sweeping and mopping the floors happened at least once a day; walls would be frequently washed, as would window coverings. I learned from these programs that soaking fabric in milk will lift ink stains. I’ve used this tip often, and it truly does work.

For people who are meticulous housekeepers or the Martha Stewarts among us who are nerdy about the “right way” to do things, there is a resource to answer your every question, a bible for housewives  and other neatniks. Let me tell you about Home comforts: the art and science of keeping house by Cheryl Mendelson. This 896 page tome covers it all, from planning a cleaning schedule, how to fold linens, setting a table for any occasion – to how to brew really good coffee. It is exhaustive, providing more information than you ever thought there could be about rotating mattresses, but it is surprisingly readable, interesting, even entertaining. It is well organized with helpful chapter divisions and an excellent index. Mendelson has applied the same comprehensive and meticulous approach to the writing of this book as she does to housework.

Home comforts may seem excessive by modern standards, but the information really is practical. Mendelson doesn't preach or chastise. Her goal is for the modern home to be aplace of comfort. A clean and organized home is a comfortable home.

The book is laid out thusly:
Section 1 - Beginnings: about easing into a routine; everything about food from meal planning, food storage, to six different methods of brewing coffee; 200 pages on cloth, yarns, fabrics, blends, weaves, laundry labels, washing/drying/folding/storing laundry.

Section 2 - Daily life: dealing with the quality of life in the home, including lighting, books, keepsakes, how to build a fire, and a whole chapter dedicated to the bedroom and the bed.

Section 3 - Safe shelter: from fire safety to poisons in the home, including safety measures for children.

And finally, a section covering topics not often included in domestic manuals...
Section 4 - Formalities: laws dealing with the home (ie. zoning, privacy), what to do in the case of burglary, liability, contracts and warranties, domestic employment, insurance, how to handle all the paper that enters your home.

This book can be read as a manual, a how-to guide, or you can approach it like an encyclopedia full of hundreds of bits of interesting and useful information. No need to worry: you will not find any judgement or expectation in these pages, Cheryl Mendeslon is simply sharing with us her passion for home comforts.


  1. Oh Goodness that book sounds amazing! I love having resources like that, instead of just "googling" queries and getting answers from unqualified people. I might have to request it for Mother's Day this year.

    Also, I remember that TV show, it was very interesting, and I found myself watching it all the time! It was fascinating to see how things were done during different time periods.

  2. Oh no, you got me thinking about spring cleaning now...opening the windows wide and just getting to it!!

  3. Hi Mo,
    I can enthusiastically recommend Home Comforts; it's an excellent resource to have on hand.

    Sarah, now's the time!



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