Cleanliness Is Next to Craziness: A Domestic History, Part I
One hundred years ago, the Lord’s Day was often the only escape in the week from the thankless drudgery of keeping clean.
By Mary Beth Crain
Purity has always been a big deal in religion. Take the old saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” It’s said to have originated as a second-century Hebrew proverb, made popular by Rabbi Phinehas Ben-Yair. In the New Testament, Revelations 21:10 assures us that dirt and heaven do not mix: when the “holy city of Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God”:
Nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
The partnership between cleanliness and God took further root in the English-speaking world in 1605, when Francis Bacon observed in his “Advancement of Learning” that “Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.” In a 1791 sermon, the famed Methodist minister John Wesley, promoter of the arduous theology of “Christian perfectionism,” marched into war against the messy with the declaration, “Slovenliness is no part of religion. Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.”
And cleanliness isn’t just a Western obsession; Brahminic training in the gurukula and at home, and in and around temples placed strong emphasis on impeccable personal hygiene. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, for instance, was said to bathe thrice daily, “washing his hands meticulously after eating or even touching the mouth.” The Hindu insistence on a clean soul in a clean body led, ironically, to that most perverted of spiritual anomalies, the caste system; the term “untouchables” originated because Brahmin priests who had undergone the most exacting rituals of cleanliness were forbidden to touch those unfortunate individuals whose poverty could not accommodate the luxury of a spotless life.
In fact, one thing we lazy, self-indulgent denizens of the Modern Age tend to forget is just how difficult it has been throughout history to keep clean. Take a typical family in 1900. Although we tend to have an idyllic picture of the “good old days,” life 107 years ago was, for everybody but the rich, drudgery pure and simple. I don’t know if any of you caught that great PBS series a few years back, “The 1900 House,” in which a home in London built in 1900 was completely restored to its original state, down to the patent medicines in the medicine cabinet, and a family was chosen to inhabit it for three months exactly as a family in 1900 would have lived. Over 400 families applied for the honor via videotape, explaining why they wanted to go back to the turn of the century. Almost every one of them gave reasons like, “It was a much simpler time…There weren’t so many distractions and families spent more time together…There wasn’t the rush-rush-rush of today; you could live a quieter, more peaceful life…”
The lucky winners were the Bowlers—Joyce, a gabby, high-strung mom who was a school inspector, her Royal Marine husband Paul, and their four kids ranging in age from 16 to ten. Joyce was hysterical with joy at the thought of actually going back in time. “I love history,” she gushed, “and this is a dream come true! Positively a dream come true!” Her rose-colored glasses view of 1900 wasn’t even shaken by the preparation they had to go through with historians, who instructed them in the arts of struggling into corsets, stiff-necked collars and high-button shoes; doing dishes with some greasy abomination that passed for detergent; boiling the wash in a vat and agitating it with a paddle; and other charms of pre-techno life.
The London neighborhood they were going to was in on the project; store keepers made home deliveries in period clothes and charged a penny for a basket of bread and buns and a shilling for a week’s worth of meat. When Joyce and the girls went off to market at a modern supermarket, all the merchants were instructed not to sell them anything they couldn’t have purchased in 1900. If the Bowlers wanted to communicate with the outside world, they had to write letters on parchment paper with the old nib pen and inkwell. For entertainment, there were home theatricals and the computer-spoiled kids would learn to get into drawing, board games, and even making their own puppet show. If somebody got a sore throat or a headache, Joyce would have to concoct home made remedies—aspirin, although invented in 1899, wouldn’t have been on the market yet. There was a modern telephone, but it was hidden in a back room, to be used only for medical emergencies.
As the Bowlers arrived at the 1900 house in a big horse-drawn cart, the ladies in long skirts and big hats, the guys in heavy woolen suits, derby hats and socks held up with garters, the street was lined with their cheering new neighbors. Joyce Bowler naturally burst into tears of joy. Short-lived tears, I may add.
So how long did it take for this history-smitten mom to have a genuine 1900 meltdown? Three days! It all started when she couldn’t get the hang of cooking on the wood range, an obstinate creature that also was supposed to heat the water in the whole house but didn’t. Cakes turned into crumpled messes, stews burned, and everybody had to take cold baths, unless they wanted to boil pots of water, drag them upstairs and dump them into the tub. The kids started whining, the little boy went on a hunger strike because he couldn’t get pizza, and Joyce ended up sitting in the backyard with the chickens and bawling.
It was pretty much downhill from there. “I’m a virtual prisoner in the house! All I do is clean, from morning ‘til night!” feminist-minded Joyce railed. Housework in 1900 was all-consuming. You really don’t know what cleaning is until you’ve lived in a big old Victorian home. The staircases! The banisters! The gas lamps! The fireplace grates! The iron range that had to be scrubbed daily, ashes emptied, and polished with blacking that you made yourself! Since electricity was a newfangled invention and the vacuum cleaner didn’t appear until 1908, all of the heavy carpets had to be swept with a broom and then taken up and flogged with a carpet beater. The extensive hardwood floors had to be scrubbed on hands and knees. Scouring pots and pans was a miserable affair.
And let’s not even go into “Wash Day,” which was actually three days—Sorting and Preparation Day, Washing and Hanging on the Line Day and Ironing and Folding Day. This was why you had kids, i.e. unpaid day laborers! On Mondays, the day the wash was traditionally done in the UK and the United States, the schools would be glaringly absent of female students, who were expected to stay home and chip in, making the bluing and pre-soaking different garments separately, stirring load after load in big vats of boiling water with a paddle, wringing out everything by hand…And by the way, doing the wash was not only back-breaking and tedious, it was dangerous; from the project curator, the Bowler’s learned that in 1900, falling into the vats was the cause of over 2000 childhood deaths.
About a month into the 1900 experiment, Joyce realized that she would never be able to win the war against dust and dirt without the help of a maid. Now, servants in 1900 led lives a cut above the slaves of Egypt. They lived in the master’s house, worked 15 hours days with a half day off on Sunday, never got vacations, and put away their meager earnings for their retirement. Joyce interviewed applicants, who dressed in the style of the day, and finally hired a young woman whose real-life profession was cleaning schools and who naturally assumed that cleaning just one house would be a piece of cake by comparison.
Double HA! After a few 15-hour days of hard labor in a long dress and starched apron and cap, this hardy soul began to cave. Relief was nowhere in sight until Joyce, doing research in an old Sears catalogue, discovered that, lo and behold, the carpet sweeper was available in 1900. The project curator allowed her to “order” one from an antique store. When, a couple of weeks later, the maid opened the huge brown paper-wrapped package and beheld a genuine 1900 carpet sweeper, she almost passed out with joy. “It’s made all the difference,” she reported later. “One of the things you realize is just how much we owe to the inventors of modern appliances. They truly liberated women.”
One of the Bowlers’ biggest complaints was just how dirty they felt, all day, every day. The typical 1900 family bathed once a week, and shared the bath water. Sweating went along with the harsh, cumbersome clothing of the day; how could the body breathe in a suffocating whalebone corset or layers of undergarments, stiff-collared shirts, vests and jackets? And, as the laundry was such a huge production, a lot of apparel was simply brushed instead of washed. In short, people stank, and nobody thought much about it.
Shampoos were basically disgusting concoctions of lard and fragrant oils that made the hair sticky and greasy; no wonder the woman of 1900 wasn’t expected to wash her long, flowing tresses more than once a month. In fact, the straw that breaks Joyce Bowler’s back later in the series turns out to be hair care; in one particularly hilarious episode, during a trip to the supermarket, she somehow manages to hide a bottle of modern day shampoo in her shopping basket, violating the 1900 project’s edict of only purchasing items she could find in the last century. But, being a drama queen, Joyce just can’t go through with it; after making a tearful on-camera confession, she dutifully returns the contraband.
In line with the prevailing Judeo-Christian tradition, life in 1900 followed the biblical directive of “For six days shall ye labor, and on the seventh shall ye rest.” Monday through Saturday were devoted to different aspects of cleaning, from the three laundry days to “Care of the Kitchen,” “House Cleaning” and “Sewing and Mending Day.” In an amusing irony, Sunday was the one day that everybody could stop being clean. Cleanliness might be next to Godliness, but it was God himself who gave his multitudes a break from the relentless scourge of sanitation. As numbing a bore as church could be, trading the plowshare for the prayer book had its distinct advantages.
You have to hand it to the Bowlers. They stuck it out for the full three months. On the last day, when they traded their heavy, restrictive 1900 attire for jeans and track shorts and said goodbye to the 1900 house, they were unexpectedly teary-eyed. But by the time they piled into their SUV and made their first stop—Burger King—nobody was looking back.
When all was said and done, you could say that “The 1900 House” project was actually the gateway to a spiritual epiphany. When the Bowlers were visited a few months after the experiment, Joyce was practically genuflecting at the dishwasher. Everything she used to take for granted was now precious. Gratitude had become their new way of life. Hmm. Maybe cleanliness is next to Godliness after all.
Stay tuned for A Domestic History, Part II, and “Kitchen Kinks” (that’s 1908 speak for “hints”) from Mrs. Curtis!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Goodbye, My Friend.
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