The Joy of Housework

This essay ran in the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago, and will be partially used in chapter 6 on the changing home economics.


by Laura Vanderkam

Confession: I’ve never done a proper spring cleaning. Perhaps the warm breezes have inspired me to sweep up my toddler’s Cheerios more frequently. But I had no idea that, come April, I was supposed to vacuum the ceilings, launder the area rugs and scrub all the windows — inside and out — with equal parts white vinegar and water.

At least that’s the procedure described in the newly released “Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Home: No-Nonsense Advice That Will Inspire You to Clean Like the Dickens.” Mrs. Thelma A. Meyer (former Iowa housewife and mom of nine) is the inspiration behind the upscale Mrs. Meyer’s line of natural cleaning products that includes a 32-ounce bottle of all-purpose cleaner for $8.

But Mrs. Meyer isn’t the only one instructing women in the art of intense, pricey cleaning these days. Real Simple magazine spent 10 pages in April urging its upper-income readers to (among other things) make a grout scrubber by mixing fresh lemon juice with cream of tartar. Williams-Sonoma hawks a $135 Australian lamb’s-wool duster set. Caldrea, which sells a $9 Sea Salt Neroli scented countertop cleanser and a $75 “cleaning-essentials set” in a retro mop bucket, promises that these treats will deliver the “premier home cleaning experience.”

There is an irony to this — women who can pay $75 for soap can also pay $75 to outsource the “cleaning experience” to someone else.

But this recasting of cleaning as “luxurious” (Caldrea) or as fantasy (vacuumed ceilings?) was also, in some ways, inevitable. Once, women complained of being chained to the stove. Now, yuppie couples who could eat out every night carefully select Whole Foods heirloom tomatoes for their made-from-scratch pomodoro sauce. The same thing is happening to cleaning. But fret not, feminists — the rise of the cleaning fantasy is actually a sign of how far women have come.

In our era of dishwashers and dryers, we often forget how laborious housework used to be. One hundred years ago, moms of large broods spent whole days bent over washboards and wringers. But even in the 1960s, after Norge washing-machine ads filled Good Housekeeping, housework still vacuumed up the time of women like Mrs. Meyer. According to time-diary studies analyzed by researchers at the University of Maryland, married moms in 1965 spent 34.5 hours on activities like cleaning, laundry and cooking each week. This is the equivalent of a full-time job.

Fast-forward to 2009. Now, according to the American Time Use Survey, women log fewer than 20 weekly hours on these chores. One big reason? Many of us hold paying jobs; moms who work full-time spend a mere 14 hours per week on household activities. But even stay-at-home moms are down to 25 hours — beneficiaries of a spillover change in attitudes that employed women have inspired.

Glenna Matthews, a historian and the author of “Just a Housewife,” once told me: “When I was a young housewife” — nearly five decades ago — “somebody who didn’t like me came over one time and then a week later said, ‘You think you’re so hot, but I’ve seen the dust under your bed.’ ” Now, Ms. Matthews says, no one views dust as “a mark of shame.” As with cooking, some of us outsource cleaning, and most of us minimize it by nixing ceiling vacuuming in favor of quick touch-ups (the equivalent of one-pot meals). Moms use the saved time to work and also to interact with their kids. Women spend more than double the time reading to and playing with their children these days than they did during the must-dust era of 1965. This is a huge victory.

Of course, once you no longer have to clean, you can afford to be nostalgic about it, just as we have elevated our kitchens from hidden galleys to galleries of high-end appliances. A lemon-scented grout cleaner is nice to read about when you’re kicking your feet up with a magazine. And if you spend just 1.3 hours per week doing dishes, as opposed to 5.1 hours in 1965, why not indulge in “liquid loveliness” (as Caldrea touts its $9 dish soap) and turn the whole thing into aromatherapy? Our modern spring cleaning fantasies are much like Renaissance festivals. You wear fancy dresses and ride a pony — but drive your car to get there. Likewise, an $899 Williams-Sonoma Miele Celebration Vacuum does seem worth celebrating if — should the moment pass with the April breezes — you can always hand it over to Merry Maids or let the dust linger on the floor. Or ceiling. Few will judge you for it.

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