My Secret Life | Home Comforts

My Secret Life

I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house. An off-and-on lawyer and professor in public, in private I launder and clean, cook from the hip, and devote serious time and energy to a domestic routine not so different from the one that defined my grandmothers as “housewives.” When I want a good read, I reach for my collection of old housekeeping manuals. The part of me that enjoys housekeeping and the comforts it provides is central to my character.

Until now, I have almost entirely concealed this passion for domesticity. No one meeting me for the first time would suspect that I squander my time knitting or my mental reserves remembering household facts such as the date when the carpets and mattresses were last rotated. Without thinking much about it, I knew I would not want this information about me to get around. After all, I belong to the first generation of women who worked more than they stayed home. We knew that no judge would credit the legal briefs of a housewife, no university would give tenure to one, no corporation would promote one, and no one who mattered would talk to one at a party.

Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized. When I made hand-rolled pasta for a dinner, I learned the hard way that some guests will find this annoying, as they do not feel comfortable eating a meal that they regard as the product of too much trouble. When my son was in nursery school, I made the mistake of spending a few hours sewing for him a Halloween astronaut costume of metallic cloth, earning the disgust, suspicion, and hard stares of many a fellow parent who had bought a Batman or Esmeralda costume. When I finally had to begin disclosing to friends and acquaintances just what the long book was about that I had been working on for so many years, I got a lot of those stares. Many times my courage failed me when painful silences followed my confession, “No, not a history of housework, an explanation of it—a practical book on how you make the bed and make a comfortable home,” or “No, nothing about recipes, bouquets, gardening, monogramming, decorating, or crafts. It’s about how a home works, not how it looks—what different fabrics are for, pantry and refrigeration storage, laundering and ironing, tuning the piano, cleaning and dusting, household records, books, laws, germs, allergies, and safety.” I managed to persevere partly because not everyone responded with that stare; there was enthusiasm as well. And I was struck that no one responded with bored indifference. The topic was clearly hot—too hot for some people to handle, heartwarming to others.

Born Too Late

For me, too, the subject was actually something of a hot potato. I was raised to be a rural wife and mother, but I was born too late to find many openings for farm wives. Until I was thirteen, I lived in the Appalachian southwest corner of Pennsylvania, for most of the time on a working farm where I received an old-fashioned domestic education quite unlike the experience of the average girl in the 1950s. Early on, I learned baby care, housecleaning, laundering, gardening, cooking, embroidering, knitting, and sewing. I slopped the pigs, herded the cows, and helped out with the milking. I was proud to be able to pin a cloth diaper around a baby when I was six, and cook breakfasts of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee for a large family and the hired help when I was nine.

Because housekeeping skills got respect in my world, I looked forward to keeping a house of my own one day. It was what I wanted, and part of me was confident that I could do it well. Another part doubted practically everything I had been taught. That was because my domestic education was a battlefield in a subtle war between my two grandmothers. These ladies, both expert in needlecraft, cookery, canning, and all the other arts of the home, each held an absolute conviction that there was a right way to keep house (the one she had been brought up with) and a wrong way (all others).

My maternal grandmother was a fervent housekeeper in her ancestral Italian style, while my paternal grandmother was an equally fervent housekeeper in a style she inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland. In one home I heard Puccini, slept on linen sheets with finely crocheted edging rolled up with lavender from the garden, and enjoyed airy, light rooms with flowers sprouting in porcelain pots on windowsills and the foreign scents of garlic and dark, strong coffee. The atmosphere was open and warmly hospitable. The other home felt like a fortress—secure against intruders and fitted with stores and tools for all emergencies. There were Gay Nineties tunes on the player piano and English hymns, rooms shaded almost to darkness against real and fancied harmful effects of air and light, hand-braided rag rugs, brightly colored patchwork quilts, and creamed lima beans from the garden. My Anglo-American grandmother taught me to knit American-style, looping the yarn around the needle with a whole-arm motion. My Italian grandmother winced at the sight of this tiring and inefficient method and insisted I do it the way she did, with a barely visible, lightning flick of the last joint on her index finger. My Anglo-American grandmother sniffed at the other’s idea of a gored skirt. The Italian thought it unwise to make beds, which should, she said, be aired. In one home, brows were raised and lips curled at the very idea of redeye gravy; in the other, at the idea of garlic. The Italian scarcely knew how to iron and sent out anything that needed it. The Anglo-American thought ironing the queenliest of the household arts, had every ironing aid known to humankind, and beamed at me when I had ironed-in creases in the sleeves of my cotton blouses.

Convinced that her own ways were best, each scolded me for doing things the way the other one did it, and each shook her head over the poor food and meager comforts of the other’s household. Seeing my future as a housekeeper and a mother—yearning for the far-off joys of womanhood—I was faced with the dilemma of figuring out which of them knew the right way of doing things. Love of my mother and my own aesthetic nature inclined me toward things Italian, but love of my father and the society I lived in inclined me toward things American.

By the time I reached young adulthood, these questions no longer seemed to matter. Modern suburbia, where I found myself, had little interest in housekeeping and even less respect for it. Gamely I concluded that if the world no longer admired girls who sewed and cooked, in either the Italian or the American style, I would be up to date. I threw myself into studying, writing, and an academic career, and, not one to do things by halves (and determined to give myself much to regret in middle age), I made a youthful marriage to a man who ardently disliked domestic life. But my upbringing was not so easily overthrown. After an enjoyable year or two of antidomestic posturing, my true nature began to reemerge. One day when I arrived home in a rainstorm to find three wet, muddy dogs (ours and two of his friends) curled up in our unmade bed, I cried. That was a turning point. There followed a stage of rational discussion of our differences. At one point, I remember, I desperately constructed a philosophical defense of dusting under the furniture; and things got considerably less rational before the all-too-predictable end arrived.

But there is nothing like law school to take your mind off a divorce. My grandmothers, who had lived long enough to be mystified by the idea of a graduate degree in philosophy, never witnessed the further anomaly of a granddaughter who would become a lawyer. Despite the strenuous studies, as a newly single law student I reverted to domestic type. I immediately made a cozy, orderly little nest for myself in which I could study, make dinner for friends, listen to music, nurse my wounds, and live, unapologetically, the way I had wanted to for a long time. My father, amazed at the transformation, relaxed in my ample second-hand wing chair and said with a sigh, “At last you have a comfortable place to sit.”

My Golden Age of domestic singledom was inevitably short-lived because I was graduated and began working excruciatingly long hours. At first I succumbed. My apartment was like a hotel room; I slept, showered, changed, and left. I did not cook, listen to music, or knit. I hired someone to clean, put up with dust on the books and grime in the corners, and entertained by meeting friends at restaurants. I felt like a cog in a machine.

Then one weekend I had a second domestic reawakening when I found myself with weekend guests who needed to be fed. Not only was I amazed to rediscover how gratifying it is to have people enjoy your cooking, but I was precipitated into some serious thought about cleanliness, sheets, the state of my pantry, and kitchen equipment. I was still making do with my half of the graduate student gear from my former life. After this, I began to try to control my hours at the office and to get at least a little time at home. Even a few hours, I found, were comforting. I got a good reading lamp to go with the wing chair, and I started on a novel. I put up a Christmas tree and invited friends with a child to help decorate it. Before long, I had a home once more, and living in it made me feel like a new person. I thought about housekeeping and how strange my life would appear to my grandmothers, and I began to collect housekeeping manuals, both old and new but mostly old, like the one my great-grand-mother had used. I pored over them at bedtime, looking for my grandmothers’ and mother’s habits in them or finding to my astonishment that my grandmothers, both of them so right and so sure about everything, had not always done things by the book.

But most of this was socially invisible, so much so that it took me a long time to convince my new husband-to-be, when I finally met him, that I could actually cook. My former boyfriend, too, had set me down for a total housekeeping incompetent, and I had not bothered to enlighten him. He cooked and cleaned. I helped with the dishes, sometimes. When I took it upon myself to do marketing one day and came back with a reasonable collection of foods and supplies, he was floored. But my husband had to know the truth; this time I was going to start things out on the right footing. I told him straight out that the three-hole paper punch, a complete run of PC Magazine, and several collections of literary reviews did not belong in the kitchen cabinets over the sink and that I could not live with this. He shrugged, and so I married him.

Dousing the Home Fires

“Each day I long for home, long for the sight of home.”

The Odyssey

The idea of writing a book about housekeeping first flashed into my mind in the laundry room a couple of years later, when I found myself hopelessly frustrated by the obscurities of garment care labels and wondering whether my laundering methods would lead to disaster. I thought about my great-grandmother’s housekeeping book, and wished I had a modern book that would tell me the real story about fabrics and laundering in this day and age. With nowhere else to turn, I did what any lawyer would do: I went to read the “regs,” the FTC regulations governing care labels. After painful study I learned, among other things, that an instruction to “dry clean” does not necessarily mean that you should only dry clean and not launder a garment. But overall I ended up with more questions than I started with. Besides, I reflected darkly, you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to figure out how to do the laundry.

Around this time I found myself facing many more household puzzles. I inherited my beloved uncle’s grand piano, which had meant to him something like what my husband, son, home, computer, and CD player, all rolled into one, meant to me. I wanted to play it and care for it well, but had no idea whether I should vacuum out the dust in its depths, how often I should have it tuned, or what other care it might require. My husband and I had just renovated our apartment and found ourselves relying on our contractor for housekeeping advice. How, for example, should we clean and care for our newly polyurethaned wood floors? The contractor was confident and adamant: clean only with a mop slightly dampened with plain water. He insisted that we do the same in the kitchen, where he had painted a sealant over our Mexican tiles. Not only was nothing else necessary, he said sternly, but the wood floor would be damaged and the sealant dulled by anything else. This advice, which I found hard to believe, was wrong in both cases; but, intimidated by any word beginning with “poly” and by the very idea of a sealant, whatever that was, I followed it until the consequences (really dirty floors) were unmistakable. We had no notion of whether we would be better off using fluorescent or halogen or incandescent bulbs, and were unable to find someone who could lay out the pros and cons for us. And now we had a toddler and had become more conscious of cleanliness and germs. Could it be true, as the newspapers said, that soft-cooked eggs were no longer a safe food? (Yes.) Could it be true that I should start buying all those new disinfectant cleaners and soaps? (No.)

There were also reasons outside my own home that gave impetus to the idea of a housekeeping book. Over and over I found myself visiting homes where the predominant feeling was sepulchral, dusty, and deserted, or even hotel-like, as my own had once become. Perhaps a book that tried to explain not only the hows but the whys and the meanings of housekeeping was something the world could use.

I first learned that housework has meaning by observing my grandmothers. The reason they made a fuss when they saw a granddaughter doing things in a “foreign” way is that they knew—in their bones if not in words—that the way you experience life in your home is determined by how you do your housekeeping. Just as you can read a culture in the way its people fold a shirt (or do not), little domestic habits are what give everybody’s home the special qualities that make it their own and let them feel at home there. Understandably, each of my grandmothers wanted me to make a home in which she could feel at home.

This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part, it is a sense of having special rights, dignities, and entitlements—and these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security. Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you, reduced fear of social and emotional dangers as well as of physical ones. When you are home, you can let down your guard and take off your mask. Home is the one place in the world where you are safe from feeling put down or out, unentitled, or unwanted. It’s where you belong, or, as the poet said, the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Coming home is your major restorative in life.

These are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world—or even by moving into the house of your dreams. Nor is there much that interior decorating can do to provide them. Making a home attractive helps you feel at home, but not nearly so much as most of us seem to think, if you gauge by the amounts of money we spend on home furnishings. In fact, too much attention to the looks of a home can backfire if it creates a stage-set feeling instead of the authenticity of a genuinely homey place. And going in for nostalgic pastimes—canning, potting, sewing, making Christmas wreaths, painting china, decorating cookies—will not work either. I count myself among those who find these things fun to do, but I know from experience that you cannot make a home by imitating the household chores and crafts of a past era. Ironically, people are led into the error of playing house instead of keeping house by a genuine desire for a home and its comforts. Nostalgia means, literally, “homesickness.”

What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents, and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.

Despite these rewards, American housekeeping and home life are in a state of decline. Comfort and engagement at home have diminished to the point that even simple cleanliness and decent meals—let alone any deeper satisfactions—are no longer taken for granted in many middle-class homes. Homes today often seem to operate on an ad hoc basis. Washday is any time anyone throws a load into the machine, and laundering skills are in precipitous decline. Dishes are washed when the dishwasher is full. Meals occur any time or all the time or, what amounts to the same thing, never, as people serve more and more prepared and semi-prepared foods. And although a large, enthusiastic minority of home cooks grow more and more sophisticated, the majority become ever more de-skilled. Dirt, dust, and disorder are more common in middle-class homes than they used to be. Cleaning and neatening are done mostly when the house seems out of control. Bedding decreases in refinement, freshness, and comfort even as sales of linens, pillows, and comforters increase. It is not in goods that the contemporary household is poor, but in comfort and care.

These deficiencies of housekeeping can have serious effects on health. The decline of home cooking and regular home meals, along with the prevalence of the couch potato and television culture, coincide with skyrocketing rates of obesity and its related health problems. Allergy and asthma rates, climbing steeply in recent decades, are exacerbated by modern housekeeping practices. Those who live in disorderly and untended homes suffer higher accident rates. Inadequate cleanliness in the kitchen poses the danger of foodborne illness. Germs and mold anywhere in the home can cause infections and allergies.

Household activities of all kinds are becoming haphazard, not only cleaning, cooking, and laundering. Television often absorbs everyone’s attention because other activities (such as music-making, letter-writing, socializing, reading, or cooking) require at least a minimum of foresight, continuity, order, and planning that the contemporary household cannot accommodate. Home life as a whole has contracted. Less happens at home; less time is spent there. Like the industrial poor of 1910, many people now, in order to work long hours with rare days off, must farm out their children for indifferent institutional care. People are tired, sleeping an estimated two hours less per night than people did a hundred years ago. There are fewer parties, dinners, or card games with friends in homes. Divorces break up countless households, and even in intact families frequent moves break ties to friends and neighbors. The homes that reemerge are thinner, more brittle, more superficial, more disorganized, and more vulnerable than those they replace. These plagues rain on the lives of both rich and poor. Many people lead deprived lives in houses filled with material luxury.

Inadequate housekeeping is part of an unfortunate cycle. As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met (for food, comfort, clean laundry, relaxation, entertainment, society, rest), domestic skills and expectations further diminish, in turn decreasing the chance that people’s homes can satisfy their needs. The result is far too many people who long for home even though they seem to have one.

Obstacles to Housekeeping: Attitude!

Housekeeping is a subject that brings out attitudes. Generational issues are prominent, naturally enough, because we all associate housekeeping with our parents or children. Old fogies have always accused the young of declining competence. “You kids!” my grandmother’s grandmother scolded her. “You don’t even know how to make smoke go up the chimney.” In times of great social or technological change, the young turn around and scorn the old. “Imagine saving string,” my mother snickered, “or stretching the curtains on a stretching frame!”

And every generation makes the mistake of thinking that the next one will repeat its own experience. Many people in my parents’ generation tried to avoid this mistake. They knew their parents were out of date, and they expected to be out of date too. They thought that they had nothing to teach us, their children, about housekeeping because our homes were going to be completely different from theirs. It is ironic, then, that in trying to be so very modern as to overthrow themselves before we even had a chance to, they made that same old mistake. They had experienced huge changes in housekeeping styles and technologies, but then, unexpectedly, we didn’t. Although homes in 1955 were startlingly different from those of 1915, they would turn out to be remarkably similar to homes in 1995. This continuity matters. My feelings about my home are deepened by my perception that it is like my mother’s; my hopes for our son are warmed by my expectation that someday he will find that his home is like ours.

By the 1950s most homes had long had electricity, modern plumbing, and heating, and the average home had a vacuum cleaner, a modern refrigerator, and an automatic washing machine and dryer. Automatic dishwashers were familiar to everyone, although not many people had one. Synthetic fibers, prepared soaps and detergents, and polishes were not new. Sewing and needlework of all sorts were already fixed in their new status as enjoyable leisure-time crafts, instead of the urgent necessities they had once been. Supermarkets sold packaged, sliced bread and chickens plucked and cut up. Compared with these changes, the innovations that came later, such as hand-held vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, and a few computerized gadgets, do not save much labor or change the tenor of the home and its routines.

Other generational issues in housekeeping are harder to detect but can be emotional dynamite. Many middle-aged women of today had mothers who were dissatisfied housewives. These mothers taught their daughters not to get trapped but to get their degree and go out into the world and fulfill the mothers’ frustrated ambitions. In droves, the daughters did just this—overall, a good thing. But there was in some cases a troubling subtext to this story. Some mothers actually gave their daughters another, whispered message as well: “Housekeeping is my consolation prize; it won’t be fair if you get this and the career too.” This was simply an extension of the housewife’s message to her husband: “If you get the job and the public world, I insist all the more on my prerogatives in the home.” Many young women have confided to me, sadly, that they felt sometimes as though they were being driven from things feminine and domestic by mothers who would not let them help cook or teach them anything of the mothers’ own domestic crafts, no matter how much the daughters wanted to learn them. All too often, such women, supercompetent on the job, feel inept and lack confidence when they find themselves wanting to make a home of their own.

Thus it came about that for a couple of generations there were more and more children who were taught little about housekeeping except indifference. Those who lacked grandmothers or mothers who wanted them to learn about housekeeping usually never did learn anything about it and continue to regard it as alien territory. As adults who want good, well-run homes, they may succeed in mastering some practical skills, although a surprising number do not. Far more, however, find themselves quite conflicted about attempting domesticity. Their thinking is: I may do this dusting or laundry, but this is not really me.

Unfortunately, what a traditional woman did that made her home warm and alive was not dusting and laundry. Someone can be hired to do those things (to some extent, anyway). Her real secret was that she identified herself with her home. Of course, this did not always turn out well. A controlling woman might make her home suffocating. A perfectionist’s home might be chilly and forbidding. But it is more illuminating to think about what happened when things went right. Then her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and the pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfullness of her home; her good humor in its light and air. She lived her life not only through her own body but through the house as an extension of her body; part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made.

My own experience convinces me that there is still no other way to make a good home than to have attitudes toward home and domesticity modeled on those of that traditional woman. But most men and many women do not want to identify themselves with homes that they create through their housekeeping and through which they offer of themselves to others.

Their attitudes may have been learned originally at home, but they are constantly reinforced by the media. Advertisements and television programs offer degraded images of household work and workers. Discussions of the subject in magazines and newspapers follow a standard formula. The author confesses either to hating housework or to incompetence at it, jokes about the childish and mischievous aspects of poor housekeeping, then produces a list of “timesaving hints.” It is scarcely surprising, then, that so many people imagine housekeeping to be boring, frustrating, repetitive, unintelligent drudgery. I cannot agree. (In fact, having kept house, practiced law, taught, and done many other sorts of work, low- and high-paid, I can assure you that it is actually lawyers who are most familiar with the experience of unintelligent drudgery.) And I am convinced that such attitudes toward housekeeping are needlessly self-defeating. You can be male and domestic. You can have a career and be domestic. You can enjoy keeping house. No one is too superior or intelligent to care for hearth and home.

Domesticity does not take time or effort but helps save both. It is just an orientation that gives you a sixth sense about the place you live in, and helps you keep it running with the same kind of unconscious and effortless actions that keep you from falling when you walk down stairs. This sixth sense lets you do things fast and cut the right corners, and helps you foresee and forestall the minor domestic disasters—spills, shortages, and conflicts—that can make life miserable when they accumulate. When it is absent, you are like an infant negotiating a flight of stairs for the first time. It feels hard and complicated. You have to focus your whole mind on it, and it wears you out.

Modern housekeeping, despite its bad press, is among the most thoroughly pleasant, significant, and least alienated forms of work that many of us will encounter even if we are blessed with work outside the home that we like. Once, it was so physically onerous and arduous that it not infrequently contributed to a woman’s total physical breakdown. Today, laundry, cleaning, and other household chores are by and large physically light or moderate work that doctors often recommend to people for their health, as evidence shows that housework is good for weight control and healthy hearts.

Seen from the outside, housework can look like a Sisyphean task that gives you no sense of reward or completion. Yet housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of. Each of its regular routines brings satisfaction when it is completed. These routines echo the rhythm of life, and the housekeeping rhythm is the rhythm of the body. You get satisfaction not only from the sense of order, cleanliness, freshness, peace and plenty restored, but from the knowledge that you yourself and those you care about are going to enjoy these benefits.

Housekeeping requires knowledge and intelligence as well, the kind that is complex, not simple, and combines intellect, intuition, and feelings. You need a memory good enough to remember how things are done, where things are, what the daily routine requires, what everyone in the home is up to as it affects housekeeping, the state of supplies, budgets, and bills. You have to be able to decipher insurance policies, contracts, and warranties, manage a budget, and master the technical language of instruction manuals for appliances and computers. The ability to split your attention in several ways and stay calm is essential. You need to exercise creative intelligence to solve problems and devise solutions: efficiency measures that save money or time; psychological or social measures to improve cooperation; steps to improve physical comfort; analyses of why and how some routines break down. Housekeeping comprises the ability to find, evaluate, and use information about nutrition, cooking, chemistry and biology, health, comfort, laundry, cleaning, and safety. Above all, housekeeping must be intelligent so that it can be empathetic, for empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home. Good housekeepers know intuitively what needs to be done in their homes because they know how their homes make people feel.

We should not overlook the relation of personal style and character to the character of a home. These are complicated subjects, but we can at least remind ourselves here how deeply they are involved in the subject of housekeeping. We can all observe for ourselves that warmhearted, reasonably well-organized people, not surprisingly, tend to keep well-functioning, cheerful, and welcoming homes, while people who live from one crisis to the next have homes filled with crises and chaos. Inconsistent people do housekeeping by fits and starts. People who think badly of themselves take these feelings out on their homes. Just as they have spots on their ties or runs in their pantyhose, their homes have stopped-up drains and a general air of disorganization. Alternatively, just as they may put excess stress on personal appearance in an effort to overcome self-doubt, so they may make their homes look forbiddingly perfect in an attempt to impress themselves and others.

Everyone knows chic, cool people whose homes are filled with striking furnishings but offer no place to be comfortable. At dinner the portions are fashionably small. Once you’ve admired the dish, its purpose is served whether or not you are still hungry. Some people are control artists or smotherers: five minutes in their homes and you need oxygen. You are asked if you are comfortable, and before you can answer you are offered pillows, told to try a new chair, and generally harassed to the point where you can’t relax or think or talk. If you live with them, they are always doing more for you than you want, piling your bed high with blankets, cooking five-course breakfasts, and creating an uncomfortable sense of indebtedness.

Then there are those who are personally slatternly but keep immaculate houses, and the reverse. The pattern of a disheveled home and pristine person can reflect different sets of mind. Sometimes it is the way of the merely spoiled, who think everything should be done for them. But it may also be a single person’s way of saying that he or she wants a mate: “I need someone to take care of me,” or, perhaps, “It’s not worth doing it just for me.” In other cases it reflects a sense of being secretly contemptible.

But the housekeepers who have done the most to give housekeeping a bad name are those who are compulsive about it. Compulsive housekeepers clean houses that are already spotless. They arrange their shoes along the color spectrum in a straight line and suffer anxiety if the towels on the shelf do not all face the same way. They expend enormous effort on what they think of as housekeeping, but their homes often are not welcoming. Who can feel at home in a place where the demand for order is so exaggerated? In housekeeping, more is not always better. Order and cleanliness should not cost more than the value they bring in health, efficiency, and convenience.

Guilty housekeeping is another common style, almost as prevalent as compulsiveness. The guilt-ridden housekeeper always thinks that more should be done or that everything that has been done has not been done well enough. The floors were just swept? They look better, but I did not do a really good job on the corners and, besides, I neglected the closets. Moreover, I should also have spent time with my family and paid the bills. The guilt-ridden may eventually rebel against their own perception of endless duties in housekeeping and angrily let things go to hell.

In the modern world, it is easier to slide into neuroticism in housekeeping than it used to be. Thirty or forty years ago, compulsive housekeepers were easier to spot because there were generally accepted standards of what constituted adequate or good or excellent housekeeping, which they obviously exceeded. You did your wash on Monday, with sufficient skill to produce a certain range of results, and followed up quickly with ironing. Beds were changed on a certain day and made up by a certain hour of the morning. Vacuuming and dusting were done twice a week, serious baking once. Dishes were washed immediately after meals, and meals were made and served at home twice or thrice a day at regular hours. The Sabbath was marked with a more elaborate dinner.

Today, the disappearance of these social standards means that every household must invent for itself an ideal of a well-kept home and must choose its own standards of cleanliness and comfort. On the whole, this is a gain. No one wants to go back to the days of blushing over gray laundry and dirty dishes in the sink. On the other hand, the standards that operated in the past were grounded in practical reality. They balanced mental and physical comfort with the amount of effort required to achieve it, and they existed in a social world that assumed that life would include leisure and domestic enjoyment. They provided something crucial that the contemporary household lacks, which is a sense of entitlement to a recognizable standard of everyday living. Where standards are viewed as merely arbitrary and subjective, people come to feel that such comforts as fresh beds or good meals are not their right or are not worth working for.

Those of us who can gain some sense of the psychology of our own housekeeping will be freer to decide intelligently that some tasks are crucial enough to call for strenuous efforts while others are not. This book explores many kinds of pleasant possibilities in housekeeping without implying that anyone could, should, or must undertake them all. “Standards” are described, but they are offered as rights, entitlements, or suggestions for the sake of the reader’s health, happiness, and enjoyment. The goal is always to pick and choose, to find the patterns and habits that work best for our own homes and that create the goods at home that we most value and need.

Setting Standards: When Is Good Enough Good Enough?

To the contemporary mind, the idea that happiness depends on good housekeeping might seem quaint or odd. A century or two ago, and in fact until the past few decades, it was taken for granted, and the quality of housekeeping was not beneath the attention of such great novelists as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. Several of Charles Dickens’s novels present an interesting variation on the whore/virgin theme when they contrast good housekeepers, who are lavished with praise, and bad housekeepers, who are described with appalled fascination. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora, who ties a basket of housekeeping keys to her waist in a childish imitation of real housekeeping, all but wrecks their marriage through her infantile incompetence. And though David realizes that he must forgive and love her anyway, Dickens helpfully kills her off and remarries David to Agnes, a genius of a housekeeper who even in childhood brought order and cheer wherever she went with her own little basket of housekeeping keys. In Bleak House, the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away. In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys, and her guardian proves his good sense by appointing her his housekeeper within hours of meeting her.

Now, if you are a twenty- or thirty-something working person, you probably do not see yourself in Dickens’s portraits of young ladies carrying baskets of keys (especially if you are a young man). But anyone can still respond to his portrayals of the chaos and unhappiness caused by defective housekeeping. Ruined and inedible meals, tools lost and broken, accidents, dirt, poor health, frustration, quarrelsomeness, shame—all these, which Dickens paints with vivid colors, are still the outcome of household neglect.

But what constitutes neglect? What is the point beyond which housekeeping becomes inadequate housekeeping today? Common sense says that it is the lowest level at which health and safety can be preserved and enough comfort and order maintained to ensure that people want to spend time at home, feel restored there, and do not have that haggard feeling of homelessness that travelers sometimes have even when they are perfectly well housed. Much housekeeping is justified merely on such rational, functional grounds as these. But in every age, people also do things to care for their homes that have no justification in concrete benefits for safety and health. Our forebears were fanatics about ironing, for example. Around 1900, they insisted on ironing everything from sheets to underwear even though this cost horrendous labor from women (and most did it themselves without maids, or did it alongside a maid) who were already devoting enormous amounts of labor simply to ensure survival. They were quite as capable as we are of appreciating that this was a lot of trouble for the sake of something they could have lived without. Feminist historians, in fact, have complained that the 1950s woman foolishly wasted on superfluous “work” the time she saved by using technological innovations. In calling the work superfluous, they devalue the goals of that era’s housewives, and I am not convinced that they are being fair. But a brief glance at the history of dusting shows you why they might grumble.

In 1842, Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) thought that sweeping the parlor carpet and dusting all furniture, books, and knickknacks once a week was good enough. She mentions walls only with reference to spring cleaning (with the exception of kitchen walls, which need cleaning “often”). In 1908, Marion Harland called for daily dusting, weekly attacks on floors and carpets, and rubbing the dining room table with a drop of oil once a week. Walls and ceilings were to be attended to during “house cleaning,” as both spring and fall cleaning were called. Around 1950, the authors of housekeeping books commonly recommended a dusting regimen of astonishing rigor for middle-class homes. You were supposed to dust all woodwork and furniture, including window frames, screens, and blinds, every day; dust the floors with a dust mop daily; vacuum carpets daily; brush all exposed surfaces on upholstery every day (or, if you had clean air in your area, two to three times a week), and do a complete brushing with an upholstery brush or vacuum, getting under pillows and in crevices, once or twice a month; vacuum wood floors once a week; dust walls and ceilings daily or weekly (as required by the air quality); and rub all furniture long and hard, with the grain, once a week. Whether people actually did all of this is open to question, but if they did, can this much labor be justified in terms of health benefits? Comfort? No doubt the dusting provided some of these benefits (and maybe partly explains the lower rates of asthma and allergy back then), but, equally doubtless, the amount of dusting outstripped such benefits. The point is that our mothers or grandmothers knew this as well as we do and thought it worthwhile anyway.

By midcentury my paternal grandparents, like most of their contemporaries, had acquired all the modern conveniences and gloried in them: vacuum cleaner, automatic washer and dryer, hot running water indoors, tiled bathroom and flush toilet, clean, modern heating system, enameled sinks and tubs, floors and walls that were not filled with dips and gouges. They enjoyed all these things in a house that sat yards away from the one in which my grandfather grew up, where my great-grandmother still lived without them. Modern supercleanliness represented to them and their peers deliverance from the dreary problems that had plagued their mothers’ houses: chamberpots, smoke, grease, soot, grime, smells, ashes, bedbugs, fleas, mold and mildew, mud, stained porcelain and fabrics—all were fresh in their memories. Their excessive cleaning was rarely what it has sometimes been called: the neurotic behavior of bored women who could not think of anything more useful to do. It was a celebration of their release from centuries of a losing struggle with dirt, a celebration of new possibilities for comfort, beauty, and peace of mind that had so recently not existed even for the rich (who had always had their furniture dusted every day). For women who were domestic to the core, winning this war was comforting in a way we can hardly imagine.

It is difficult for us, who never experienced what my grandparents had so recently left behind, to realize the oppression of dirt, with its associations of death, discomfort, shame, and danger, and the free, light feeling that the modern home gave to those who remembered the labor its cleanliness had once cost. Cleanliness of this kind was the chief luxury that ordinary people gained through the new household technologies. So although all their cleaning and dusting was not entirely justified by its concrete benefits, it offered meanings and satisfactions that people wanted urgently. It gave their homes dignity and their lives an extra measure of contentment. Half a century later, few of us who grew up in the light, modern, clean homes of the 1950s and’60s have any such feelings and associations to motivate us. So we do not iron sheets, most of us do an unambitious dusting and vacuuming once a week, and in many other respects, too, we are willing to live with housekeeping that is merely “good enough.” We understand better than people used to that it should be a matter of discretion whether we do anything more than that.

We should also understand, however, that we can permit ourselves to seek better than just “good enough” when it comes to our homes. It is just as important for us now as it was for people in 1800, 1900, and 1950. Dusting standards may have changed since the 1950s, but our homes still have to be to us what our grandfathers’ homes were to them. Our homes are the center of our lives, and we should allow time and resources to make the most of them that we can, and to care for them in a way that consolidates and elaborates their meaning for each of us. At a minimum, we should avoid thinking that time spent on our homes is wasted time, or that our goal should always be to reduce the time and effort we spend on them.

Much housework is discretionary, but not all housework is. Minimum standards of cleanliness and order are inescapable necessities for health and happiness. It is up to each of us how to choose the dimensions of “necessary” in our own case. If this means that we can jettison without guilt a mother’s or grandmother’s idea of adequate dusting, it also means, on the other hand, that we still have to figure out just how much dusting represents the rational compromise between health and comfort and available time and resources. It is as true as ever that a dusty home is unpleasant and unhealthy to live in.

The ideological and economic fashions of each age provide masks to hide behind. When the message was “Stay at home and keep house,” a woman who gave in to fears that kept her from doing something else could rationalize that she was doing her duty. Today, when the message is the opposite, “Go out and work,” both men and women may rationalize the deficiencies of their home lives as necessary and unavoidable, saying that they do not have the time. Some people really are extraordinarily pushed and pressured. They need all the help they can get, and I hope this book will offer some. Other people are simply not cut out for domestic life, cannot avoid hating housework, and would perhaps be happier living in a hotel, barracks, ship, or monastery. But because it is true that whoever loves the end also loves the means, all of us who really do enjoy living in a well-kept home can come to enjoy the rituals of its care. The act of taking care of our homes brings comfort and consolation both in the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor and in the increasingly rare freedom to engage in worthwhile, unalienated, honorable work.

Using This Book

In writing this book I have constantly held two different audiences in mind. The primary one consists of beginners in housekeeping, especially young adults first setting up house or thinking of marrying or raising children. Also in this group are mature readers who for one reason or another have come to housekeeping late, as well as those who might be expert in one area but not others—skilled housecleaners, for example, who want to know more about food storage or fabrics. For the sake of this audience, I have included many basic details that will be obvious to experienced hands.

The other audience I have had in mind consists of those experienced hands. The members of this group will already have their own systems and methods in place (and I hope will excuse the didactic tone found here and there) but will be interested in learning more and keeping their knowledge up to date—perhaps on such subjects as lighting, safety, or newer materials and fabrics. Or, like me, they may simply enjoy reading about what someone else thinks and does about housekeeping. For their sakes, I have gone into more detail than beginners will need on some topics, such as the care of wood, fabrics, and laundering.

The brief summary of contents at the opening of each chapter, the table of contents at the beginning, and the ample index at the end of the book will help both groups navigate their way through the materials and find what they want. Readers should notice that many topics—bleach, disinfectants, and textile fibers, for example—are taken up in more than one chapter.

The parts of this book, listed in the table of contents, correspond to basic kinds of work that go into keeping up a home. Each kind of housework answers to some need that is satisfied in our homes: for order, neatness, food, clothing, cleanliness, activity, sleep, safety and an understanding of laws and business matters affecting our homes. The chapters contained in each part generally stand alone and can be read in any order. In some cases, however, you are better off reading two or more related chapters together. If you want details on laundering, for example, it will be helpful to read not only the chapter on laundering itself but also those on fabrics, fibers, and care labels. If you are concerned about holiday safety, you will find relevant materials in the chapters on fire safety and electrical safety, and in other chapters as well, as indicated in the index and chapter summaries. If you have elderly houseguests, look at “Slips and Falls”; if there are or will be children in your home, look at all the safety chapters and pay special attention to “Additional Safety Measures for Children.” Often, the text in one chapter refers you to other sections of the book that deal with related matters.

I hope all readers will keep in mind that what I have included here is one way of doing things, and, as I long ago learned so well from my grandmothers, in almost every aspect of housekeeping there are at least two good ways of doing things—and surely, if your grandmothers’ ways were also considered, it would be many more than that. Wherever I thought it not self-evident, I tried to give the reasons why I use my own methods and systems. I hope this will help readers decide whether they wish to give them a whirl or whether they prefer something different.



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