A Brief History of Spring Cleaning

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The seasonal ritual of spring cleaning has been around as long as humans have lived in permanent dwellings.

In ancient times, spring cleaning was often done as part of a spring religious holiday or festival. Ancient Persians commemorated Nowruz, their New Year celebration coinciding with the vernal equinox, with a ritual house cleaning called kooneh tekouni, an apt phrase meaning “shaking up the house.”

Early Hebrews conducted a thorough cleaning of their homes in preparation for Passover, the traditional spring holiday. And in the Chinese tradition, a house cleaning holiday serves as a precursor to the New Year (which is generally thought to be the first day of spring.)

It was fitting for ancient peoples to ritualize detailed cleaning in the spring, a time when the earth renews itself and seasonal cycles start afresh.

Imagine living in Wisconsin before the modern inventions of electric heat, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. These hardy folks brought their whole lives inside for four to six months while the cold weather raged outside. During that time, they would have had to adjust and modify their normal, warm-weather cleaning habits.

Instead of carrying all of the dirty clothes and linens outside on “wash day” to launder in a big cast iron pot over a fire, they would wash their clothes in small batches in the kitchen and hang them to dry beside the wood stove or fireplace. Sheets and blankets would go unwashed through the winter months. The lack of light would have made it hard to see well enough to clean in a detailed way. Heating with wood meant that the floors and rugs would constantly be covered with stray wood chips and pieces of bark. By spring, everything in the house would be coated with a fine layer of ash and soot.

So as soon as the days lengthened and the weather grew warmer, families did their spring cleaning, spending a few days to a week cleaning everything that had grown dirty and neglected over the long, harsh winter.

One of the most important, time consuming, and labor-intensive tasks in the spring cleaning regimen was beating the rugs. People didn’t have wall-to-wall carpets back then, but they did have large, room-sized rugs woven of wool or reeds, and smaller rugs woven of old rags. These heavy, dirt-covered rugs would be hauled outside, hung up on a line in the sunshine, and beaten with sticks until no more dust remained. Then they would be left to hang in the sunshine and air out for a day or so, before being brought back in.

Thankfully, today, we have access to miraculous appliances like vacuum cleaners and washers and dryers. Though it still gets cold and dark in the winter, we no longer have to suffer through months of dirty living conditions and poor air quality just because it’s cold outside.

But, even though we now live in a time of comparative luxury, spring cleaning is still a tradition that many people uphold. It’s as good a time as any to see to those household chores that only need doing once a year, like cleaning behind the refrigerator, changing the air filters, and dusting the baseboards. It is nice, and even energizing, to spend the first few days tidying up, getting rid of the old, and making room for the new.