A Clean Sweep: Compared to the old days, today’s spring cleaning is tidy

Before Raymond Tucker’s work to clear the air in the late 1940s, which contributed to his being elected mayor in 1953, spring cleaning in St. Louis meant removing a winters’ worth of gritty coal dust from windows, walls, furniture, floors and carpets. Just how bad was it?

Ask historian John Dalzell, executive director of the historic Campbell House Museum, and he’ll show you the coal dust outline of a bookcase etched on the wall of the third floor hallway. It’s one of the museum’s teaching tools. “There was no way to keep a house clean in the 1800s. And spring cleaning was hell,” Dalzell said.

Consider this list of chores: Untack carpets in every room. Take carpets outside to beat them. Wash floors. Lay rush matting for the summer. Take down drapes. Cover upholstered furniture in muslin. Clean and put away winter bedding. Wax or lacquer wood furniture. Coat the wallpapers with varnish. Wrap anything gilt – including light fixtures and picture frames – in fine netting to prevent flyspecks. Windows had no screens so flies, mosquitoes, bugs and passing birds invaded homes. Come fall, the house had to be put back to cold-weather mode.

“We worry about dust today,” said Dalzell, “but in 1880, St. Louis had bad air and really awful water, full of mud, pumped directly from the river. We didn’t get clean, safe city water until the 1904 World’s Fair.” Eight live-in servants and six day servants cleaned Campbell House for three straight weeks each spring and fall. “The houses were always filthy,” Dalzell said, “but at night, the light from the gas lamps was about the equivalent of a 10-watt bulb, so the dirt didn’t show. Plus all the varnish on the wallpaper gave everything a soft yellow glow.”

Thankfully, we don’t have the oily coal residue, muddy water or even the airborne dirt our mothers dealt with before air conditioning and central heating sealed our houses. We no longer need to clean every spring, but there’s something that moves us to tidy our nests. Ancient Zoroastrians cleaned prior to the spring equinox in order to prepare for annual visits from guardian angels. But for some modern singles and couples, cleaning merely bedevils.

For those who choose the life of the unclean, take heart. The late Quentin Crisp once said, “After the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse. It is simply a matter of not losing one’s nerve.”

Most people don’t have quite that much nerve, hence the industry of self-help books and 12-step programs for would-be spring cleaners. Honest to godliness – Messies Anonymous exists for a reason. The books share some basic principles to get cleaning. De-clutter first. There’s less stuff to get in the way. Work a room from top to bottom. In other words, knock the dirt off the ceiling fan blades before you dust the furniture. Keep cleanser, toilet bowl cleaner, brushes, glass cleaner and paper towels handy in each bathroom. Carry cleaning supplies in a tote from room to room. Invest in a good vacuum cleaner. Finish one room at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. All good, common-sense suggestions, but things get interesting in the quirky solutions each cleaning maven suggests.

For example, Linda Cobb, aka the Queen of Clean, cited this tasty method for keeping the toilet clean in “Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean”: Put several tablespoons of Tang drink mix in the toilet at bedtime and then simply swish the bowl in the morning. And it’s 100-percent safe for toilet-lapping dogs. She recommends Tang as well as lemon Kool-Aid for rust stain removal, saying the citric acid in both oxidizes rust. Who knew?

Kim Woodburn, one half of the cleaning team from the cable TV show and book “How Clean is Your House?” claims denture-cleaning tablets aren’t just for false teeth anymore. She suggests two in the teakettle and one in the toilet bowl before bed for lime-scale-free kettles and sparkling bowls the next morning. Remember to rinse the kettle before breakfast tea. And if you thought banana peels go right to the compost, Woodburn’s cohort, Aggie MacKenzie, suggests using the sticky side to dust houseplants.

Who can resist FlyLady Marla Cilley’s 27-Fling Boogie? First, run around the house with a garbage bag and snatch up 27 pieces of useless trash. Junk mail counts. Pitch or recycle it immediately. Then get a box and gather 27 items to give away and recycle. Don’t dally, recycle ASAP. Cilley, who wrote “Sink Reflections,” also runs a practical Web site for the housecleaning challenged. Sign up and you’ll receive dozens of encouraging e-mails a day. Like a cross between a fairy godmother and a cheerleader, Cilley fusses over her FlyBabies at the same time she convinces them to get clean and stay clean.

But what if you need a spring cleaning and there’s no way you’ll get the job done on your own? Think about hiring a cleaning lady or a maid service. Shari Skinner, founder of St. Louis-based Scrubby Dutch Cleaning, has been cleaning professionally since 1983 when the company consisted of Skinner, her vacuum and, occasionally, her children. “I used to be a fanatic about cleaning. My mother-in-law called me ‘Scrubby Dutch.’ It just stuck. Oh my gosh, I used to get out and clean my front stoop with a scrub brush and cleanser.”

Now Skinner’s daughter manages the Scrubby Dutch office and Skinner oversees 10 teams cleaning 25 to 30 houses each day. “How often to have your house cleaned depends on lifestyle,” Skinner said. “If you have pets, or a large family, once a week might be right. A single person, maybe once a month.” Skinner said the average three-bedroom, two-bath house costs about $75 for regular cleaning. Extras are charged at $25 per hour, per person. Most services also handle special cleaning, like a move-in or move-out, or holiday cleaning.

Or take the historian’s perspective. When questioned about his personal spring cleaning philosophy, Dalzell said, “Spring cleaning is overrated. Dust gives you atmosphere.” As for books on cleaning, “Well, it’s easier to read about than do it, isn’t it?”