Dish the Dirt
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How Spring Cleaning Has Changed Over the Years

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Dish the Dirt
Dean Mitchell/istockphoto

dish the dirt

Spring cleaning isn't some bygone American tradition. More than three-quarters of Americans do some spring cleaning every year, according to an industry survey, though only about 26 percent of those respondents do a deep cleaning. But how did this all start, and why do we still do all this cleaning today? We took a look back into the history books, and even into some biological science and psychology, to find the answer.

Persian Tradition
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persian tradition

One of the potential roots of spring cleaning stems fromNowruz, the Persian new year that falls on the first day of spring. As Vox writer Caroline Framke shared, her family and others prepare for the new year "by doing a deep clean of their homes, celebrating a season of new life, and wishing for good luck in the year ahead." People prepare up to three weeks in advance by decluttering, cleaning out the grime, and beating the dust out of Persian rugs. The practice of khooneh takouni, literally "shaking the house," is meant "to cleanse away the past year so you can start the new one refreshed and renewed."

Jewish Tradition
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jewish tradition

During Passover (seven days starting April 20), Jewish tradition dictates that not only are you supposed to refrain from eating leavened or fermented food, but you're supposed to clear your home of any trace of it. In practical terms, The Kitchn's Leah Koenig explains, that means cleaning cupboards, the refrigerator, degreasing the oven, sweeping, and polishing silverware. The Orthodox Union also strongly suggests using separate food processors and mixers and cleaning out the microwave, your car, garage, clothing pockets, and even cleaning supplies.

Catholic Tradition
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catholic tradition

Even lifelong, multi-sacrament Catholics may not realize that Holy Thursday (April 18, the Thursday before Good Friday and Easter Sunday) is also Maundy Thursday, when churches will often wash or strip the altar in preparation for Holy Week events. While the Orthodox Church engages in "clean week" a few weeks earlier, before Lent, that is more about fasting and cleansing one's body and spirit than cleaning the house.

British Tradition
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british tradition

Mrs. Beeton's Guide to Household Management by Isabella Beeton was first published in 1861 as a guide to running a Victorian household. In it, Beeton describes the "periodical cleanings" that became associated with spring: "There are portions of every house that can only be cleaned occasionally; at which time the whole house usually undergoes a far more thorough cleaning than is permitted in a general way. On these occasions, it is usual to begin at the top of the house and clean downwards; moving everything out of the room; washing the wainscoting or paint with soft soap and water; pulling down the beds and thoroughly cleansing all the joints; ‘scrubbing' the floor; beating feather beds, mattresses, and paillasse, and thoroughly purifying every article of furniture before it is put back in place … This general cleaning usually takes place in the spring or early summer, when the warm curtains of winter are replaced by the light and cheerful muslin curtains." What's a paillasse? A straw mattress.

North American Tradition
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north american tradition

In the 1800s, annual house cleaning took place in the spring out of necessity: It was the first time it was warm enough to open windows and doors and sweep out dust, but still cool enough that you wouldn't let bugs in while doing so. When homes were heated by fireplaces and wood or coal stoves — and light came from oil or kerosene lamps — winter also left a thick layer of soot and grime to be wiped away. Consider this account from a housewife in 1864: "Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times."

Frontier Tradition
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frontier tradition

Texas artist and history buff Pablo Salomon, who lives in a ranch home that dates back to 1856, notes that log homes in Texas and the southern United States needed to have the spaces between the logs caked with mud to keep in the heat. When spring arrived, that mud would be removed to let air circulate. Homeowners in the region would use vinegar and herbs as disinfectants and leave windows open to let houses air out.

Buddhist Tradition
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buddhist tradition

A New Year's celebration in Thailand with similar festivals throughout the region, Songkran (April 13-15) gives people the opportunity to not only clean house, but clean images or statues of Buddha in their homes or shrines. Water mixed with fragrant herbs and perfumes is thrown at images of Buddha to clean them, and gently poured on monks and elders, but it's also fired out of water pistols and hoses during huge, outdoor festivals. Given that it's typically very hot once Songkran comes around, some open-windowed spring cleaning and a bit of cool water isn't exactly unwelcome.

Psychology
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psychology

"Temporal landmarks" such as the first day of spring can trigger a "fresh start effect" that makes people more motivated to accomplish goals, notes Katherine Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. In fact, the simple reminder of spring kicked goal-setting habits into motion for many of Milkman's subjects in a study. "I think it's going to depend on the person and what resonates with them, but spring is a more natural fresh start for people than winter — spring is the season of rebirth and Easter, and everything is green," she says. "That's probably more psychologically resonant."

Biology
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biology

Humans are basically programmed to spring clean, says Anna O'Donovan at the Allergy Standards certification company. "Our pineal gland, a tiny endocrine gland buried deep in our brains, is responsible for the production of melatonin, and it is this melatonin that causes sleepiness in humans," she says. "The pineal gland responds to darkness, increasing its production in winter and reducing its output in summer so we do actually experience an ‘awakening' with the dawning of the longer days of spring." That provides a boost of energy that wakes us up earlier, gives us more motivation, and, during times when candles and lamps provided the only light, gave us a better idea of just how dirty our homes were. "Scientifically it really makes sense to clean our homes as the weather is getting warmer — the rising temperatures promote the growth of bacteria, so to prevent infection and disease, a good scouring is vital," she says.

Health
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health

Dust and pet dander that accumulate during the winter don't do wonders for people with allergies. Spring is releasing all sorts of pollen outside, and a home isn't giving any relief if it's also just filled with allergens. Doctors' advice via Good Housekeeping: Don't skip spring cleaning. "Skipping is not a good idea for people with allergies or asthma," says Christine Franzese, director of allergy at University of Missouri Health Care. "Skipping it only leads to further buildup of dust and dander, which in the end will only make things worse."

Animal Instict
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animal instinct

Humans aren't the only ones driven to spring cleaning. According to National Geographic, rattlesnakes will periodically clean grass and shed skin out of their way during hunting seasons. Ants and mole rats will clean their tunnels of excrement and even other dead ants and moles, while bluebirds and crows will clean their chicks' excrement and their own homemade tools out of the nest periodically.

The Trusty Broom
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the trusty broom

Brooms have been around for centuries, but began to change into their modern form in 1797. That year, Levi Dickenson, a farmer in Hadley, Massachusetts, made a broom for his wife using bristles made from sorghum tassels, according to the Broom Shop. By 1810, he'd created a machine that lashed the sorghum — or broom corn — on the broom with two pegs. Shakers later replaced those pegs with wire and created the corn brooms that are still used today. Granted, there are now a lot of imports and plastic alternatives, but a solid corn broom is still key to any outdoor spring cleaning regimen.

The Old Cleansers
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the old cleansers

Many of the cleaners and solvents used in Britain for spring cleaning in the 19th century are worth keeping around today, says Lucy Lethbridge, author of "Spit and Polish: Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust and Decay." Borax, which is basically boric acid, works well for soaking pans, keeping towels soft, and killing household ants without toxic repercussions. Vinegar still works best for removing tea or coffee stains, rust, or to descale a coffee maker. Lemon juice, tea leaves, salt, baking soda, and even gin — it works to clean mirrors — are less harsh alternatives to modern products.

The Old Ways
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the old ways

Your grandmother cleaned as she went, but also did spring cleanings, Country Living says, with suggestions for applying a distinctly early 20th century cleaning sensibility to today's demands: using tea towels instead of paper; tea-staining linens instead of tossing them; and just doing something as simple as stocking a rag bin instead of throwing out clothes. It could make spring cleaning less costly.

The First Vacuums
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the first vacuums

Herbert Cecil Booth didn't come up with the technology to suck dirt and dust out of people's homes until the early 1900s, and even then it was a device the size of a horse-drawn carriage that would later be built into New York apartments as a central vacuum. It was a department store janitor named James Murray Spangler who used a broom, a pillowcase, and an electric motor to create the first handheld vacuum in 1907, Popular Mechanics says. After selling one to her cousin, Susan Hoover, and her husband, businessman William Hoover, the latter Hoover bought the patent and funded research that gave us the vacuum we know today. While still a vital spring cleaning implement, the vacuum meant that deep cleaning didn't have to be limited to spring.

"Make your wife's dream come true" (1916 Maytag Multi-Motor Washer
"Make your wife's dream come true" (1916 Maytag Multi-Motor Washer by Don O'Brien (CC BY)

the first laundry machines

Laundry was once a spring-cleaning staple, because spring was when it became warm enough to dry larger linens on a clothesline. Wooden washing machines became popular in the 1800s, but the Thor — the first electric washer — didn't debut until 1908. Maytag would follow, but wouldn't make its first washer until 1919. And J. Ross Moore didn't start selling the first electric dryer, the June Day (itself a nod to spring cleaning), until 1938; the earliest clothes dryers were drums with ventilation holes and wouldn't actually heat clothes until 1892.

Related: Are You Making These Laundry Mistakes?
1962 Ad, RCA Whirlpool Portable Dishwasher, with Atomic-Era Housewife
1962 Ad, RCA Whirlpool Portable Dishwasher, with Atomic-Era Housewife by Classic Film (CC BY-NC)

the first dishwashers

Joel Houghton's hand-cranked wooden dishwasher was a minor marvel in 1850, but it wasn't until 1886 that wealthy Josephine Cochrane, fed up with her servants' failings, invented a mechanical dishwasher. She showed it at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and built a company to manufacture it that would later be known as KitchenAid, with dishwashers becoming a household fixture by the 1950s.

1973 Ad, Lysol Fresh Scent Deodorizing Cleaner
1973 Ad, Lysol Fresh Scent Deodorizing Cleaner by Classic Film (CC BY-NC)

the first disinfectant

Introduced in 1889 by Dr. Gustav Raupenstrauch to help end a cholera epidemic in Germany, Lysol would later be deployed around the world in 1918 to fight Spanish Influenza. But it was also used for suicides in Australia and marketed (dangerously) as both a feminine hygiene product and birth control from the 1920s through the 1940s. It became essential to spring cleaning in 1962, when it was first released as a disinfectant spray.

Illustrated 1952 Ad, Tide Laundry Detergent, with Atomic-Era Housewife & Daughter
Illustrated 1952 Ad, Tide Laundry Detergent, with Atomic-Era Housewife & Daughter by Classic Film (CC BY-NC)

the first synthetic soap

Thank the World Wars for killing off natural soap. The first synthetic detergent went into use in Germany in 1916 when the fats used in soap were redirected toward the war effort. Procter & Gamble had made its Ivory soap from oils in the 1800s, but began working on synthetic soaps and detergents in the 1930s. After World War II had depleted fat supplies again, Procter & Gamble products such as Dreft began to find a market. After the war, the company released Tide detergent and, by the mid-1950s, synthetic soaps overtook oil- and fat-based products and forever changed the smell and feel of spring cleaning.

The 1950s
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the 1950s

The crisp, clean, subservient domesticity that tints society's nostalgic view of the post-World War II decade has spring cleaning right at its center — there are still suggestions today about "cleaning like 1950s housewives," complete with room-by-room checklists. Publications then such as the "Housewife's Handbook" suggested that chores that are considered deep cleaning today ("the removal of dirt from the paint, varnish, fabric, enamel, glass, metal, and other surfaces found in the home") should really be everyday activities. But this was also a time when housewives were told not to be too chatty and warned not to cook poorly or to take it personally if their spouse cheated.

Hazards
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hazards

With chemicals in just about all household cleaning products, knowing what you're using, how high the concentration is, how to use bleach, what sprays and scents can trigger allergies and asthma, and what natural alternatives are out there is key. Also, open a window.

The Marie Kondo Present
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the marie kondo present

Marie Kondo's book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" seemed benign enough when it debuted in 2011, but it turned spring cleaning into a spiritual journey, building the KonMari brand around decluttering and inundating thrift stores with people's joyless items in the meantime. While storage ideas for adults and kids alike work year-round, spring's traditional spirit of renewal presents a natural opportunity to rid your life of the things that don't bring you joy … and will bring you even less when you wonder, six months from now, where you put them.

Hired Help
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hired help

Demand for home cleaners is surging, with a survey by Helping.com finding that about 40 percent of people ages 25 to 34 have either hired a cleaner or are looking for one, up from 33 percent two years earlier. Older people may be shocked by the expense, but younger folks are leaving spring cleaning to others so they can spend more time with family or accomplish other tasks. But what about the 73 percent of millennials who say they do their spring cleaning every year? Yes: They just didn't say they did it themselves.