When the urge strikes, or a sense of guilt takes over, I become a fury: the patio floor will be scrubbed clean; the closet will be emptied, sorted and vacuumed; the garage will be reorganized; the kitchen drawers will be rearranged and there is no stopping me until the work is done. Unlike my mother, who always found a sense of purpose in cleaning, organizing, re-arranging, in short, in keeping house, I don’t particularly enjoy the process. I find nothing meditative in it, just a compulsion to get it done and a lifelong aversion to junk and dirt. The fleeting satisfaction of admiring the patio floor devoid of bird droppings, until two days later when the cycle commences again, is not shared by anyone in my household, so I am left alone to contemplate the fruit of my fury. I don’t enjoy it, no one cares and still I do it.
I keep house, my own particular way. We all do. Even those of us who thrive in messy quarters, and piles of magazines stacked in corners or those who don’t load the dishwasher until there are no more clean plates around. Whatever our system, whether we share the load with our significant others or our roommates, we all have our way of organizing and looking after our living spaces. And I would bet no one really loves the cleaning duties, not even Martha Stewart.
Until about 60 years ago, there was such a thing as a mistress of the house, more commonly thought of as a housewife and, going back even further, say, 100 years, the mistress of the house had a lot of help, from one maid and cook to a battalion of “servants”, Downton Abbey-style. Can you imagine how much time would be freed by having a butler, a cook, a chamber maid, a valet and a footman (the basic staff of a Victorian household)? No wonder middle and upper class ladies were bored – what was left to do? A lot, apparently; so much so that hundreds of pages about managing a household and its staff can be perused in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (you can find more on Mrs. Beeton here).
As I clicked through pages and pages of cleaning tips that required chemicals that would make us shudder today, or laborious procedures involving boiling, straining, scrubbing and starching (starch was made from scratch), I kept on reading trying to find some common ground with our predecessors who would die without ever seeing a washing machine, an ice-maker or an alarm clock. It turns out that some common sense is timeless and, if you are unsure how to polish patent leather, there is always milk.
AS WITH THE COMMANDER OF AN ARMY, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family.
THE CHOICE OF ACQUAINTANCES is very important to the happiness of a mistress and her family. A gossiping acquaintance, who indulges in the scandal and ridicule of her neighbours, should be avoided as a pestilence.
WHEN CHATTING ON THE PHONE WITH OUR GIRLFRIENDS, TRIFLING OCCURRENCES, such as small disappointments, petty annoyances, and other every-day incidents, should never be mentioned to your friends. The extreme injudiciousness of repeating these will be at once apparent, when we reflect on the unsatisfactory discussions which they too frequently occasion, and on the load of advice which they are the cause of being tendered, and which is, too often, of a kind neither to be useful nor agreeable. Greater events, whether of joy or sorrow, should be communicated to friends; and, on such occasions, their sympathy gratifies and comforts. If the mistress be a wife, never let an account of her husband’s failings pass her lips.
WHEN TRUDGING AROUND THE MALL, LOOKING FOR CLOTHES, whether it be a silk dress, a bonnet, shawl, or riband, it is well for the buyer to consider three things: I. That it be not too expensive for her purse. II. That its colour harmonize with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure. III. That its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.
THERE MIGHT BE NO CURE FOR THE COMMON COLD – BUT WORTH A TRY —Put a large teacupful of linseed, with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins and 2 oz. of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart; add to it 1/4 lb. of pounded sugar-candy, a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar, or lemon-juice. The rum and vinegar should be added as the decoction is taken; for, if they are put in at first, the whole soon becomes flat and less efficacious. The dose is half a pint, made warm, on going to bed; and a little may be taken whenever the cough is troublesome. The worst cold is generally cured by this remedy in two or three days; and, if taken in time, is considered infallible.
PESKY GLASSWARE – Decanters and water-jugs require still more tender treatment in cleaning, inasmuch as they are more costly to replace. Fill them about two-thirds with hot but not boiling water, and put in a few pieces of well-soaped brown paper; leave them thus for two or three hours; then shake the water up and down in the decanters; empty this out, rinse them well with clean cold water, and put them in a rack to drain. When dry, polish them outside and inside, as far as possible, with a fine cloth. To remove the crust of port or other wines, add a little muriatic acid to the water, and let it remain for some time.
FROM JIMMY CHOO TO ZARA, or foot-gear of a lady, is one of the few things left to mark her station, and requires special care. Satin boots or shoes should be dusted with a soft brush, or wiped with a cloth. Kid or varnished leather should have the mud wiped off with a sponge charged with milk, which preserves its softness and polish.
KEEPING OUR HAIRBRUSHES CLEAN – Dissolve a piece of soda in some hot water, allowing a piece the size of a walnut to a quart of water. Put the water into a basin, and, after combing out the hair from the brushes, dip them, bristles downwards, into the water and out again, keeping the backs and handles as free from the water as possible. Repeat this until the bristles look clean; then rinse the brushes in a little cold water; shake them well, and wipe the handles and backs with a towel, but not the bristles, and set the brushes to dry in the sun, or near the fire; but take care not to put them too close to it. Wiping the bristles of a brush makes them soft, as does also the use of soap.
TO CARE FOR THE WEEKLY BOUQUETS WE ALL RECEIVE – Plunge the stems into boiling water, and by the time the water is cold, the flowers will have revived. Then cut afresh the ends of the stems, and keep them in fresh cold water.
From Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (with a couple of personal twists)
All images from public domain