I have a confession to make.
I keep house. In fact, I love to keep house.
Not very shocking is it? Yet there was a time in my life when such a confession would have provoked riotous laughter (not to mention downright disbelief) from those who knew me best. As a child, and as a teen, I was profoundly messy. I always enjoyed visiting non-messy friends. I would marvel at their orderly rooms and yet it never seemed to sink into my young brain that a neat, relaxing space requires a modicum of organized thinking as well as daily attention. All I knew was that the request (usually delivered through clenched, parental teeth) of “Clean your room” sentenced me to several hours of arduous and deeply resented labor, the effects of which never seemed to last more than a day. Now if this makes me sound like some kind of spoiled brat, well…
Fast forward a number of years later when I am living alone in my own apartment. My father calls to chat and asks what I’m up to.
“I was just mopping the kitchen floor,” I said.
Several moments of silence followed before Dad said, “You’re kidding, right?”
While I’ll never be proud of my former habits, I’m glad that I finally figured out how much comfort and relaxation can be had when one’s home is clean and tidy. For me, housekeeping isn’t about cooking, decorating, or crafts—although I enjoy those things too. Real housekeeping for me has more to do with practicing habits and routines that turn a living space into a home—a place that consistently provides comfort, respite, and pleasure for those who inhabit it. While I didn’t grow up learning to keep house, mainly because I resisted the process so strenuously, I finally picked up the necessary skills, albeit very gradually and piecemeal.
My all-time favorite reference work on housekeeping is Cheryl Mendelson’s wonderful Home Comforts: the art and science of keeping house. Mendelson is a lawyer and a professor of philosophy as well as the author of the well-regarded new book The Good Life: the moral individual in an antimoral world. Be warned—this book is huge. Don’t allow its size to overwhelm you though. Inside you’ll find information on absolutely everything that you might ever need to know about keeping house. As a bonus, the author’s engaging writing makes the book as readable as a novel. If you’re looking for a housekeeping book to live with then I can’t recommend Home Comforts highly enough. I purchased my copy when the book first came out and I use it all the time.
If you’re looking for a more basic sort of reference book, try The Complete Household Handbook: the best ways to clean, maintain, and organize your home from the Good Housekeeping Institute. Packed with practical advice, this book is easy to use and contains some unexpected but very helpful tips. I had never thought about keeping two mops—one for the cleaning solution and the other to mop clean—until I read about it here, but that advice has made all the difference in the quality and speed of my floor cleaning. Another very useful reference is Cleaning: plain & simple by Donna Smallin. Smallin’s motto is “Work smarter, not harder,” and she shows you how to do just that by breaking major jobs down into smaller more manageable stages. I especially appreciate the alternatives that she suggests to the standard (at least for some of us) working person’s once-a-week cleaning. You can spend 30 monutes a day cleaning or pick one task a day and do it for the whole house or stick to one day a week. The important thing is to find what works for you.
An interesting slant on the traditional housekeeping book is Get Crafty: hip home ec by Jean Railla. As a staunch feminist and women’s studies major, Railla had cultivated an ardent disdain for domestic life. She found herself in her twenties living in New York City and pursuing a lucrative career as a web designer yet her life felt moorless and unsatisfying. Gradually, she found that making improvements in her living space began to improve her quality of life overall and, most importantly, did nothing to strip her of her feminist credentials. Get Crafty is a lively DIY manual full of great advice for decorating projects, thrift store shopping, and home made cleaning products. Railla’s voice throughout is funny, generous, and completely modern. Highly recommended.
Take a look at Susan Strasser’s Never Done: a history of American housework the next time you find yourself faced with carpets in dire need of vacuuming or an Everest of laundry. Strasser’s fine history reveals that the work of the home was so consuming for the typical woman (and housework was done almost exclusively by women) of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that she virtually had time for nothing else. Take that laundry for example: one day a week—often a Monday—the family’s clothes were soaped, boiled, beaten, scrubbed, rinsed, wrung, and hung. It was a process that required many hands and literally took up an entire day. It was draining, back-breaking work that probably wrecked the health of many. I try to keep this in mind as I pop a load of wash in my machine and go back to whatever else I was doing. This is a fascinating, enlightening book.
Thinking on this topic has me remembering a friend from my early days in college. Always beautifully dressed, this woman’s tiny apartment was equally impeccable. When I asked for her secret: no sleeping or eating in favor of housework? hired help? pixies? she simply smiled and said, “It all starts with making the bed.” At the time, it sounded like some sort of Zen koan but now, at long last, I think that I’ve started to understand.