Retrofitting Vintage

Daily Cleaning: Housewife Ideals

No one can be dogmatic about the daily cleaning of various rooms in the house. So many things influence the amount of work that can be done–the quantity of dust or soot in the air, for example, the philosophy of first things first, the number of rooms that must be cleaned, the size of the family, the age of the children, and the help or lack of it that the homemaker has.

…[W]e set before you an ideal. How nearly you can approach this ideal, especially as to daily cleaning, we cannot know.

America’s Housekeeping Book, 1941

Me neither, AHB. Me. Neither.

Rows of upright straw brooms.
We’re going to need more brooms.

Just as it would be silly to take Martha Stewart as the prototypical homemaker of today, looking to the home management books and magazines as an “authentic” guide to what every homemaker did in the mid 20th century is a mistake. As our pal, the AHB tells us, we’re talking about ideals. The mere fact that all these manuals exist speaks to the fact that “how to housewife” was not universal knowledge.

Still, we can learn a lot about a society from its ideals. Here are the basics of the daily cleaning ideal that America’s Housekeeping Book promotes, minus things like instructions for your kerosene stove or managing before the advent of garbage bags.

The Daily Cleaning List

  • Open windows in bedrooms, for the free circulation of air.
  • Throw back the bedcovers, including the top sheet.
  • Clear away breakfast things after breakfast.
  • Wash breakfast dishes, put away food
  • Give all rooms regular daily cleaning:
    • Living room, bedrooms, dining room, etc.
      • Open windows
      • Tidy up the small articles in the room
      • Gather things that belong somewhere else on a tray, collect and remove garbage.
      • Dust as necessary, starting at the top of the room (window sills, mantels, tops of bookcases, etc.) progressing downwards, including radiator covers.
      • Brush upholstery as needed
      • Sweep/dust mop/vacuum
      • Final touches: straighten draperies, return empty waste basket, close windows if you want to.
    • Bathrooms:
      • Open windows
      • Tidy up small articles in the room
      • Gather up soiled linens, take out anything that doesn’t belong in the room, roll up bathmat or rug.
      • Wipe mirror.
      • Wipe tile behind sink and tub.
      • Clean bathtub and metal fixtures.
      • Clean toilet bowl with brush, outside of toilet with dedicated cloth (uh, I’m gonna use paper towel in this case).
      • Clean sink, including base and soap holder.
      • Straighten towels and washcloths, replacing twice a week.
      • Sweep floor.
      • Replace mat or rug, close windows if you want to.
    • Kitchen:
      • Open the windows (are you sensing a theme?)
      • Rinse and stack waiting dishes, pots, and pans
      • Check and reorganize foods; put away
      • Collect all refuse, put in garbage can
      • Wipe off top of the refrigerator and all work surfaces
      • Wash dishes
      • Wipe off surface of range, clean spills from drip pans and oven
      • Dry damp work surfaces
      • Dust radiator or register
      • Take out garbage
      • Clean sink, rinse out dishcloth or mop, hang outdoors if possible.
      • Switch spent dish towels for fresh ones.

Hmm. Mmmhmm. Well, then.

I must confess this is significantly more daily cleaning than I usually do.

We’re on Day 2 of this experiment, and I’ve done most of it for the past two mornings. I haven’t cleaned the top of the fridge or the radiators, yet, but I’ve been tidying and dusting and sweeping every morning. It takes less time than I would have guessed, but more than I typically spend as a 21st-century mediocre housewife.

Next I must ask: IS EVERYONE ELSE CLEANING THIS MUCH? Do I think it’s a fascinating look into mid-century folklife, and everyone else is like, “That’s just basic adulting, Megan.” ??? I am not 100% sure, and it’s freaking me out. Please reassure me in the comments.

8 comments

  1. Um no. Dusting is occasional. Vacuuming every week. Dusting should be every week at least but I have better things to do😂

  2. Absolutely not. I am a stay at home parent and even being home all day does not afford me the opportunity to clean this much (in my tiny ass apartment, no less!)
    Having said that I totally want to try this. My home is often more cluttered and dirty than I would like. It really affects my anxiety. I’m totally making a list and doing this for a few days to see how it works for us!

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