Saturday, March 21, 2020

What happened to the flying cars? Keeping house the old-school way

I spent significant time as a child in households ruled by strict old housekeepers, but it didn't really take. As an adult, our family mode of living has been a sort of comfortable squalor kept in check by occasional bouts of cleaning: a routine (or lack thereof) which certainly would have surprised those stern old ladies. Yet since this virus has begun, since a few months ago when it was clear that something wicked this way comes, housekeeping around here has tightened up, oh you bet!

I’ve got religion now.

I certainly remember the old strict rules. I was shown how to do my share in my time, sometimes with a twisted ear. Even ducking out at every chance, I couldn’t help but learn exactly how it was done.

Who knew I’d ever *need* this stuff? We were promised flying cars, but we got this lousy future, instead. As time wrinkles back on itself, it's back to old-school housekeeping as a first line defense against medieval-style disease.

Let's begin with a link to the OFFICIAL WORD on housekeeping: CDC's  housekeeping advice if you or someone in your household has Covid-19. 

In my last post, I promised the how-to of old-school housekeeping, so here it is, coming to you in all its glorious length.  (And thank you in advance for coming to my TED talk.) 

Outside vs. indoor clothing: a geography

Old school housekeeping was reflected in old-school architecture. Many old houses were built with a transition zone between the inside and the outside: a foyer, a porch, a mudroom.  In other words, the entrance to the home was though some space where muddy boots could live, where the coats were put away, and where packages brought in from outside could rest until you had time to lug them further into the house. In a suburban US house today, the garage and/or laundry room often functions like that.

This entrance-space is an important feature in housekeeping. It keeps the outside as outside as possible. What doesn’t come in, doesn’t have to be cleaned up. It’s the first line of defense.

Yet many houses built in the 1950’s (like the one I live in) were built so the front door opens straight into the living room—no transition zone at all. Apartments often have no transition zone, either. So, the first order of housekeeping is to establish a transition zone if architecture didn’t provide you one. I had the good luck to be able to tack a mudroom onto my house, but anything helps: even just a line on the floor. Things over there are “outside-ish,” things over here are “inside.”
So, what lives in the transition zone?

—Shoes off at the door. “House shoes” on (slippers). This was the old rule. I would think that with a super contagious virus around, street shoes should actually maybe even live outside the transition zone, if possible: in the garage, not the mudroom; maybe out in the hallway if you have an apartment and can get away with it. Also, we know that this particular virus dies on surfaces after several days (the longest period I have seen mentioned is 9 days). So, if you have a selection of shoes, rotate among them so the longest-unworn pair are the pair you wear today.

—Coat on a coat rack or coat closet by the door. In the old-school housekeeping I knew, coats were never brought into the house: they simply lived in the front hallway. Again, with the virus running loose, you might want to keep those coats out of the house altogether, if possible. Like shoes, if you have a bunch of different coats and rotate them so the longest-unworn coat is today’s choice, then each coat is less likely to infect you as you put it back on. Alternatively, washing coats and jackets is a thing—my nylon parka has been in the wash a lot lately.

—House clothes and outdoor clothes. “House clothes” used to be common. If you look up “housedresses” on the web, these are mainly marketed to senior citizens, those being the people who grew up with this system. Under strict housekeeping, outside clothes and inside clothes were’t really the same clothes—people got dressed “up” to go outside. dressed “down” when they came back in.

The old folks had “house coats” which they wore around inside regularly. These were very handsome articles (my grandmother’s was cashmere, my grandfather’s, silk) which have no real equivalent today—bathrobes or dressing gowns, perhaps. But the point is not the fancy house coat—the point is to distinguish between outside and inside clothes—a comfy pair of sweats are as good as cashmere, and better, too, because sweat clothes are washable.

As to clothes which had been worn outside, these were either aired out on the balcony (men’s suits and tailored dresses and such) or washed. “Partly used” clothes weren’t put away to be worn another day (unless aired out first) because there wasn’t really a category like that. And once-worn clothing certainly did not decorate chairs and the floor while waiting to be worn again!

Truthfully, as a kid in my grandmother’s house, I did my own little American thing: I did wear my outside clothes inside, then wear them again without washing or airing, and my mother often did, but the old folks from the old country really kind of didn’t. Outside clothes inside a house, left laying on chairs, not aired and not put away: these were “modern” practices, sniffed at, fought against, not adopted.

With a virus like Covid which can live on surfaces and kill you if it gets into your nose and eyes, I would think the old-school distinction between inside and outside clothing should now be a house rule on steroids: an even greater distinction to be made today than formerly.   

Street clothes to be taken off in the transition zone, then straight into the washing machine the fastest way. Keep a hamper in the transition zone, handle the laundry with gloves, or at the minimum, really really your hands after you touch the outside-clothing laundry. Wipe down the hamper after you empty it, as well as the machine itself. If you absolutely have no ready access to a washing machine, consider washing your clothes in the tub (more below).  If pressed to a last resort, consider keeping each outfit of street clothing in a separate paper bag and letting them age out of infectionousness, rotating outfits: this is what is recommended for rotating face masks, so it would be better than nothing, and certainly better than laying your street clothes around your bedroom to wear again. 

Inside the house

Other than maintaining the kitchen and preparing food (more on cooking, kitchens and supplies in the next installment) the bedding was the biggest item of daily housekeeping—which I never could understand, and still somewhat don't.

—Bedding: Every week, all the bedding on every bed was changed: the comforter covers came off and were laundered, the pillow cases were stripped, each bed was laid naked to air. Lots of time was then spent putting the comforters back in new (ironed) covers, wrangling the pillows back into new (ironed) pillow cases, and the beds made up fresh with new (ironed) sheets. But all this effort—and it took two people most of a morning—was merely a prelude to the rest of the week.

Every remaining morning of every week, all the beds were “made up.” They didn’t just straighten the bed clothes and tuck in the blankets, no.

     —The old way was to lay out all the blankets, pillow and sheets outdoors for an hour or so, yes, even in winter. Each pillow was plumped so vigorously feathers might fly out despite a feather-proof ticking. The old houses were built with covered balconies and screened sunrooms to make airing possible, but throwing the bedding over an open window sill, or over a chair in the yard would work, too, so long as it isn’t raining or snowing.

     —The new way (mercifully much easier) which seems to me to accomplish the same: every day, throw the bedding in the dryer for a full timed cycle on the hottest setting. (But still change the bedding once a week!)

I’m truthfully not sure what the rationale was for all this attention to the bedding. All I know is, they did the dance of bedding, and double when the beds were stripped. Must have been something to it, because the amount of energy devoted to it was enormous.

Despite never fully understanding the rationale, I am willing to believe. Perhaps bedding is a breeding ground of disease? If true, this would explain the two different ends of the spectrum in my personal experience. Specifically, I’ve observed that hospitals change the bedding very frequently. By contrast, on a cruise ship my family and I were on years ago, I had to give the room steward a big tip to provide us fresh-laundered comforters.  Because it wasn’t visibly dirty, and because the sheets were changed, the old comforter was set to be re-used until I happened to ask about that. (Yes, said the steward: they only had a few hours to turn over all their cabins between cruises, so what exactly did I expect?) Yuk. Aaaand, there’s why I’ve never gone on another cruise.

Since I’ve caught the old religion, the pillows have been aired outside, and the comforter has gone through the dryer, *almost* every day. The sheets have been washed daily or on alternate days. Wisconsin in early spring still features plenty of rain and snow, and some days, the dryer is just churning with clothing all day, but on the days when the comforter and pillows couldn’t be aired, the comforter is at least rotated so the side becomes the head, and the pillows are flipped on the bed. In this way, the sleeper's head is never on the same un-aired piece of fabric any two nights in a row.

Of course, in a sick-room, you'd have to wash the linens daily, none of this rotating--more on that in a later installment.

While the bedding was airing, the bedroom windows were left open. Obviously, if its 20 below out, you can’t open the windows, but if its 50 degrees, or even 40, you sure can—and they sure did when I was a kid. While the windows were open, the floors were cleaned.  Note again: the floors were cleaned with the windows open, regardless whether the cleaner had to suffer in a cold room--more on this below. The trash in the bedroom (and all over the house) was emptied every single day.

—Floors, carpets and rugs:
     —Damp mop, don’t sweep. Sweeping throws dust in the air. Damp mopping traps the dust on the mop and keeps it out of the air. Run a lightly damp mop over the whole floor: bring the larger grit and such into a pile, just as if you were sweeping. Pick up the pile with a damp rag or paper towel and dispose. Afterwards, mop the floor more thoroughly. If you’re in love with the broom as a tool, dip the tip of the broom bristles or sprinkle a few drops of water on the floor and “damp broom” instead—you don’t want to make mud, you just want to keep the dust down.

     —Vacuuming: Like sweeping, vacuuming throws dust in the air. If you have wall-to-wall carpet, you have no choice but to vacuum. But you can help dilute that dust by opening the windows as you vacuum, and for an hour afterwards, as in the example of the bedrooms, above. Leave the room for a while, also—the point is to not breathe the dust left hanging in the air. In today’s situation, if you have a mask, consider wearing one while you vacuum. If you have rugs/carpets consider rolling them up for the duration, so you can keep the floors under the rugs washed.

     —Rugs: if you want to go full old-school clean, do what the old folks did once a month: take the rugs outside on a bright sunny day and beat them. Wicker carpet-beaters were a common tool back in the day, but no one has those any more: they were all bought as decorations to hang on a wall.  Instead, use a tennis racket or the flat side of a broom. No one still has a carpet-rack in the yard, either, so sling the carpet over a chair or fence. Be amazed at the amount of dust and crap that flies out as you beat: wear a mask or bandana or kitchen towel over nose and mouth, wear goggles or your snorkel mask to keep dust out of your eyes. Take a shower afterwards, wash your clothes. Rugs, especially if they’ve never been beaten, are mega-disgusting. (Pro-tip: so are doormats!).


Like the front hallway, architecture used to help keep bathrooms clean, meaning, the cleanest bathrooms are those with a separate toilet compartments. A toilet has always been understood to be a potential source of illness. However, a modern bathroom is unlikely to have a separated toilet-compartment. You might be able to get around this if you have two bathrooms, meaning, you might like to think about keeping one as a toilet-stall, and the other for body-washing and grooming. However, a person who is sick should have their own toilet, if at ALL possible--see the CDC guidlines which open this post.

   —When the toilet is in the room: Try to keep as much fabric as you can out of a bathroom containing an in-use toilet. Each person gets their own hand towel, best would be keep it somewhere near the bathroom, but not *in* the bathroom. Same with the bath towels. Alternatively, if they have to hang in a bathroom with a toilet, then launder, launder, launder those towels. Air the bathmat or wash it.

Keep the lid down on the toilet when you flush—disease is known to spread by droplets "pluming" out of an open, flushing toilet, and this Covid virus spreads via an oral-fecal route. Therefore, at the minimum, keep the toothbrushes out of the bathroom—carry them in to brush, carry them out again afterwards. 

Do not let your toothbrush touch anyone else’s. Consider giving each person their own toothpaste tube or at least wipe off the first squeeze into a tissue and dispose. If there is sickness in the house, boil the toothbrushes (not the battery ones, though!)

   --Cleaning toilets: Cleaning toilets was always the last part of the housecleaning day. Going to “clean” a further room after cleaning a bathroom would not be much of actually cleaning at all.

If someone is sick, cleaning their toilet can make YOU sick, especially if they have diarrhea (or this virus!) So, if the sick person has the energy to do that cleaning, so much the better. If *you* are going to clean a sick person’s toilet, be serious and tackle this job professionally. I’d wear gloves and a mask and eye protections. No mask? If it were me, I’d wrap a kitchen towel around my nose and mouth.

With contagious disease in the house, then whoever is cleaning the toilet: do it RIGHT BEFORE showering—strip off your clothes (into the washing machine is best) then jump in the shower as soon as you finish the sick person’s bathroom.

   --How to clean: the inside with a toilet brush (each toilet has its own brush, do not carry a toilet brush through the house). I know those clorox tablets which dispense bleach into the toilet water are an environmental disaster—all bleach is an environmental disaster. But for a person with serious illness, you might want to think about getting those tablets to put into the tank for the duration, perhaps there would be a chance that any spray flying out might have at least a chance of being disinfected. Wear gloves.

For the toilet-outside, wipe with a paper towel and disinfectant spray, then wipe again with a different (dry) paper towel. Wipe the floor around the toilet with the same care as the outside of the toilet itself. Dispose the paper towels straight into a lined garbage can and take them out of the house asap, liner and all. Wear gloves.

  --Male anatomy and reality: If you’re in a position of having to clean a bathroom after men or boys, it's by far best if they sit down to do their business. If they have to do both number 1 and 2, they sit down anyhow, so they DO know how to manage, despite preferences otherwise. The head-down position necessary to really scrub pee-stains away from the floor means the cleaner’s head is near any contaminants from feces which might be on or near the toilet: sitting down is the least a fellow could do to help out. If Mr. Manly Man doesn’t want to sit because of the “witch’s kiss” (his junk hits the water) lower the water level in the bowl by adjusting the works inside the toilet tank. Alternatively, park a rinsed-out jar sealed tight and full of water in a corner of the tank, which has the same effect. If the lowered level isn’t enough water to flush thoroughly, flush twice. If he just damn well doesn’t want to sit for some other reason, congrats to him: he wears the mask, gloves and eye protection and cleans the toilet and the floor all around. Or you know, even if he does sit, he could still clean. We’re all on this trip together. 

  --Paper towels vs. rags: Paper towels are more sanitary, but if you’re trapped without them, use rags and bleach-water (look up the right bleach to water ratio on the web—there are different opinions about this). After use, all rags go into the bucket of bleach-water to soak. When you get enough rags soaking, they go into the washing machine with more bleach. If you have no rags, retire some old t-shirts, rip up that old, worn sheet, cut that old towel into squares. WEAR GLOVES!

--Bathroom sinks and tubs: wipe them down with paper towels and disinfectant, or rags and bleach-water—if using rags, you can use the same rag as you’re going to use for the toilet-outside, but do the sink and tub first (obviously). Don't forget the faucets! Those get touched more than any other part of the sink and tub, really.


 My grandmother had an automatic washing machine, and so did my MIL, but they were both old enough to remember the time before those machines. No nostalgia there, I assure you.  That machine was a priority in the household (and here is a real, and very interesting TED talk about that). In the old days, enormously strong women, called washer-women, would literally boil the whites and household linens, and wrestle the dirty clothes around in a tub, rubbing the dirtiest spots on a “laundry board.” As my grandmother told me, wash was sent out to these women, or sometimes, they came into your house on a certain day to help out.

The modern washing machine let these washer-women retire, thank goodness. But, if you don’t have a washing machine, you don’t have to become a washer-woman yourself. See, a modern machine works by agitating clothes—the agitator (or the tub in an agitator-free model) turns one way, then the other. You can accomplish this same by putting your clothes into the bathtub, adding water and some laundry detergent, then plunging away at your clothes with a *CLEAN* unused toilet plunger—write “clothes only” on the handle with a sharpie! Let the soapy water out, then rinse by adding fresh water, plug the tub and plunge again, probably rinse twice. Wring out the clothes and hang them to dry. I did this when I was young and poor, and it worked OK--the wringing is harder than the washing, actually.

The iron was a constant companion. In my grandmother’s house, every bit of household linen—tablewear as well as bed clothes—was ironed before it was put away. My grandmother had a mangle-iron: all the sheets and tablecloths were sent through the roller. One person ran the mangle and the other person fed the cloth in and helped control it as it came out. The hand-iron was run over many of the clothes before they were put away: I even knew of a family (not mine) where even the underpants were ironed after being washed.

I *think* the idea of ironing everything came from louse- and flea-control. Lice and fleas and their eggs could not withstand a hot iron. I believe this because the iron was always, by tradition, run up the seams of any garment first—just where insect eggs would be most likely hidden. However, I’m sure that a hot iron also destroyed any germ or virus it came across. 

I would like to believe that the modern equivalent of the hot iron is the dryer—a course of truly hot air will kill many germs and viruses— 56 degrees Celcius (133 degrees F) is enough to deactivate Covid's little brother, SARS (although I couldn't find anything to say that's hot enough for Covid-19!). Yes, a hot-hot dryer is not ideal for delicates, but in this situation, your better bet is not to wear delicates, and dry the heck out of everything else. If you don't have a dryer, hanging clothes to dry is free. If the laundry hangs in the sunshine, you're ahead of the game: UV in sunshine is a disinfectant, and the clothes smell lovely, even though the towels do come out scratchy.  If the laundry hung damp a long time in the cold, without ever getting any direct sun (like in your basement or over your bathtub), then ironing truly would be a good idea. Washing gets the dirt out, but it’s the drying, at least as much as the washing, which disinfects fabric. 

Polishing things

A good part of old-school housekeeping involved polishing things: wooden floors with floor wax, silverware with paste and rouge, doorknobs with brass polish, furniture with beeswax. Today's stainless steel cutlery needs no silver polish, a polyurethaned wood floor needs no floor wax and door knobs are unlikely to be brass thick enough to stand up to brass polish.  Modern furniture finishes also don't require constant waxing.  What's been lost, though, is the idea of thoroughly cleaning surfaces we don't really think about cleaning any more. 

You know what though? The doorknobs instead have been getting a shot of disinfectant spray every day--CDC calls those (and light switches, faucet handles and the like) "high-touch" surfaces, and those need to be cleaned daily.  Furthermore, I've been looking at that spray-can of lemon pledge which has been under the sink for quite some time. I think it is time to get it out again.

And speaking of cleaning surfaces we don't really think about cleaning, don't forget to clean your phone.  (Really, really, REALLY don't sit on the can in a public restroom watching cat videos.  Those days are over.)

Fresh air—again

To end up and to repeat myself, having lived under the thumb of an old-school housekeeper and having seen other old-school housekeepers up close and personal, I think the biggest difference between housekeeping of old, and housekeeping today were these three things: 
--mania for fresh air in the rooms, 
--airing out bedding daily, even in the winter, and changing the linens every week like clockwork
--distinguishing between inside and outside clothing.

—keep safe. TK

This is part 2 of a five part series.
The others in this series are