MARY BRASWELL: Looking Back, March 23, 2014

HISTORY: Cleaning house in days gone by.

Mary Braswell

Mary Braswell

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or mary.braswell@albanyherald.com.

While the idea of spending an entire week cleaning the house can be a bit overwhelming, the fourth week of March is National Cleaning Week. Housework will always be work, but not like it once was! So, after reading this bit of domestic history, throw open those windows and enjoy some fresh air.


According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Labor, on an average day, 48 percent of all women do some housework. What percent of men can say the same thing?

a) 10 percent

b) 19 percent

c) 28 percent

d) 35 percent

— Prior to the twentieth century, cooking was performed on a coal or wood burning stove. Ashes from an old fire had to be removed. Throughout the day, the stove had to be continually fed with new supplies of coal or wood, an average of fifty pounds a day. At least twice a day, the ash box had to be emptied, a task which required a woman to gather ashes and cinders in a grate and then dump them into a pan below. Altogether, an average housewife spent four hours every day sifting ashes, adjusting dampers, lighting fires, carrying coal or wood, and rubbing the stove with thick black wax to keep it from rusting.

— The soot and smoke from coal and wood burning stoves blackened walls and dirtied drapes and carpets. Gas and kerosene lamps left smelly deposits of black soot on furniture and curtains. Each day, the lamp’s glass chimneys needed to be wiped and wicks trimmed or replaced.

— The majority of American families got their water from a pump, a well, or a stream. According to calculations made in 1886, a typical North Carolina housewife had to carry water from a pump or a well or a spring eight to ten times each day. Washing, boiling and rinsing a single load of laundry used about 50 gallons of water. Over the course of a year she walked, on average, 148 miles toting water and carried over 36 tons of water.

— In 1860 Fredrick Walton invented linoleum, which was a cheap and easy to clean floor covering. In 1893 Thomas Stewart invented a mop with a replaceable head that clamped onto the handle.

— Cleaning carpets and rugs was no easy task in the 19th century. They had to be hung up and swatted with a carpet beater, a handle and large flat paddle.The carpet sweeper was invented in 1876 by Melville Bissell.

— The year was also 1876 when Susan Hibbard patented the feather duster.

— Before the invention of the electric clothes iron came along, flat irons were used. They were slabs of metal with handles on top. The iron was heated then used to iron clothes. Most households had two irons, one was put on the oven to heat while the other was used. Some irons consisted of a container with a handle on top. The container was filled with hot coals or a hot slab of metal.

— The last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century included great changes in the nature of housework. A host of new appliances were introduced including the electric iron (1903), the electric vacuum cleaner (1907), and the electric toaster (1912).

— By the 1920s, not all, but many housewives enjoyed hot and cold running water, gas stoves, automatic washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. Even with all the new labor-saving devices, a typical housewife spent about 52 hours a week on housework. A housewife today spends less time cooking and cleaning up after meals, but she spends just as much time as her ancestors on household management, including laundry, cleaning, shopping and childcare.

— On the surface, it makes no sense that so much time be spent running a household today. But, the explanation lies in a rise in the standards of cleanliness and childcare expected of a housewife. As early as the 1930s, this change was apparent to a writer in the Ladies Home Journal: “Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a daily immersion.”

— The 1933 Maytag wringer-washer ran on electricity or, for those without power, on gasoline. This wringer-washer could also be used to power a butter churn, an ice-cream maker, or a meat grinder.

— In 1935, J. Ross Moore built an oil-heated drum in a shed next to his house, the first clothes dryer. Moore’s first patented dryers ran on either gas or electricity.

— The Nineteen Hundred Corporation introduced the first top-loading automatic washer in 1947, which Sears marketed under the Kenmore label. Billed as a “suds saver,” the round appliance sold for $239.95.

Did you know…

— In 1913 five businessmen invested $100 each to found America’s first commercial liquid bleach factory, the Electro-Alkaline Company.The following year, the company began commercial production of a concentrated industrial-strength bleach. The Clorox brand name was registered and the diamond trademark was adopted. Two years later, a weaker concentration of bleach was first marketed for home use.

— Chemist Harry A. Cole of Jackson, Mississippi invented and sold the pine-scented cleaning product called Pine-Sol in 1929.

— Introduced by Colgate-Palmolive in 1947, the original slogan for Ajax powder was “Stronger than dirt!”. This was a reference to the muscular character Ajax of Greek mythology.

— When Windex was invented in 1933 by Harry R. Drackett, it was almost 100% solvent and highly flammable. The glass and hard-surface cleaner was acquired by S. C. Johnson in 1993.

Arm & Hammer is a registered trademark of Church & Dwight, an American manufacturer of household products. Originally associated only with baking soda and washing soda, the company began to expand the brand to other products in the 1970s using baking soda as a deodorizing ingredient, including toothpaste, laundry detergent, underarm deodorant and cat litter.


b) 19 percent