Shaking the House

In 1864, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child wrote in what is known as a drudgery journal that she “swept and dusted the sitting room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.” I assume she did not do this all at once, although I’m sure that some days it felt like it.

Lydia Maria Child taking a much deserved break from the drudgery of shaking up her house. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll be the first to admit I am not a great housekeeper. I do attempt to at least clean the bathrooms regularly and keep the kitchen surfaces more or less sanitary, but beyond that it’s a little bit of a battle. Because there’s always something more interesting to do or write about or both.

I am, however, a spring cleaner. And it turns out I’m in really good company because a recent survey found that about 74% of Americans engage in deep cleaning in the springtime. Psychologists tell us that may be because with the return of longer days, our natural melatonin levels decrease and we are more energized. What better way to spend that extra energy than by laundering the drapes or mopping behind the refrigerator?

Historians tend to believe that this compulsion to clean every spring is rooted in an awful lot of human tradition that reaches back thousands of years to at least three distinct cultures. First, there is the Iranian celebration of Nowruz, or New Year that occurs on March 21, and includes a cleaning tradition called khane tekani, which translates as “shaking the house.” This strikes me as pretty much a perfect phrase for the occasion.

I mean, it’s still drudgery, but once in a while it’s just got to be done. Image by svklimkin from Pixabay

Another possible source of the tradition is found in the Jewish remembrance of Passover. Also in the springtime, this involves the purging of leavening agents from the home and tends to include a great deal of cleaning. And then in Chinese culture, it’s pretty common practice to scrub and sweep any potential bad luck from the home before it can carry into the new year in late January or early February, when the days are just beginning to noticibly lengthen.

It doesn’t seem like there’s a particularly strong case that any of these traditions is totally responsible for inspiring the human habit of spring cleaning. Instead, they seem to be evidence that it’s just a thing that we humans, or at least 74% of us or so, like to do.

I think for most of us, the day-to-day process of keeping a clean-ish home probably feels a lot like drudgery. I for one can’t even recall the last time I filled the lamps or dusted the sitting room. But over the last few weeks I have been shaking my house, and I gotta say, it feels pretty good.

Are you a spring cleaner?