A Memory by Mildred Filbrun Heck  

Spring house cleaning in the 1920s was a ritual for housewives that was "set in stone".  It was something that had to be done each spring.  I doubt seriously that any woman ever liked to tackle that job.  She really needed to psych herself to get started, then maintain a firm resolve to finish the job.

My family lived on a farm.  On the farm there was an exact time in the spring for us to start this tiresome work.  In late April we began to pack away for the summer all winter coats, sweaters, long underwear, flannel night clothes, gloves, galoshes, and heavy bedding.  But first all these things needed to be washed or aired in the sun and wind.  Dry cleaning was unknown to us at that time.

The first rooms we tackled in this cleaning ritual were the unheated second floor bedrooms. We started just as soon as it was warm enough to strip all the beds of their cotton flannel sheets and heavy homemade patchwork comforters. There was no way at all to wash those heavy comforters.  They were just hung out in the wind and sun for a day or two. Then fresh chin protectors were stitched on one end of the comforters before they were packed away in huge trunks with moth balls.  About every third year, we cut open all the bed pillows and dumped the goose and chicken feathers into fresh striped cotton ticking pillow cases.  Then we sewed the open ends tight using our treadle sewing machine.

All beds in our house were not alike. Most had uncovered steel bed springs that had to be dusted and turned over.  Several older beds had a rope latticework instead of squeaky metal springs.  The mattresses were either thin cotton-filled ones with no inner springs in them or bed-sized heavy cotton ticking bags that we kids used.  These were filled with either fresh wheat straw or sweet clover hay.

 In April our straw mattresses were mashed so flat and thin we could feel the coils of the bed springs on our backsides.  We had to use these flat straw mattresses until the June hay-making time or until wheat-thrashing season in July. Then the bed-bags were refilled so full and high that we kids had to make a flying leap up onto that bed of sweet smelling straw or hay.

We next pulled up the tacked down wall-to-wall, thin wool carpet in all the bedrooms. These carpets were loaded with dust. They were carried outside and the large ones were spread out on the lawn.  The small ones were hung over the wire clothes line. We were each given a wire or wicker carpet beater and with the wind to our backs we beat the hell out of those dusty carpets.

Those carpets were very dusty because there were no electric vacuum cleaners on farms in those days.  For the whole past year those carpets had been cleaned by sweeping them with a broom or a hand sweeper.  Dust is next to impossible to sweep up.  It would just fly all over the room.  In the winter, we would bring in a large bucket of snow and scatter it all over the entire carpet.  It was too cold in these rooms for the snow to melt quickly so the damp snow gathered up the dust as we swept the room.  We gathered up the dirty snow and threw it outside.  It was often so full of dirt that it was black.  

While the carpets were being beaten on the lawn some of us were cleaning the bedroom floors.  First we gathered up the loose, dusty wheat straw that was used as a padding.  Then the bare wooden floors were swept and mopped.  Fresh straw was brought in from the tall straw stack in the barnyard. The straw was spread three or four inches thick over the entire bedroom floor.  Next we carried the well-beaten, rolled carpet in and very carefully unrolled it over the straw and tacked the edges down. The furniture was carried back into the room and polished. Windows were washed, clean curtains hung and, at last, the bedrooms were "clean".  

One year we took up the old tacked-down carpets from several rooms, tied them in big rolls and shipped them by railway express to the Olsen Rug Co. in Chicago.  At Olsens they cut out the worn places in the old carpets, dyed them a greenish color and remade them into area rugs about four by eight feet. The rugs were sent back to us in a very short time for a very small cost. 

About every fourth year we cleaned the wallpaper in the bedrooms. We used a wallpaper cleaner that came in a tin can and looked and felt like putty, except the color was pink.  We would squeeze a lump until it was a soft and pliable ball.  Then, starting near the ceiling, we would rub with long downward strokes.  That putty-like material gathered up the dust and soil from the wallpaper.  We kept turning and kneading the ball as we worked down the walls. What a miserable job that was.

Now it was time to clean the downstairs rooms.  The living room and the kitchen took the most time.  Since these were the only rooms that were heated they got the most use.  Now that warm weather had arrived it was time to clean that big base-burner stove in the living room of all its ash and soot. The stove pipes were removed and taken outside where they were cleaned of soot with a long brush.  Then they were put together again and polished with stove-blackening liquid polish.  It was now ready for the fall and winter seasons. The carpet in this room had the most use all winter long and was loaded with dirt and dust.  After the dust was beaten out of it we washed the carpet with ammonia water. For padding under this carpet, we used layers of old newspaper. Everything in this room needed washing down and cleaning - the woodwork, walls, windows and floors.

Grandmother Smith, my mother's mother,  insisted on giving the tops of her furniture a fresh coat of varnish every spring.  Sometimes she put the varnish over the furniture polish and it took forever to dry, or remained sticky to the touch.  Every spring she was warned that this would happen, but she said she had always done it and wouldn't change her ways.

The big kitchen was used every day - and all day.  It caught plenty of dirt and mud from heavy traffic and  wet farmer boots.  The floor always seemed dirty no matter how many times it was mopped.  The biggest job in this room was cleaning the iron cook stove.  No matter how carefully the stove pipes were taken down,  a cloud of fine floating soot settled over the kitchen.  It was a real mess to clean up. That entire stove, inside and out, was cleaned and then blackened with stove polish.  Then it was buffed to a soft sheen with crumpled newspapers. 

 From late spring until fall this kitchen was used only for serving meals at the big oval oak table. The pots and pans were moved out to the summer kitchen in the rear of the house.  All cooking was done in this room on a "coal-oil" stove to keep the rest of the house cooler.  The old summer kitchen had a wide fireplace at one end but we used it only as a storage place.  One of the last jobs was cleaning the three screened porches which we scrubbed down with buckets of hot ammonia water.  

At last we had worked our way from the upstairs rooms through the downstairs to the outside - and the end of this dreary spring ritual was in sight!  But by now all sorts of outdoors jobs in the garden, lawn, chicken house and fields were in need of immediate attention.  

Work on the farm never ended!


- This story has been edited by Mrs. Heck’s brother, William S. Filbrun -

"The Annual Ritual of Spring House Cleaning" - by Mildred Filbrun Heck - all rights reserved.  Permission to reproduce it or any part thereof must be obtained from the webmaster.

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