Spring cleaning to us might mean a couple of days of sorting through cluttered closets and organizing the garage. Even the words “spring cleaning” sound tailor made for marketing fresh and cheery aerosol scents.
All of which is a far cry from what our early American ancestors confronted when the snow retreated and they could finally deal with the stinking hovels their homes had become over the winter. Cold was the culprit, and the farther north people lived, the deeper they had to burrow into their shelters for months on end. Any description might seem like a worst-case scenario, but consider the typical household in eighteenth-century rural New England.
Most of the houses are log and clapboard with a main keeping room dominated by the hearth—the source of heat for warmth and cooking and of the flickering firelight for up to 14 hours at a stretch. Keeping the fire stoked is a life-or-death necessity that consumes four or more cords of wood over the winter and covers everything in the house with a gritty layer of ash and soot.
As temperatures drop, the family spreads straw over their dirt or plank floor to act as insulation and to sop up inevitable messes. As snowbound weeks turn into months, the straw is trampled into itchy dust. More straw is dragged from the barn and spread in over the floor until the supply runs out. Keep in mind that the family could be 10 people plus cats and dogs for mousing and devouring food wastes.
Winter drags on and conditions only become worse. The cold makes doing laundry impossible, except the smallest amounts than can be washed inside the house and hung near the fire to dry. Bathing – typically regarded as a health hazard by many - is canceled as the streams freeze. “Slops” – that descriptive term for human and animal wastes and other garbage – pile up as drifting snow blocks the path to the privy. Chamber pots overflow. In some cases, when temperatures drop to deadly levels, people bring horses, cows and even swine into the house to protect the animals from freezing. Talk about adding to the slops.
And on it goes. More filth, stink, dirt and darkness.
Until finally the snow melts and the mud dries and the family can step into the bright warmth of the early spring sun. It’s difficult to imagine how those colonists felt when they were able to finally let the fire go out, to drag every piece of furniture into the sunlight and scrub it down. To rake the mashed and stinking straw from the house and then scrub the floorboards clean of months of filth and muck. It still will take several days to scrub and whitewash the interior, do the accumulated laundry, and wash the furnishings before returning them to their rightful places in the home.
Spring brings one more ritual to these hardy folks. All those ashes that had piled up in the hearth and been stored over the winter are now put to good use. They’re mixed with water from the rain barrel to produce lye that in turn is mixed with pounds of melted livestock fat. The result is another smelly aspect of spring cleaning – the making of the year’s supply of soap.
So you might want to spring-clean your closet and organize the garage and know things could have been much, much worse.