Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Springtime Scrub

Last week we marked the official first day of spring, coinciding with a warm spell here in New York City. Many people are getting out mops and brooms along with their shorts and sandals, gearing up for the traditional spring cleaning.

This is a custom with diverse roots. This time of year, Chinese people clean and sweep the graves of their ancestors as part of the Qingming festival; Iranians practice Khouneh Tekouni ("shaking the house") in anticipation of Nowruz, their new year celebration; Greek Orthodox households give everything a good scrub just before Lent, and Jewish families rid the house of chametz (the crumbs of leavened bread) in preparation for Passover. Along with these culturally-prescribed traditions, there's the universal urge to throw open the windows and start fresh this time of year, ridding the house of winter's grime and musty smells.

In an 1897 article, the New York Times gave detailed advice to female readers on the spring cleaning of their homes. The article advises washing walls or having them "freshly kelsomined"(coated with whitewash or chalk paint), taking down window shutters and light fixtures for washing, swathing bric-a-brac in cheesecloth for storage until autumn, flushing sinks with scalding water and baking soda, wiping down doorways and doorknobs, and on and on...

The Times as a proto-Martha Stewart: advice for home makers in 1897

If the prospect of this work seems daunting, the Times assures its readers that "In progressive households, wherever the spirit of the new woman wields its healthful and energetic influence, the housecleaning is gradually accomplished silently and almost imperceptibly, save to the actual workers...The first step...is the mustering of the working staff."

Of course, for 97 Orchard Street residents and other less affluent city dwellers, spring cleaning was undertaken without hired help. As we noted in a 2009 blog post, this wasn't always easy. Nonetheless, Josephine Baldizzi remembered that her mother Sadie was "extra clean", never forgetting to scrub her cooking pots--or her children. She even earned the nickname "shine-em-up Sadie" as a testament to her gleaming cookware.

The tools of Sadie's trade on display in the Baldizzi Apartment

Sadie Baldizzi's vigilant campaign against grime counteracted a prevailing stereotype that tenement dwellers were unclean. In 1917, the Times cited the "venerable conviction that the majority of tenement house dwellers are slovenly, irresponsible and indolent" and "that they are content with filthy and squalid surroundings...", but asserted that the notion was outdated, thanks to the efforts of social workers.

The article praised the city's Tenement House Committee, which "distributed an educational primer named For You to educate the huge Tenement house population to their rights under the law and their duties and the essentials of proper community living." For You served as a propaganda tool to "impress upon [its readers] the importance of cleanliness, good housekeeping and sanitation" and the "social demands of close community living."

These public campaigns for cleanliness weren't limited to tenements. In 1922, New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan issued a city-wide spring cleaning proclamation, saying "...all rubbish and useless articles, which invariably become the breeding place for diseases, germs, vermin, rats and endless pests, should be disposed of." Though it's no longer proclaimed as a civic duty, spring cleaning never seems to go out of fashion!

-- Posted by Public Relations Manager Kira Garcia

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