Wednesday, June 11, 2008


My personal housekeeping struggle is with laundry. It tends to pile. Dirty piles upstairs in my bathroom and in L’s hamper, and clean piles downstairs, after I’ve dumped it in the sunroom to fold. Once folded and transported back upstairs, it piles in my bedroom because putting it all away requires a measure of devotion that is sometimes hard to muster.

For a long, long time, I never had all our laundry clean at one time. The laundry room floor was usually ankle deep with clothes, and we tolerated it. Then a couple of months ago my wonderful mother-in-law washed every stitch of it while we were out of town, and my wonderful mother helped me put it all away. I’ve stayed on top of it pretty well since then. I’ve been thinking about laundry today, and I realized I wanted to recommend a couple of books:

One that’s been a huge help and influence to me is the excellent Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, by Cheryl Mendelson. She is a true philosopher of the house, and a lot of the book is about the meaning and psychological stakes of housekeeping, along with a totally encyclopedic how-to approach. I highly recommend this, whether you have a lot of chores to do, or just like to read about them, especially chapters 1 and 2, “My Secret Life” and “Easing into a Routine.” Her chapter on bedrooms is called “The Cave of Nakedness.” It will change the way you think about the place you sleep. It will also give you a horror of dust. Seriously, this woman hates dust.

To find another book like this, you have to go back to the great domestic manuals of the 18th and 19th centuries, like Mrs. Beeton’s. In this period, Mendelson says, people knew without question that “happiness depends on good housekeeping,” an idea that seems “quaint or odd” to the contemporary mind. Consider, she says, all of the people in Dickens whose faults and virtues are indexed through the appearance of their homes. (Here is this blog’s second shout out to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House.)

Some things this book says have become part of my internal dialogue, like, “Living in your home constantly uses up its good things—food, clean clothes, linens, shiny floors. Housekeeping routines provide for their constant renewal” (20). I often think of this, ruefully, when I’m cleaning. I guess the defining nature of a chore is that even while you’re doing it, you know it will have to be done again, usually soon. But when the going gets tough, I think of another of the book’s declarations: if people in your house have clean clothes, clean beds, and a clean place to prepare food, you’re doing well enough.

Mendelson has now written a book called Laundry. It too is very good. I haven’t read the whole thing, but one big take-away for me is that I am much more militant about sorting the clothes into loads by color. I always did darks and lights, of course. Now I have:
Whites (can be bleached and washed in hot water)
Mixed whites (includes patterns or stripes)
Pinks (my eyes have been opened about separate loads for reds and pinks!)

The upshot of all of this is that I sometimes find myself obsessing about the exact composition of a load. When the dryer lint is a clear, true color, like pink, instead of a nasty gray, I feel happy. I do know this is crazy.

Right now I am building a small load of reds, and I don’t have quite enough to run the machine. Hank is wearing a red panda shirt that Betty brought him from China. That thing has enough dye to turn a river red. I am eyeing it and wishing he would get it dirty. Maybe if I give him PB&J for lunch? Because I’ve decided when he takes off the shirt, the red load is a go. I'm kind of excited.


Veronica said...

I sort of love laundry... the folding of it when it's clean, anyway. I fear reading that book, though--sounds like too many possible categories for someone who only does laundry for two total people, and who relies on coin-op washing machines that are not inside her own house. I just can't picture having enough clothes--or quarters, for that matter--to do an all-pink load.

Hootie said...

Veronica: Try mixing your whites and reds. Then you'll have enough clothes to do an all-pink load.

Becky: does your miracle lady have any advice for dads who are trying to sort clothes when your middle son wears the same styles as his older brother and the same size as his baby brother?

Also, on the housekeeping theme... we had one book lying around a while back that suggested that two secrets to healthy housekeepin' were getting dressed "to the shoes" as soon as possible in the morning and also scrubbing out your sink as a key to happiness. (The crazy thing is, both of these help me immensely when I do them. I think it has to do with the idea that to reach both of these states, you have to pretty much have your s--t together. Like, how can you scrub out your kitchen sink if it's full of dishes, etc.) I recognize that this is off the laundry topic, but whatcha gonna do.

Becky said...

V, the all pink load is my little indulgence. Ah, decadence!

And Hootie, I can't help you with your sorting difficulties (sounds like some kind of fiendish logic problem) but that other book you're talking about has got to be the Fly Lady, at

"Shine your sink!" is one of her rallying cries, and it all does make a lot of sense. You can sign up on that website and get emails about whatever area of housecleaning they're focusing on that week. It's actually a good system, and the "getting dressed to the shoes" thing helps me too. Funny that all the really good housekeeping stuff is really about your mind.

Veronica said...

My mind totally does feel at peace when the sink is clean. Shouldn't my mind be focused on other things, though, like world hunger?

Hootie, if you can get each of your kids to put their dirty clothes in a separate pile, you could just do one load for each kid. You'd get some really gray lint and freak Becky out and turn this housekeeping-at-peace stuff on its head, but it would save you some heartache in the sorting process. Might CAUSE you some heartache, though, trying to get all the dirty clothes into separate piles, I dunno how your system works.

Amy said...

I heart Flylady--there was a time when my sink would shine like the very sun. I've fallen off the wagon a bit lately, though. But I think you're right--it helps when you see the larger purpose behind what you're doing. That having a clean (or cleaner) house really does make you feel better, more at peace, etc. I personally believe it can save you money,too--because if your house is a place you want to be in, you won't go out as much to eat or escape to the mall, etc.

Hootie, I say just let 'em wear each other's clothes! :) Beck, I must I never thought about analyzing the color of my dryer lint. One more thing to obsess over! Here is how I sort our laundry at the moment:
--mostly light colors
--mostly dark colors
--(and,due to recent viral outbreak)stuff with poop on it

I've been congratulating myself for separating the poopy stuff. But now I see I need to up my game.

Bren said...

Here's where I horrify you. Here's how I sort my laundry...

Whatever I find in each room, including towels, goes in at the same time. So that when it comes out it all goes back in the same room. Except...
Stuff I find in my own bedroom that has to be hung up. That's the only sorting I do. I do them all at once so that there's only one load that I have to get out of the dryer in a reasonable amount of time.

This leads to grey lint. Everything is also washed in cold water (including diapers but not including kitchen towels). I fear reading your book, since I know this is all wrong. The sheer volume of laundry seems otherwise insurmountable. Un-put-away-able.

I did my senior history thesis on homekeeping. I wasn't even really homekeeping yet. I thought it was unbearably dull at the time. I imagine I'd find it fascinating now. (The basic idea, by the way, was that as labor-saving devices were invented, like the washing machine, expectations of cleanliness kept going up so that labor increased rather than more leisure attained. One would expect that advertising would be pushing for higher expectations, and products and ads did reflect the change, but rather than the sellers creating the higher expectations, it seemed to come from the home keepers themselves. Like, rather than enjoy their Virginia Slim while the machines did the work, they decided that the mattresses needed to be turned and the sheets ironed.)

Becky said...

I'm not horrified Brenda--I'm impressed with your ability to streamline!

I love that about your thesis. I'm really interested in the question of, historically, did people hate chores or enjoy them? Seems like inventing more work as labor-saving machines came along might mean that they liked doing it? Or that all along they were thinking, "This place is a sty but there's only so much I can do."

In her Home Comforts book, Mendelson talks about how different chores had different days, and everybody had the same routine. Laundry was Monday, because it was so back-breaking, you needed to have rested all day on Sunday. Anyway, love that stuff.