Sunday, January 13, 2008

January Organizing and Housecleaning

The curtains are washed and ironed, and the floor under the washer is clean.

Ever since I moved into my house in 1999, January has been the month in which I set my house in order--cleaning out all the drawers and closets. This year, I also worked on deep cleaning so that the house has a baseline of order and cleanliness. It seems important to know what is there and what can be of use in which way. I have always found that after a house is deep-cleaned, it is very easy to take care of day to day. If I had the time I would deep-clean every 3 months. Surely once a year is not enough. I am scandalized by the amount of waste that I accumulate and cannot afford and by the amount of dirt I find.
It seems that I am not the only one who looks to this time of year to reorganize. A fair percentage of blogs that I have read over the first two weeks of January show that women everywhere--in the United States and abroad--are doing the same thing. I guess it comes naturally. I was never aware of any old housewives' mantra of imposing order and cleanliness in January--"spring cleaning" is what I always heard of, derived from the necessity to get all the oily grit off of everything after heat was no longer needed. In my cycle of seasons, our forced enclosure during winter offers a great time for deep cleaning--snow days are my favorite deep clean days. I love this time of year.
I have wanted to write about this cycle of housecleaning and order for about a week now, and today I went to my folder of paintings of "Women Working" to find a painting to illustrate it. Nada. Then I went to the Internet and googled away and came up with Nada. Yes, there are many paintings of women sewing, caring for children, cooking, milking cows, gathering eggs, shopping, and even doing the laundry--but not cleaning.
Is this an activity too trivial for art? The fact is that during the period in which such paintings would have been done--say from Chardin onwards through the 1920s, most of this work, even in a middle-class household, was done by maids.

For instance, Carl Larsson who created many paintings celebrating the domestic activities of the women in his home--including one of his wife shelling peas--does not seem to have painted them housecleaning. However, he does paint this one (above) of a maid resting after a thorough sweeping of a room. I have also found two illustrations of women cleaning in a book called The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days.
In contrast to sewing and cooking, housecleaning has a relatively poor reputation. I recall a story of Auguste Renoir's boyhood. Mrs. Renoir was a fastidious housekeeper, and one day, when her husband came in from the fields, she forbade him from entering, because she had just scrubbed the floor. He turned on his heels and never came back. There are many other stories of how women who are dedicated to keeping their homes clean are looked upon as shrews. In the worst case, there is the image of the witch with her broom. In more modern times, thanks to Betty Friedan and her followers, housecleaning is deemed total drudgery and demeaning work--something that evidently should be relegated to the untouchable class of India.

We are beholden to those of our mothers who wanted to keep a beautiful home (no matter how much or how little money they had) and to Martha Stewart and also to Cheryl Mendelson (and her wonderful and very informative book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House) to a new understanding that housekeeping is a gratifying and civilizing activity. This idea falls well within the Christian tradition--and surely within the Judaic tradition with its emphasis on cleanliness. In looking for a painting of a woman cleaning, I searched for portraits of Saint Martha, the saint who would most be identified with housekeepers, and this is what I found:
"Despite her reputation as a domestic saint, invoked for help cooking, running a household and maintaining the family peace, she's also a dragon-taming saint," and in her portraits she is always portrayed as having tamed a dragon who lays at her feet. Such is the civilizing achievement of Saint Martha.

Saint Martha: Note dragon.


elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I just cleaned my house, too. Great article, Linda!

Wendy WaterBirde said...

Hi Linda,

I love "lurking" here but dont think ive ever commented here before. Such a lovely blog!

I think these images of Martha pick up on something archetypal about "Marthaness". Martha wasnt just domestic she was high energy and kind of the "general of the home" type there (like the later Isabella Beeton)...very conducive to dragon slaying lol.

But seriously, her sister Mary was domestic too, just in a more contemplative way. So maybe Martha isnt shown with domestic symbols so much becuase it wasnt her domesticness that set her apart but the particular spirit she carried to it/life, like is seen in her image here. Anyway, just thoughts. Have you ever read Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Street? The character Marianne there was a classic Martha type, and i could see her too on an image such as is here...its part of the "archetype" i think.

The sweeping part of this post really grabs me. I had a dream long ago about a "sweeper" who to me was such a model of domestic peace. The conection we make of domestic sweeping to the witches broom, such a good point. Funny how its the most precious symbols that are the ones the enemy goes after so we downplay them them. And the most precious activities too. Maybe house cleaning has been so attacked becuase it is an especially direct and precious sacred thing...

Peaceful Week : ) Wendy

Linda said...

Hi Wendy,
Thank you so much for all your kind comments. Please use whatever you want. I haven't read Dolphin Street, but another book by Elizabeth Goudge recently, and I posted something about it re civilization, which meshed with an idea I had been groping to express but couldn't really formulate. I will check out Dolphin Street. Thanks again. Have a good week.

Wendy WaterBirde said...

Thank you Linda : )

Forgot to ask before... was wondering if you might be willing to share the two illustrations of women cleaning in a book called The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days that were mentioned here? That's my favorite period, and i'd really llve to see them if you were willing...

Peaceful Week : ) Wendy

Linda said...

Hi, I would but they are in a small book and they will scan properly. One picture shows a woman sweeping and from her demeanor and setting she does not look like a maid. The other shows two ladies making up a bed, but they are both wearing very similar clothes and wearing turban-like headpiece, and I think they are maids. I have looked for them on the web but have not found them. It is interesting though that reportedly the Renaissance was a setback for women, as it meant a reversion to Roman law, under which women had no rights. Under medieval law, women had the right to own property, etc., and had legal standing.

Linda said...

Hi Wendy,
I will try to get a decent xerox of these pictures so I can scan them. Also, thanks to your prompting I went searching among the Dutch genre painters of the
17th century and have found some paintings of ladies cleaning (not many) that I will be posting soon.
Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it.

Merisi said...

This is such a wonderful article!
From the very beginning have I admired Martha Stewart for elevating the humble art of housekeeping to new hights. She reminds me of my grandmother and mother, who knew how to run a home.
Like you, January somehow has become the one month of the year when I feel I have to get to the bottom of things (of a lot of things, I might add *g*). For me it's the moment I stow away the Christmas decorations that I feel the need to get rid of winter's dust and neglected piles. In the Washington area, when January came around, primroses started to show up in the garden shops, and I always bought half a dozen to fill a basket that I left at our front steps during the day, to set a sign.

Wendy WaterBirde said...

Hi Linda,

I'm late seeing things here just since ive been online less. I LOVE your new research here with the Durch and Middle Ages, its juts beautuful! And looking forward to the Medieval scans too (thanks for being so open about that). I'm updating links a bit finally (meant to earlier) and i'm addding yours now, its under the little library window, under heartfelt journals. You have such an eye for the heart of home, i just love coming here!

With the Dutch post, i was struck by the healing impact of the seperation of home life and buisinss life, and a feminine and masculine "sphere" more seen. So ofetn ive heared that critisized as causing problems for folks, but i truth that seperation was so healing wasnt it?

Well, Peaceful Week to You : ) Wendy

Wendy WaterBirde said...

ps insane amount of typoes on last comment, sorry about that, im typing at an awkward angle right now.

Just wanted to add about the Renassaince, yes i agree, it was a HUGE setback for women then. And spiritually it was a setback as well for them, losing a very beautuful contemplative and devotional tradition in so many ways . Something about the Middle Ages was very precious and the Renassaince really stole some of that, and i think we are the worse for it. No period is perfect of course, but i think the Middle Ages is just amazing : )