Thursday, June 4, 2009

Housecleaning in the Olden Times

by Francis Hopkinson.

When a young couple are about to enter on the matrimonial state, a never failing article in the the marriage treaty is, that the lady shall have and enjoy the free and unmolested exercise of the rights of White-washing, with all its ceremonials, privileges, and appurtenances. You will wonder what this privilege of white-washing is. I will endeavour to give you an idea of the ceremony, as I have seen it performed.

There is no season of the year in which the lady may not, if she pleases, claim her privilege; but the latter end of May is generally fixed upon for the purpose. The attentive husband may judge, by certain prognostics, when the storm is nigh at hand. If the lady grows uncommonly fretful, finds fault with the servants, is discontented with the children, and complains much of the nastiness of every thing about her: these are symptoms which ought not to be neglected, . yet they sometimes go off without any further effect. But if, when the husband rises in the morning, he should observe in the yard, a wheelbarrow, with a quantity of lime in it, or should see certain buckets filled with a solution of lime in water, there is no time for hesitation. He immediately locks up the apartment or closet where his papers, and private property are kept, and putting the key in his pocket, betakes himself to flight. A husband, however beloved, becomes a perfect nuisance during this season of female rage. His authority is superseded, his commission suspended, and the very scullion who cleans the brasses in the kitchen becomes of more importance than him. He has nothing for it but to abdicate, for a time, and run from an evil which he can neither prevent nor mollify.

The husband gone, the ceremony begins. The walls are stripped of their furniture—paintings, prints, and looking-glasses lie huddled in heaps about the floors; the curtains are torn from their testers, the beds crammed into windows, chairs, and tables, bedsteads and cradles crowd the yard; and the garden-fence bends beneath the weight of carpets, blankets, cloth cloaks, old coats, petticoats, and ragged breeches. Here may be seen the lumber of the kitchen, forming a dark and confused mass for the foreground of the picture; gridirons and frying-pans, rusty shovels and broken tongs, joint stools, and the fractured remains of rush-bottomed chairs. There a closet has disgorged its bowels—riveted plates and dishes, halves of china bowls, cracked tumblers, broken wine-glasses, phials of forgotten physic, papers of unknown powders, seeds and dried herbs, tops of tea-pots, and stoppers of departed decanters—from the rag-hole in the garret, to the rat-hole in the cellar, no place escapes unrummaged.

It would seem as if the day of general doom was come, and the utensils of the house were dragged forth to judgment. In this tempest, the words of King Lear unavoidably present themselves, and might with little alteration be made strictly applicable.

-Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads
Find out their enemies now.
Tremble thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipt of justice-
-Close pent up guilt,
Rive your concealing continents, and ask
These dreadful summoners grace."

This ceremony completed, and the house thoroughly evacuated, the next operation is to smear the walls and ceilings with brushes, dipped into a solution of lime called White-wash; to pour buckets of water over every floor, and scratch all the partitions and wainscots with hard brushes, charged with soft soap and stone-cutter's sand.

The windows by no means escape the general deluge. A servant scrambles out upon the pent-house, at the risk of her neck, and with a mug in her hand, and a bucket within reach, dashes innumerable gallons of water against the glass panes, to the great annoyance of passengers in the street.

I have been told that an action at law was once brought against one of these water-nymphs, by a person who had a new suit of clothes spoiled by this operation ; but after long argument it was determined that no damages could be awarded; inasmuch as the defendant was in the exercise of a legal right, and not answerable for the consequences. And so the poor gentleman was doubly nonsuited; for he lost both his suit of clothes and his suit at law.

These smearings and scratchings, these washings and dashings, being duly performed, the next ceremonial is to cleanse and replace the distracted furniture. You may have seen a house-raising, or a ship-launch—recollect, if you can, the hurry, bustle, confusion, and noise of such a scene, and you will have some idea of this cleansing match. The misfortune is, that the sole object is to make things clean. It matters not how many useful, ornamental, or valuable articles suffer mutilation or death under the operation. A mahogany chair and a carved frame undergo the same discipline; they are to be made clean at all events; but their preservation is not worthy of attention.

For instance: a fine large engraving is laid flat upon the floor; a number of smaller prints are piled upon it, until the super-incumbent weight cracks the lower glass—but this is of no importance. A valuable picture is placed leaning against the sharp corner of a table; others are made to lean against that, till the pressure of the whole forces the corner of the table through the canvas of the first. The frame and glass of a fine print are to be cleaned; the spirit and oil used on this occasion are suffered to leak through and deface the engraving—no matter! If the glass is clean and the frame shines, it is sufficient—the rest is not worthy of consideration. An able arithmetician hath made a calculation, founded on long experience, and proved that the losses and destruction incident to two white-washings are equal to one removal, and three removals equal to one fire.

This cleansing frolic over, matters begin to resume their pristine appearance; the storm abates, and all would be well again: but it is impossible that so great a convulsion in so small a community should pass over without producing some consequences. For two or three weeks after the operation, the family are usually afflicted with sore eyes, sore throats, or severe colds, occasioned by exhalations from wet floors and damp walls.

I know a gentleman here who is fond of accounting for every thing in a philosophical way. He considers this, that I call a custom, as a real periodical disease, peculiar to the climate. His train of reasoning is whimsical and ingenious, but I am not at leisure to give you the detail. The result
was, that he found the distemper to be incurable; but after much study, he thought he had discovered a method to divert the evil he could not subdue. For this purpose, he caused a small building, about twelve feet square, to be erected in his garden, and furnished with some ordinary chairs and tables, and a few prints of the cheapest sort.

His hope was, that when the white-washing frenzy seized the females of his family, they might repair to this apartment, and scrub, and scour, and smear to their hearts' content; and so spend the violence of the disease in this out-post, whilst he enjoyed himself in quiet at head-quarters. But the experiment did not answer his expectation. It was impossible it should, since a principal part of the gratification consists in the lady's having an uncontrolled right to torment her husband, at least once in every year; to turn him out of doors, and take the reins of government into her own hands.

There is a much better contrivance than this of the philosopher's: which is, to cover the walls of the house with paper. This is generally done. And though it does not abolish, it at least shortens the period of female dominion. This paper is decorated with various fancies, and made so ornamental that the women have admitted the fashion without perceiving the design.

There is also another alleviation of the husband's distress. He generally has the sole use of a small room or closet for his books and papers, the key of which he is allowed to keep. This is considered as a privileged place, even in the white-washing season, and stands like the land of Goshen amidst the plagues of Egypt. But then he must be extremely cautious, and ever upon his guard; for should he inadvertently go abroad, and leave the key in his door, the house-maid, who is always on the watch for such an opportunity, immediately enters in triumph with buckets, brooms, and brushes—takes possession of the premises, and forthwith puts all his books and papers to rights, to his utter confusion, and sometimes serious detriment.
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