Mummy says I can’t play at your house anymore

E.S. Turner

  • Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework by Margaret Horsfield
    Fourth Estate, 292 pp, £14.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 85702 422 2

In the index to that best of bedside books, the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue for 1915, there are 148 entries under ‘Brushes, various’. For men there were such essentials as moustache brushes, brilliantine brushes and revolver-cleaning brushes, but nearly all the other items were for the use of women about the house. Individual brushes were available for banisters, cornices, walls, halls, curtains, carpets, parquet, furniture (stiff crevices), furniture (soft crevices), libraries, billiard-tables, mattresses, conservatory windows, flues, lamp chimneys, boots, boot-tops, hats, hat-brims, velvet, crumbs, celery and dogs. These brushes were not interchangeable: no good could come of using a moustache brush to remove gunge from tile grout. There was enough thoughtful equipment there to give women maximum assistance in performing ‘one more day’s work for Jesu’, as the poet in the Servants’ Magazine put it. Of course, it was not all brushing, dusting and polishing, there was also squirting. The catalogue featured the Eclipse Radium Sprayer (‘Contains no radium’) which was a combined cleanser, polisher, dust-layer and fly-destroyer, warranted not to harm the finest fabrics. There were already electric fly-killers, a boon for women with high-piled hair who dreaded being ambushed by sticky fly-papers in the dark.

Every new invention helped to make it easier for a wife to welcome back the breadwinner to a well-run home in which every germ, mite and living organism had been struck dead. Yet when that catalogue was issued women were already abandoning housework for the shell factories. ‘Don’t just kill germs, kill Germans’ was the new spirit abroad. Housemaid’s knee had never been much of a battle honour, but a canary-coloured complexion induced by trinitrotoluene was a badge of patriotism.

How should housework be ranked? As a profession? As domestic science? As art and mystery? A ‘torture of Sisyphus’ (Simone de Beauvoir)? A sanitarian crusade? A divinely ordained form of drudgery? An unpaid, male-imposed scam? A therapy that expands the chest while allowing the stressed mind to freewheel? Or was it, and is it, just the best practical way of keeping women off the streets? In Biting the Dust Margaret Horsfield briskly explores the conflicting attitudes to housework over the last two centuries. Her book introduces us to many attendant ironies – for example, the failure of labour-saving devices to do anything of the sort. It could also be described as a front-line dispatch in the war between men and women. ‘Woman hath much starched up man from his slovenry,’ wrote the Puritan Alexander Niccholes, a grudging admission in a tirade against ‘forward virgins’ weary of their maidenheads at the age of 14. The continuing fight against men’s slovenry is amply covered in these pages. Quentin Crisp, who ruled, ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse’ (‘Dust into dust, and under dust, to lie’, as the Rubáiyát says), is leniently described here as ‘inimitable’. Horsfield, who has written for the Guardian, tells how she convened discussion groups at which women friends swapped complaints about men behaving badly in toilets, and little better in kitchens. She likes her men to be ‘dishcloth-literate’, a state of grace to which few attain. She is familiar with the sort of household in which the wife washes only her own dishes, leaving her husband to wash his, when the fancy takes him. But she is not content to rely merely on the views and prejudices of sundry Sues, Eileens and Jennifers. She has waded pluckily through some of the damnedest books imaginable, often finding their conclusions crass and indefensible.

These include the old-time manuals which urged the use of ox-gall, stale urine and skin-peeling lye as cleaning agents; the traitorous works by women who have ‘made careers out of telling other women they couldn’t have careers because housework was a big enough job in itself’ (in the words of Barbara Ehrenreich); books seeking to persuade women that housework is a branch of economics with its own disciplines; books with titles like The Sacred and the Feminine: Towards a Theology of Housework and Polish Your Furniture with Panty Hose; and an assortment of novels which portray female ‘clean freaks’ as cold, unsexy, eminently avoidable and even fit to be slaughtered. One of these, I, Gloria Gold (Judith Summers), opens with Gloria shampooing the hall carpet at midnight but ends with her a much-relaxed woman in a dirtier house, thanks in part to a luscious love affair. In Death of a Perfect Wife (M.C. Beaton) the clean freak Trixie is slain, not before time, and the cat is free to rest its head on the cheese dish again. The whodunnit Grime and Punishment (Jill Churchill) makes it plain that Shelley is not guilty of murdering the cleaning lady in her kitchen because, as her friend Jane says, ‘If you were going to kill somebody, you’d do it where you wouldn’t have to clean up afterwards.’ Horsfield has also devoured better-known works like Cranford, in which house-proud ladies, on acquiring a new carpet, stitch together newspapers to form protective paths by which guests may reach their chairs. Inevitably, she has pounced on the diaries of Hannah Cullwick, the happy drudge-bride of Arthur Munby, a man of letters in thrall to grubby working women, the grubbier the better. She has spotted the passage in Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps in which Henry experiences dismay when his new wife has the house cleaned professionally and soullessly, instead of bringing to the task her own personal loving care. And she invites us to share Jane Carlyle’s horror at finding that a servant’s wooden bed contained over two hundred bedbugs (an estimate, surely).

Bedbugs were a major hazard. Not everyone could afford, like George III, to hire a man of the calibre of Andrew Cooke, of Holborn, ‘Bug Destroyer to His Majesty’, who had ‘cured 16,000 beds with great applause’. The author does not dwell too long on those Victorian horrors which, for many, made good housekeeping impossible: dumps of night soil, overflowing slaughter-houses, torrents of sewage and blizzards of industrial smuts. One telling quotation comes from an 1827 Guide for Butlers, the author of which distinguishes between the kinds of domestic dust. Hard anthracite in the grate leaves a superior dust which is light, fine and clean; dust from cheap, soft coal leaves greasy smears, blackens the walls and releases ‘globules of pure greasy black in the shape of pollywogs that go sailing round the room’. We now have a generation which has never seen greasy black tadpoles eddying down onto the television set and whose living-room dust, if they really want to know, and if this book is right, is largely made up of tiny scales continually shed from their own skin. Before central heating, black globules used to be a frequent sight after the chimney-sweep’s visit, an occasion dreaded by every housewife, though not mentioned in this book. The Victorians faced the additional nightmare of a misrouted climbing boy descending in a flurry of soot into the best bedroom. An irony Horsfield misses is that of the womenfolk who spent six days cleaning house for the good of their immortal souls and then trooped on Sunday to a church reeking with mephitic odours from burst coffins in the vault. The eventual ban on intramural burial must have been wonderful news for church-cleaners. How many servants in those days prayed for relief to the patron saints of housemaids we shall never know. Both St Zita and St Notburga gave their employers’ food to the needy, and Zita even vacated her bed to vagrants – good deeds which would have earned them instant dismissal by a Victorian mistress.

In pursuit of her claim that time and effort were not reduced by labour-saving devices, Horsfield makes the point that washing-machines merely encouraged women to do more washing than they would have contemplated in tub-and-mangle days. Similarly vacuum-cleaners drove them to do more carpet cleaning, and with ever more gadgets. The Ladies’ Home Journal is quoted as saying in 1930: ‘Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust grandmother left to a spring cataclysm.’ Or, as Betty Friedan later said, ‘housework not only expanded to fill the time available, but could hardly be done in the available time.’ Horsfield tells with relish the comic history of soap. Great sales had been drummed up by proclaiming that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness,’ but in America by the 1920s there was such an improvement in living conditions, thanks to paved roads, electricity and easier-to-clean equipment, that the demand for soap fell away. In 1927 the American Association of Soap and Glycerine Manufacturers established the fine-sounding Cleanliness Institute, the entire purpose of which was ‘to remind Americans that they needed soap and water, needed them badly, to improve and maintain their standard of living’. No substitutes were to be tolerated. For years on end the Cleanliness Institute deluged the press with propaganda. Still to come were the soap operas of television, dedicated to the same cause. But was soap really the best way of shifting the tons of chewing-gum daily affixed to under-surfaces, or of conquering ‘athlete’s foot’, a spectre which seemed to haunt America in the Thirties?

There is short shrift here for advertisers and their exercises in psychological warfare. One of the illustrations shows a Harpie picture-strip in which a mother standing at an open window overhears another little girl telling her daughter: ‘Mummy says I can’t play at your house any more.’ This, as a helpful friend explains, is because her lavatory does not pass muster. Was there not another picture-strip which went: ‘Mummy, they have a lovely house, but their bathroom paper hurts’? Messages which would not sound well on adult lips could always be put into the mouths of children. We are told here that ‘Two Ts in a K’, meaning Two Tarts in a Kitchen, is accepted shorthand among admen for those scenes in which two housewives meet to exclaim over the whiteness or otherwise of the wash. In the scrolls of eternity the part played by the admen in the march of hygiene may appear less cynical than many suppose. They shamed and bullied us into using deodorants, making us all ‘nicer to be near’. Can the universally clean lavatory be far away?

Horsfield’s grandmother, a woman after Quentin Crisp’s heart, told her: ‘Justarrange the flowers nicely, and no one notices the dust.’ Her mother’s high standards, on the other hand, made her feel like a lazy slut In her student days a spell as a chambermaid in a Scottish hotel under an exacting housekeeper (‘It wasna well done, that flair’) helped to strengthen her character. As for men ... well, she has found it necessary many a time to say ‘I am not your skivvy,’ and she tells with some satisfaction how a messy ex-boyfriend finally learned to live a tidy life alone after being ditched by two later partners. After the break-up of a long-term relationship she found herself at midnight doing a Gloria Gold, which took the form of cleaning stained coffee cups and cutlery in the friend’s house where she had taken refuge. She also did an obsessive cleaning job after she was burgled, anxious to disinfect every knob and handle that might have been touched by the intruder – a not uncommon practice in such an event. Dare one suggest that an orgy of housework can be an effective balm for hurt minds and should be recommended as such by all good counsellors? This need not be done, as Shirley Conran recommends for spring-cleaning, dressed in a leotard and accompanied by a friend.

Poking into all corners of her subject, demolishing cobwebs, sweeping nothing under the carpet and never hesitating to return for a renewed scrutiny, Margaret Horsfield eventually reaches me conclusion, if one understands her correctly, that virtue can reside in a house which is kept ‘passably clean’. Woman, she maintains, has an instinct to impose order on disorder; dusting and scrubbing can engender ‘a stubborn and enduring kind of glow that deserves both recognition and celebration’. This seems a sensible view in a fallen age which hurls charges of anal-retentiveness at anyone who picks up litter from a lawn or puts things away where they belong. The obsessive cleaner should not only debase her standards a bit but ponder the motto quoted from Peg Bracken’s I Hate To Housekeep Book: ‘Don’t just do something. Sit there.’ And, while sitting, dream of the tired old slavey whose epitaph in Bushey churchyard ended:

Don’t mourn for me now, don’t mourn for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

Any male readers of mature years who chance across this book will surely be reminded of their days in the Armed Services. The prospect of a colonel’s or brigadier’s inspection provoked a tremendous starching up of male slovenry, with the weaker vessels panicking like those toilet germs fleeing from the latest cleanser in the popular commercial. No mother’s inspection, or even mother-in-law’s inspection, could inspire a comparable frenzy. How many tarts in a kitchen have ever polished a bucket until they could see their faces in it? How many have sloshed expensive eau-de-nil paint on every marker stone along their garden paths? A mother-in-law might have said, ‘I think the prongs on this fork are a bit eggy, dear,’ but a sharp-eyed sergeant would instantly have spotted clumps of fern between the tines and put the offender on a charge.