Thoughts on housewifery . . . and the perfect vacuum cleaner

I’ve been thinking a lot about housekeeping lately as I ponder a young friend who will soon leave for college and doesn’t have a clue of how to care for a living space.
Raised by a grandmother who thought I’d be a housewife whatever else I achieved in life (she was right), and old enough to have taken home economics in high school, I find today’s housekeeping standards appalling.
And I’m not talking ironing sheets and pillowcases (which is not only no longer necessary but, IMHO, was always a bit over the top).
I’m talking about not even OWNING an iron. Not knowing how to whipstitch a sagging hem. Standing bewildered in the WalMart cleaning aisle with no idea what, and what not, to buy. Having no idea that, for example, you don’t use a scouring pad on a polished surface (my former cleaning lady destroyed the finish on my counters and the black-painted glass-top stove).
Housekeeping certainly doesn’t require an MBA, but there is an art to it.
You can save yourself lots of steps and a fair amount of money by employing some tricks:
• Build a tool kit (see below),  just as a carpenter or plumber does. Put all your cleaning supplies in a plastic, handled container. Carry it from room to room.
• Hide a half-dozen empty trash bags in the bottom of each trash container; saves steps.
• Clean from up to down, so that, say, the dust bunnies you knock off the fan blades don’t fall onto a freshly cleaned floor. Exception: Before you splash any water around in the bath or kitchen, vacuum or sweep the floor.
• Choose tools carefully; pare down to things you’ll actually use. For small folks, like me, for example, weight is a big issue.
I have a Leifheit brand four-step aluminum ladder that weighs all of 5 pounds. If it were any heavier, I’d avoid using it (meaning anything over 5 feet wouldn’t get cleaned, or I’d be doing dumb stuff like stretching until I put my back out, or teetering on top of a counter to reach something).
Vacuum cleaners are another place where you can waste money on something you don’t care to use. Balance power, flexibility and weight. We have a $1,000 Kirby. I LOATHE it. Won’t use it. Powerful, yes, but too heavy; it fights me back. And changing from the sweeper to the 6,000 or so attachments is awkward at best.
Recently, I started a love-affair with a $30 Bissell 3-in-1 that is light enough to lift one-handed and has just one, easily attached tool for corners and edges. No bags. And the dust canister is see-through, so you know when it needs emptied. Best for uncarpeted floors; if we had wall-to-wall in every room, I’d have made a different choice.
The housekeeper’s best friend in an almost-forgotten one-time staple: rags. You need a mountain of soft, fuzz-free, absorbent cotton rags; old T-shirts or retired kitchen towels.
I can clean a whole house with four items: the rag bag, Murphy’s Oil Soap (all surfaces except porcelain and glass), an ammonia-based cleaner (glass, porcelain, linoleum, tiles) and the vacuum cleaner. Oh, and my fingernails (useful for scratching off gunk).
But here’s what I routinely carry on my housecleaning forays:
— a sponge (counters, sinks, tubs, showers),
— a scouring pad (3M “greenie” for stuck gunk on unscratchable surfaces),
— rags (dusting, washing, drying, polishing — everything),
— paper towels (windows, shiny metal, drips),
— Murphy’s Oil Soap (wood, painted surfaces, floors)
— bathroom/tile cleaner (porcelain),
— ammonia-based cleaner (glass and greasy places),
— and — the best invention since the Internet — a Mr. Clean Magic Erase (“the white sponge thing,” for stubborn stains).
Under the sink are a few specialized things: oven cleaner, a pumice stick for removing toilet ring stains, stainless steel polish for the sink, furniture wax.
Make a plan of attack that minimizes back-and-forthing and gets messy or fussy chores out of the way first, such as cleaning the kitty litter box, gathering up recyclables, putting away hobby supplies, etc. Strip beds and towel racks; start the washer. Then tackle the rest.
One thing I think about a lot when I’m cleaning is  . . .  well, it’s not thinking so much as having a long, inner argument with people who aren’t there: those who design appliances, invent surface treatments, construct houses.
I think black thoughts about the people who fashion stoves and refrigerators that are near impossible to clean without scraped knuckles, a kinked-up back and a great deal of cursing.
I wonder if electrical contractors get paid extra for every outlet they DON’T put in in a convenient place.
I long for the days when kitchens and bathrooms were covered in indestructible oil-based paint, when everything that looks like wood wasn’t actually plastic or pressboard or some other such short-lived stuff.
The grousing keeps me going.


  1. Vadalia

    January 31, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    When I started reading tonight, I thought, “I’ll have to tell Wanda about the Magic Erase sponge,” and a big smile spread over my face when I came to that line in your article. One has to be really fast to get ahead of you! I am with you on that vacuum business. We sold our Kirby for $25 after I bought an Electrolux upright on Woot dot com for $60. I can carry it with one hand. 2 attachments. Love it even more cause Hubby volunteers to do the vacuuming – which he never did with the other vacuums. And, he always empties the see-through canister – kind of a manly thing of un-attaching and re-attaching on something that goes vroom, vroom. He even dusted one day, and used a soft new paint brush to dust the desks and computers. I liked it so much, he bought a brush for me, too. As for house-cleaning, I try to remember that no woman on her deathbed has EVER said, “Oh, I wish I had scrubbed and cleaned more!” (Gives me more time to read your blog!)

  2. Diki

    March 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Our current house came with dnoingriom carpet. Who in their right mind puts carpet in a dnoingriom? People who don’t have children.The husband and I went out the week we moved in a bought a steam cleaner.We use it a lot.Not only do children drop a lot of food and spill a lot of juice, they also vomit. I’ve never hired a pro.The last apartment we lived in hired professionals to clean the carpets before they’d let us move in. It was amazing how not one carpet edge was clean. It was like the whole apartment was outlined in grime.Ick.

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