walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Biting the Dust_, Margaret Horsfield

This is not available in kindle format; I got it at the library.

Recently, and quite tragically given her age and the age of her younger children, the woman who cleaned our house for years passed away. I had already taken over most of the regular cleaning because her health was failing for reasons that were not at all clear; I had been giving her projects when she came that seemed within whatever energy envelope she had that week. When she went into the hospital, I declined the agency's offer of another cleaner and ended our remaining connection that that agency (I had discontinued using their discontinued child care service some time before).

I've been talking to a lot of people about cleaning, because whenever I'm engaged in a new project, I talk to my friends about it. I read about it. I think about it. Eventually, I reach what I call "convergence": a sense of how something works that incorporates the ideas and opinions and information collected from diverse sources into a coherent whole, recognizing that some things will never fit in (they are "wrong" in some sense), but working to minimize anomalies otherwise unexplained. A very anecdotally driven, personal approach to science, sort of. Cleaning is something that I've done since I was very young, when my mother was paying me $1.75 a week to clean the house other than the kitchen. She was pretty insane about some of her house cleaning ideas; we had a carpet rake that I had to use to remove the marks left by the vacuum cleaner, is my favorite example of, "Seriously, why?!?!" I was a commuter student in college, living at home, so my first experience of non-family roommates came fairly late in my life, when a series of people made me painfully aware of just how far out on the clean freak spectrum the house I grew up in was.

I like to read about women's work: textiles, cooking, child care, cleaning. I've been doing this for decades, so while Horsfield's work is not particularly scholarly (lacking the helpful numbers for end notes and other apparatus), it is well researched and I've read many of her secondary sources. I don't recall seeing this book when it came out (it was a busy year for me, the year I retired, and my focus was elsewhere) and it is possible that the limited index etc. put me off it when I might have seen it. But as a library selection it was perfect: a humorous, mostly carefully thought out read with the right balance of personal reflection, contemporary opinions collected from friends and acquaintance, and more literary sources.

If I had read this book -- especially the last couple chapters -- when I was much younger, I would have found a lot of comfort in learning about just how much conflict otherwise ordinarily happy couples had over cleaning. Now, I have the satisfaction of confirming something I learned the harder way. I could have done without the highly derivative and mostly incompatible chapter _Buyers and Sellers_; while it has some useful information about the history of cleaning products (and mass marketing in general, which got started with crackers and soap), her analysis seems to be a pretty useless, third hand derivative of Packard's _Hidden Persuaders_, run through the more or less as bad section of Friedan's book. I don't know why people keep retreading this particularly banal argument -- what, should we go back to purchasing the base chemicals and make our own? She spends chunks of _other_ chapters derogating people for doing just that! It's boring and useless. None of us would really prefer to have some central nerd panel of bureaucrats deciding which products we should have and in which quantities, so absent some other mechanism for distributing information about products and the products themselves other than advertising and capitalism, it's silly to mock it.

Ignoring the profound comfort I found in reading about high conflict over cleaning being remarkably common (you know, and it's funny I say that, because my husband is a cleaner -- a bleacher by nature, but I've mostly stopped that cold, because I am a non-bleacher; one of my brother-in-laws is even more of a cleaner by nature, one of my best male friends is the one in his het coupling who cleans the toilets. I appear to exist in a bizarro world in which cleaning is remarkably evenly split between the genders), and the irritation I felt at Horsfield liking Charlotte Perkins Gilman and attacking consumer based capitalism, the balance of the book is quite good.

She starts strong with a chapter about how, for an activity so many women expend so much time, effort and other resources on, women tend to avoid talking about cleaning and pretend they don't do as much of it as they do. She talks about how, for all we aren't supposed to let things go completely to hell, the other end of the cleaning spectrum is even more reviled in many ways. She talks about Hannah Cullwick's diaries, which I am not sure I knew about before (and I need to remember to ask around, because if the kink community doesn't know about these, they really should!). She talks about generational transmission of housecleaning and evolution across generations as well. She delineates the insane ideals housewives have been held two over the last couple centuries. She spends some time on "help" in the older formula (live-in). She connects housecleaning to sanitary reform movements (sewerage, clean water and municipal waste removal, primarily, but also the transition from horses to automobiles). She talks about the massive increase in housecleaning standards that occurred simultaneously with the relief brought by indoor plumbing and central heating, driven in part by better lighting (you could now see the dust all day and all night, too!) but also by the germ theory. She talks about the interaction of women's education being diverted into home economics and the developing mass market.

Unusual in a book about women's work, Horsfield actually spends some time talking about how chances in household surfaces modified the amount and kind of work that had to be done. I'm not entirely certain I remember this from anything else I've read. Included in this discussion is a really nice bit from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, in which Miss Price, for all her magic, really loves her stainless steel sink. At the same time, she points out how reluctant many older women were to adopt electrical appliances, being suspicious of whether they could do as good a job as they did by hand.

Her section on germ killing is imperfect. In particular, there are a lot of unsourced assertions that when I poked around at where they came from, I found that they just weren't what they seemed to be. "Equally, I have had to abandon my fond assumption that the heat of the clothes dryer kills all germs -- it does not -- and I have had to give up my belief that a dry dishcloth is free of germs." Technically, this is true, but the essence is not that far wrong. For all that Gerba's recent research is summarized as "washing and drying doesn't kill wtf", when you read the study, even as minimal a cycle as a 12 minute cold wash and 7 minute rinse knocks things down by 90%+. Gerba left the laundry sitting wet for a half hour before advancing to the dryer, which while it certainly happens I think we all know is a bad idea and we wouldn't do it if we were washing up after something really unpleasant had happened associated with significant illness. The dryer knocked things down further. Gerba's advocacy for bleach was designed to get things from 99% to 99.99% germ free. Really, if there isn't someone in the house who is immuno-compromised, who the fuck even cares? There will be more germs than that on more or less the instant you put the clothes on or away.

The closest Horsfield gets to addressing the long-standing war between people who attempt to surface clean frequently vs deep cleaners who cycle through a space very slowly is in her Flappers vs Scrubbers discussion, which is entertaining but not entirely satisfying.

All in all, however, this was a really enjoyable, comprehensive rumination on cleaning as a cultural activity. Horsfield has a nice tone, even when I don't agree with her, which made it a real pleasure to read.
Tags: book review
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