Spring cleaning… do I have to?

As it’s the vernal equinox, and I guess the first day of spring, and as I seem to have neglected housework in favour of writing maybe I should properly think about doing a traditional spring clean. The inner child in me whines ‘do I have to?’… and yes maybe I do, because our house really is lacking a bit of love and attention. I actually don’t remember my mum having a session of spring cleaning, she just did the housework as far as I recall, but maybe she did and just didn’t make a fuss of it!

Consulting Ruth Drew’s ‘The Happy Housewife’, I find pages and pages of helpful hints and instructions… ‘with spring cleaning on the map, it is necessary to sit down with a pencil and make a proper plan of campaign. it pays hand over fist, especially if you have other things to do beside housework…‘ Well, yes, I do have other things to do!

Luckily one of the first things Ruth suggests is that you ‘don’t try to do too much in a rush,’ and suggests its spread over several weeks – would several months be ok, Ruth?

She mentions chimney sweeps and clutter, comfortable shoes and handcream and of course, a dust-preserving handkerchief tied round the head! … and then has paragraphs on specific areas of spring clean need:

  • cupboards, selves and drawers
  • paintwork, carpets and rugs, upholstery and floors
  • turning out rooms, cornices, alabaster, glass, plastic, parchment, silk, rayon, nylon, paper buckram
  • general points including lampshades and lamps
  • curtains – brocades and damasks, chintz – both permanently and non-permanently glazed, cottons, Holland blinds, muslin and lace, net, rayon, terylene, velvet, washable velveteens and chenilles and similar

Odds and ends about shoes… and airing them…

I didn’t know shoes needed airing… Maybe in the 1940’s and 50’s when Ruth Drew wrote her articles and broadcast on the BBC and shoes were made differently with more natural and organic materials then it was important. here she adds some ‘odds and ends’ of information about shoes, including the Golden Rule number one priority…

… put your shoes on shoe trees as soon as you take them off – trees which fit properly so the creases of wear are smoothed out. If you don’t possess such things, at least you can scrumple up newspaper and pack it carefully in the toes.

This rings such a bell for me! When I was a child, and right through to when I was a student living in ghastly bedsits and so-called ‘flats’, I travelled about mostly by walking, or cycling, or catching a bus which often involved waiting at bus stops. Especially when I lived in Manchester, on the west and wet side of the country, I often arrived home soaked and would take off my shoes and scrumple up newspaper and stuff it into them  just as Ruth describes. When we were children we didn’t have central heating, so the shoes would be to the side of the fireplace where it was warm but not directly in front of the fire, on newspaper, slowly drying out. Nowadays I put newspaper filled wet shoes in the airing cupboard… which brings me onto Ruth’s next piece of advice:

Then you probably know the shoes need airing. For this reason they’re best parked on a rack in an airy place. But as a matter of fact, strong as it is, leather is quite temperamental stuff. It’s sensitive to extreme mes of temperature, for one thing. For another, it’s affected by perspiration. There are acids in perspiration which have a rotting effect. That’s why the importance of airing shoes must be emphasised – to give them a chance to breathe and get rid of this acidity.

I think there are only trace amounts of lactic acid in sweat… but even so, I’m sure Ruth is right to advise shoe airing!

Another point about equipment

As you may know, I find ordinary domestic details from the past absolutely fascinating. Ruth drew, a journalist, writer and broadcaster, sounds a real character – I never heard any of her live broadcasts, but I have the collection of some of her work which was published posthumously in 1964, four years after her untimely death. She writes so informatively, and yet humorously, quirkily, who would have thought an article about shoe cleaning could be interesting?!

Another point about equipment: it’s important to work with clean tools, shoes don’t like dirty clogged brushes, and dusters any more than noses like dirty powder puffs. And a shampoo for them only takes a few minutes.

What she says is patently true, clean tools are important for any job. Yet, the analogy dates this completely – she is writing for women, women who will be cleaning the shoes, and women who in those days all had compacts and powder puffs. (I mentioned a few days ago about ashtrays – that most young people would see a domestic ashtray from the past and think it a little dish for something, something edible or just for bits and pieces. In the same conversation with my friend about ashtrays we talked about powder compacts and powder puffs, who has a compact these days?) Back to Ruth:

Now you may well say this is all very well for people who trot about on town pavements. But what about shoes which come in plastered with country mud? Well, sometimes, when the mud’s dry, it can be brushed off. otherwise the answer’s first a wash with plain water and then a careful slow drying in an airy place not near radiators, or toasting like crumpets in front of the fire. All the mud has to be shifted before the shoes are dried and polished. if not you’re left with crusty blobs of dried mud rising reproachfully under the polish. And no amount of guilty rubbing’s going to see the back of them.
Warmth is a help when you’re polishing shoes. If you work with slightly warm dusters and brushes the polish comes up quickly and can save you time and elbow grease.

What lovely images – shoes toasting like crumpets, crusty blobs of mud rising reproachfully, guilty rubbing… Who could not find Ruth endearing?

Clean shoes

I’ve mentioned before that we have so many ‘products’ and the materials and fabrics we have are so designed to be ‘easy-clean’ that many of the chores which our parents and grandparents did as a matter of course, we re totally ignorant of. A stain on our trousers – some squirt or foam will sort that out! A mark on our trainers? A quick scrub with a baby-wipe (yes really, baby-wipes are just the job!) and the mark disappears. Something like grass, mud, wine is in evidence on some item of clothing and in a trice it is gone!

In the past, cleaning involved actual effort… and in fact, that effort could be enjoyable, for its own sake, but also because the end result was so pleasing. Ruth Drew, writer and journalist, found a great deal of pleasure in ordinary domestic tasks – and that, no doubt, is why she wrote  her articles and scripts, later brought together in the posthumously published book, The Happy Housewife.

Shoes: – Anyone can do the job,providing they’re prepared to spare the time and trouble. But only the enthusiasts know what a pleasure show polishing can be. The clean fresh smell – the rhythmic to and for movement – not too hard – just a steady loving massage – and then the satisfaction of seeing the leather come to life. Very rewarding.
What are the essentials for successful shoe cleaning? To begin with it’s worth investing in proper equipment – comfortable-to-grip brushes – really soft dusters – and perhaps a velvety pad for finishing touches. And of course it pays to buy the best quality polish and to keep the lids properly on the tins and jars. otherwise you’re faced with cracked dried-up stuff which drops crumbily on to the floor instead of sliding creamily over the shoe leather. But – and it’s an important but – it’s a common mistake to use too much polish. You need just the light dip of a duster-covered finger-end for a whole shoe. And then plenty of steady light rubbing. On the whole it’s best to use coloured polish – brown for brown shoes, blue for blue and so on. But a tube of white cream is worth having because it does for all colours and it’s easy to pack when you’re travelling.

I often think it was a different world… packing shoe cleaning equipment never even occurs to me when I’m going on holiday!

Treat umbrellas kindly…

As a post script to Ruth Drew’s advice on cleaning umbrellas, particularly silk ones (I didn’t know there were silk umbrellas) I share further thoughts from her on looking after your brolly. Just thinking about umbrella reminded me of various stories where they play an important role… with people concealing things in them, using them as weapons, using them as a distraction – and who could forget Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit? She even for a while gave her name to umbrellas.

I came across these other novels featuring umbrellas

  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  • Howards End, by EM Forster 
  • Father Brown stories, by GK Chesterton 
  • Amerika, by Franz Kafka 
  • Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne 
  • Mary Poppins, by PL Travers 
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis 
  • The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene 
  • Umbrella, by Ferdinand Mount 

… and you can find out more here:


However, back to Ruth Drew; this is the time of year when umbrellas come into their own, and when you come home with the poor things sodden and dripping this is what you should do:

Don’t forget to treat umbrellas kindly. It is not a good idea to leave even a damp umbrella rolled up, let alone a sopping wet one. Unless yours is a nylon umbrella, wet will rot the fabric – and seep through and rust the spokes. So a good shake is what’s needed – even for the nylon kind – and then a little time to dry with the spokes open.

One thing which afflicts damp umbrellas left to dry all rolled up is smell – a nasty musty almost foetid smell will develop, and then envelop you next time you’re walking along beneath it in the pouring rain…


Treating silk umbrellas warily

I’m not really an umbrella person, although my fictional Victorian umbrella factory museum appears fairly regularly in what I write. I have occasionally possessed an umbrella, but never used it very often, and usually it would disappear into the back of a cupboard, or just disappear. The idea of cleaning an umbrella never occurred to me, but I guess we are fortunate enough to live somewhere with clean air and so it has never been needed – even if I’d thought of it.

However in the past, when most homes were heated by coal fires, and most industry powered by it, keeping anything clean was a massive problem. I’ve read that people working in London would take a spare collar and cuffs to change into at lunchtime… back when collars and cuffs were removable.

Here is some advice from Ruth Drew, probably written in the forties or fifties, on how to clean your umbrella – just in case you need to or want to:

You would think that, in this country, umbrellas would have all the natural cleaning that they require, but it is surprising how often they become grubby in the folds. Cleaning, however, presents one or two difficulties.
Silk umbrellas have to be treated very warily. For example, you can affect both the proofing of the silk and the colour if you clean with spirit or shampoo, whether it is based on soap or soapless detergent. Quite a lot of grubbiness yields to sponging with plain tepid water, and this is as much as you can do. If the umbrella is made of nylon, it is perfectly safe to sponge with mild soapless detergent, and then with clear water as a rinse. In either case, you obviously then leave the umbrella open to dry, and, equally obviously, you are careful to dry the metal spokes with a clean soft cloth, so that there is no danger of rusting.

I think there is a typo in the original – I’m sure Ruth would have rinsed with clean as opposed to clear water!

I am intrigued by the shampoo – is it ordinary hair shampoo, or special umbrella shampoo? Hmmm… maybe I should investigate…

When winter comes

it really is winter, I can’t deny it… plenty of mists still – especially here so near the sea we get fret rolling in off the water, but no more mellow fruitfulness. So warm coats, warm boots, and above all scarfs, I love scarfs… However, looking through the Happy Housewife, by Ruth Drew, a collection of her writings published posthumously, I find she has plenty to say on winter boots. We are so lucky not only with the warm environment most of us live in, central heating, efficient fires – gas, electricity, solid fuel, wood-burning, double glazing, insulation, most of us with cars, all the shops blasting heat wastefully… we are so lucky that maybe we ought to think back to not so long ago when we really had to properly dress up to cope with the weather.

I’m not sure when Ruth write this, whether it was the 1940’s or 50’s; a lifetime ago whenever it was! Here she tells us how to clean the lambswool lining of boots – I assume they were removable.

Winter boots: When winter comes, questions about  cleaning lambswool lining of winter boots are never far behind. Of course it is very snug to have lambswool making a neat little ankle ruff at the top of one’s boot, but all too soon the wool gets dirty, and then comes the problem of cleaning. One possible way is to treat the lining with one of the dry cleaning powders. You sprinkle the powder on fairly lavishly, leave it for an hour or so and then brush it off, but d this out in the open if you want to avoid a sneezing fit.
Although this method is fairly effective, why not give the lambswool a shampoo? This method is more like shampooing a carpet on a very small scale, and indeed one of the soapless detergent carpet shampoos can be used. These are quite good for the job, because they whip up into a really rich foam which is exactly what you want. You begin by giving the lambswool a really good brushing with a stiff clothes-brush and a surprising amount of powdered mud usually comes off.
The next stage is to scoop up some of the foam, making sure that you avoid picking up any liquid and brush it quickly over a little stretch of wool. You then rub smartly with a clean, dry towel, preferably a rough one. If you are careful you can do this without wetting the upper part of the boots. This is most important if the boots are made of suede, because this treatment can leave an unpleasant watermark if you allow dirty water to trickle down.
By way of a rinse, it is best to use clean, warm water with a dash of household ammonia. You simply wring out a small cloth in the ammonia water, and give the lambswool a quick rub all over. The only thing then is to dry the wool, and there is no harm in putting the boots, on their sides, fairly near to a fire or radiator. But of course not so near as to cause scorching! The final job, when the lambswool is completely dry, is to give it another brush, but not with the clothes brush you used for brushing off the mud!

We take modern, easily cleanable fabrics and materials for granted; even suedes and leathers are treated to help keep them clean and waterproof; we have so many products – the world is full of products – to clean every imaginable thing, and I’m positive there are special products to clean every imaginable type of fabric or material. We might  have a lot of cleaning things, but we don’t have the actual household chemicals so common fifty years ago; I’m pretty sure hardly anyone has amonia tucked away under the sink – not in its neat, unbranded form anyway! In this way, our homes are so much safer, and although accidents still do happen, I’m sure there are not so many.

So there you have it (as they say on Masterchef after demonstrating a fiendishly difficult ‘simple’ dish) – now you know how to clean the lambswool lining of winter boots.