I left home not knowing how to keep house. I didn’t know how to do laundry, clean a sink, or swish a toilet. I couldn’t mop the floor. I didn’t have a clue how often to change the sheets or wash the towels. And by the time I was old enough to realize that I should know how to do all these things already, I was way too embarrassed to ask. This was back in the days of dial-up internet access, so I couldn’t run to the computer and search for what I wanted to know–as if I even knew what to search for!
I got married, had a baby, and still thought I was the only incompetent housekeeper in town when my friend raved to me about her latest find: a giant book about housekeeping. “It’s like being introduced to a whole secret world I didn’t know existed. My mom didn’t teach me how to do any of this!”
I got myself my own copy of Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House and was hooked from the opening line: “I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house.” Cheryl Mendelson believes that domesticity is undervalued in America (c. 1999, when Home Comforts was first published). Far too many of us don’t know how to keep house, and we certainly don’t understand the deeper meanings behind housekeeping.
Mendelson contrasts her own generation’s attitudes towards keeping house with her grandmother’s,who first taught her that housework carries deep meaning, and finds that the loss is ours. (If you read the first chapter and find yourself longing for a grandmother who was an expert housekeeper in the old Italian–or old English–tradition, you’re not alone!)
Mendelson is passionate about the hows and whys of domesticity, and she has the utmost respect for housekeeping, which is ultimately about making your home into a place in which you can feel at home.
Mendelson’s enthusiasm for housekeeping is delightfully contagious. Far too many people think housework=drudgery, but Mendelson’s eloquent defense of the domestic arts inspires and reminds me that housework is worth doing, and doing well:
Modern housekeeping, despite its bad press, is among the most thoroughly pleasant, significant, and least alienated forms of work that many of us will encounter even if we are blessed with work outside the home that we like….Housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of. Each of its regular routines brings satisfaction when it is completed. These routines echo the rhythm of life…You get satisfaction not only from the sense of order, cleanliness, freshness, peace, and plenty restored, but from the knowledge that you yourself and those you care about are going to enjoy these benefits.
Mendelson cares greatly about the meanings of the domestic arts, but she also tells you how to get the job done. This 884-page book contains detailed instructions for every possible household task, so that I need never again skip mopping the floors or sanitizing the towels because I don’t know how. She explains traditional housekeeping routines as well as how to ease into a cleaning routine of your own.
Mendelson’s instructions for every possible laundry-related task fill 15 chapters and are so extensive I found Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens to be extraneous, and not half so interesting either. And she also has chapters devoted to topics I’ve never needed to know about, such as liability for home accidents, contracts for household help, and domestic employment laws.
I think that our culture values domesticity more today than it did when Home Comforts was first released twelve years ago, but Ms. Mendelson’s passion for housekeeping continues to inspire me, and I still regularly pull the book off the shelf when I’m not sure how best to tackle a household task.
Readers, have you read Home Comforts? How do you find out what you need to know about housekeeping? If you’ve got any great books or blogs to recommend, share them here!