It’s not a dirty little secret anymore

“I am a working woman with a secret life. I keep house.”

So begins Cheryl Mendelson’s 884-page love song to domestic life, the sleeper hit Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House.

Mendelson was raised at the knee of her two grandmothers, both expert housekeepers–one in the old Italian tradition, one in the English. Then she grew up, became an attorney, and put her hard-earned skills aside. Her domestic knowledge was viewed as outdated (at best) or embarrassing (at worst) in polite adult company.

But Mendelson couldn’t give it up so easily. Housekeeping, she found, is ultimately about making your home a place in which you can feel at home. The art of keeping house was too important to let it remain her dirty little secret.

Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. 31 days of cult classics | Modern Mrs Darcy

This three pound manual contains detailed instructions for every possible household task, a history of housework in America and abroad, and exhaustive reasons why it’s worth caring about. For over a decade, housekeeping fans have found validation and haters have found encouragement in its pages.

Home Comforts helped transform what used to be some women’s “dirty little secret” into a source of pride, long before the cult of domesticity started gathering steam. It’s useful enough to earn a place on every home’s bookshelf, but little known enough that you can confidently gift it to a college grad without worrying she’ll get three more copies at her graduation party. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Seuss.)

Have you read this book? Love it? Hate it?  Can you relate to Mendelson’s secret life? 



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  1. Erika says:

    I have never heard of this book, but would love to check it out. I am a newlywed trying to find my own style and way of keeping home. Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

  2. I had it for a long time but she is a bit too detailed of a housekeeper for me. I am a much more relaxed housekeeper. I don’t do yearly spring cleanings or things like that but it is a very good resource for young women who are just learning to be housekeepers.

  3. Corrie Anne says:

    I’m a big fan of this book!! I think I saw on it in your best book you’ve never read series. I liked her concept that the reason that we don’t like housework is that we feel like it’s never done. I think of it all the time now!! Also, I was just at a community group with our newish church, and I spied this book on their bookshelf. 🙂

  4. Jillian Kay says:

    I’ve had this on my paperbackswap wishlist forever. I’m interested to read it. I’m selective in my housekeeping. Ironing and cooking are satisfying to me. Matching socks, doing dishes, and actually cleaning things are not. I don’t suspect I’ll read the solution in a book, but I’m still eager to give this one a try.

  5. Rachael says:

    I LOVE this book and reread it occasionally. Its a great reference, even if you don’t do all that she talks about in the time she says it ought to be done. I’m regularly looking up how to do this that or the other.

    I’ve got a review of this book on my blog, as well as a discussion of it in the context of the larger topic of homekeeping. I highly recommend it.

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  7. Karlyne says:

    It is an embarassing secret! I remember talking to one of my best friends (first looking around to make sure no other adults were listening) about actually loving housework and giggling guiltily at her surreptitious reply, “Me, too!” From our attitudes it must have looked like we were talking about orgies or illegal drugs…

  8. Erin says:

    I have to say, I would’ve been HUGELY offended to get this as a college graduation gift. (But then, I’m also a terrible housekeeper.)

    • Karlyne says:

      Would you have been offended at any self-help book? I mean, like auto mechanics or plumbing how-tos? Or a cookbook? I love those kinds of books, so I’d be hard to offend in that way. Hmmm. I guess I’d be offended at a book on beauty or hair-cutting or, maybe, “How to Balance Your Checking Account”…

      • Erin says:

        That’s a good question, Karlyne. I think that for 21-year-old college graduate me, the message would have been: “You just got your degree — now instead of going out and conquering the world, you can focus on becoming an expert housekeeper!” Just not the kind of message that I, personally, would want to have received at that time. And I would not give it to a graduate (of either sex) today. I guess I would stay away from self-help books of any kind — unless they were requested.

        • Anne says:

          Oh no! I’m glad I didn’t gift it to you then!

          It would be a terrible stand-alone grad gift (for the reasons you mentioned, but graduation springs to mind because that’s the point at which many twentysomethings move into a place that’s entirely their own for the first time. But I would gift it (along with a nice bottle of wine) to males OR females for a housewarming, as a reference book. (I also love Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language for this kind of thing.)

          You make a great point: be really careful about what books you give people!

          • Ana says:

            I too would have been (and definitely would be now!) offended; and I am not easily offended. Yes “how to balance a checking account” and ESPECIALLY a book about beauty would be equally offensive. Even as a housewarming (by the time I’d bought my first house, I’d been “keeping house” for years, so…did you think my condo or apartment was a disaster? I’ll be honest…I think self-help books are personalized and private purchases. Unless you have specifically had a conversation with the person about said thing, I’d find it kind of odd… (“A Pattern Language” is a different genre altogether…I gave that book to my husband for a birthday present because he’s into that kind of thing. Lord help him if he tries to give me a housekeeping book for my birthday!!)

          • Karlyne says:

            I think that it’s it; you need to know the person you’re giving the book to – any kind of book! By the way, my favorite gift to a male high school graduate (who was on his way to linesman school) was a cool pasta pan/strainer and a big full-colored pasta cookbook. And, in the card I told him that “girls love a man who can cook”. It was well-received, I guarantee!

  9. Jami says:

    Love this book! Purchased it when I stepped away from my career and gave birth to our first. She not only gave the how to’s I desperately needed, but she also gave me the whys. I’ve been giving it to college graduates and newlyweds ever since. Oh, they look at me like I’m crazy, but I know that it’s only a matter of time before word gets back to me how much they’ve used it.

  10. Faigie says:

    I bought this years ago (in hardcover) I. don’t like housekeeping too much but, thought maybe it would help me get into it. It didn’t…it seems to be a book for those who really like housekeeping and want to do it the best way possible

  11. Ana says:

    I don’t HATE house-keeping but the thought of books about it stresses me out…I don’t want to read about what I’m doing wrong or not doing altogther (a recent short article in a magazine about cleaning your bathroom also started stressing me out, because I do NOT soak and scrub my shower head every 2 weeks, or clean all the grout on any kind of regular basis). Our home is decently clean, we outsource some but do the daily stuff ourselves every day (because how could you outsource the thrice-daily sweeping up of cheerios and currently-in-season pomegranate seeds?) I can get into a zen thing with dishwashing and laundry folding—I think I’ve got a laid back but on-top-of attitude that I don’t need to shatter right now…

  12. I LOVE this book. Even though I’m not even close to being the sort of housekeeper she is – I love knowing how to do it if I wanted to do it “right” if that makes sense. I love how she writes about why it matters. I had it on my wishlist for ages, and found a copy at my library’s book sale. $1 for the hardcover, in great shape. 🙂

  13. Sarah R says:

    I love this book! Between this and Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping, I have references for any kind of household problem I might encounter. I still enjoy reading through her section on tea, what makes a bedroom work, and how a kitchen should be set up. It’s been very helpful!

  14. Crystal Rose says:

    I’ve paged through it. I’m a horrible housekeeper though not for want of trying. I dream of one day having something like this committed to memory. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m in awe of the women I know who are actually good at it.

  15. Shannon says:

    I do actually own this book. Oddly enough, my husband brought it home for me. He thinks its a great “go to” for all sorts of home related things. I find her a little intense, but no more than Martha and those who followed after her, but I do love how she goes into the dirty little details.

  16. E says:

    I adore this book! I bought it for myself after college. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve turned to the book for a solution in terms of cleaning. On occasion I even get a phone call from my mom (who is a remarkable homemaker in her own right) asking for an alternate solution to a homemaking dilemma. This book is a treasured volume!

  17. The greatest impact this book has made (so far) is that I have protected my mattress and pillows against dust-mites with guards. Her descriptions of bedrooms were beautiful and terrifying. 🙂

  18. Jules says:

    How funny. I gave this to my bridesmaids as a gift at my wedding. I was a little nervous (we’re all a professional bunch) but they loved it and still refer to it every now and then almost 14 years later.

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