I had a long chat over a big breakfast with a chum who was grumbling about her house. She threw out her back recently manhandling a heavy carton of papers. The experience made her conscious of the many knots in her system for managing maintenance and inventory. My friend is of the charming clutter school of English housekeeping, and she does it very well. Her husband designs in three dimensions and adds his work and collections to the mix. Our two hour discussion raised all the issues common to anyone who manages the nuts and bolts of life support.
Ellie mentioned the academic school of housekeeping that values intellect over cleanliness. Many highly educated women hold a clean dwelling in contempt. That’s their blues, I suppose, and an understandable reaction to the “crazy clean” policies of their mothers. Unfortunately, the crazy clean school evolved from the elementary sanitary practices of domestic life before antibiotics. The first wave of respect for the labor of women defined housekeeping as their separate sphere of endeavor. It coincided with Pasteur’s germ theory, and domestic hygiene was the front line of public health.
Domestic hygiene still is the front line of public health, especially now that bacteria are resisting antibiotics and global air travel has distributed the risk of contagion. Mold is carcinogenic. Dust accelerates the deterioration of furnishings: undisturbed dust collects humidity, and the combination generates pits on wood finishes and a depressing glaze on windows. Walking on a dusty floor is like rubbing it with fine sandpaper. Walking on a dirty rug cuts the fibers away from the backing.
The processes described above cannot be negotiated away, nor can the risks to the family’s health.
It’s easier to keep a place clean than get it clean. Doing so protects the often substantial investment in furnishings. Don Aslett’s Is There Life After Housework? covers both basic tasks and the rhetoric of housekeeping denial. His Clutter’s Last Stand is the operating manual for dealing with a pack rat. Cherly Mendelsohn’s Home Comforts is an encyclopedia of decent living. The British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping covers the high end, and Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette lists the fine points.
Long ago I swore that nothing in my care would deteriorate on my watch. Nothing has, because much of what had been in my care is now in the care of others. The keys to understanding a simple household are two. First, historically, fine furnishings were a store of wealth at a time when few other relatively liquid stores of wealth existed. Second, complex furnishings offered a feast of visual information at a time when media were not deliverable. Five minutes on any screen will deliver more visual information than most people saw in a life time.
In 2007, I chanced to visit two households that were identically furnished. Each had a living room dominated by a large flat panel video monitor. At the foot of each screen stood a guitar in a stand. One was acoustic, the other electric. Leather sofas seated guests and the family. There were simple cooking facilities at the other end of each room. One house was a small mansion set on a mountain top overlooking the Stanford campus. It belonged to a member of the computer science faculty. His other job was investment banker. The second house was part of a new development on the outskirts of Port Orchard, Washington. The family’s circumstances were modest, though their building was new. Each household had independently arrived at the same straightforward solution to heavy occupational demands on their time.
There comes a time when the willingness to work harder, faster, and longer expires. That’s the time to take a coffee nap. Drink a brew, lie down, doze and consider the day until the coffee requires a trip to the bathroom. The interval will give you time to outthink your schedule instead of outworking it. Buckminster Fuller used to call this kind of rest “taking a dog nap”.
Living with a skater taught me many an easy trick in managing daily life. A skater’s sense of flow rightly trumps all other considerations. The great domestic emancipator Christine Frederick brought Frederick Taylor’s principles of industrial efficiency into the home. Whining about housework is not the path of least resistance. An effectively slothful housekeeper is conscious of every move, and makes the fewest ones necessary to wrangle the workload into submission.
Store things where you use them first. Set up so you can keep your balance when you’re working. Leave things ready to use again when you’re finished. If you’re behind (who isn’t?), define a few private days for the place to blossom into the special kind of disorder that is really productive activity. The few principles mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph are enough to guide you through the maze of decisions that leads to clear decks.
Some times it’s helpful simply to discard a frozen project or ask yourself “what’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t…?” In 2014, I ask myself how much it will cost me if I don’t...and then define the number of dollars I am willing to risk from inaction. So far, that kind of decision-making hasn’t cost a dime and has generated a petty fortune in unencumbered time. Using Taylorist principles of work flow is like having an unpaid assistant who’s on call 24/7.
I managed to keep my white gloves off the baseboards during a recent visit to the apartment of younger friends. My not so inner housekeeper grew restless, though. Restless until I had legitimate reason to open the refrigerator of my foodie hostess: it was medically clean, a perfect complement to the charred bottoms of the pots hanging over the gas range.
Five generations' keeping house in Western Washington know how to get the job done. Deft Home is the fruit of thirty years’ independent research with casual scholarship, deep-time experience, and no ties to commerce.
Deft home is about doing things the easy way, doing things you won’t get tired of, doing things in little specks of time, and doing things effectively so you won’t have to do them again. It’s also about working with things you already have or have scrounged, about respecting tradition and family legacies, and about making time to enjoy your living quarters. It’s about dignity, self-reliance, and innovation. Especially, Deft Home is about respecting the basics and the labor it takes to keep them right. Hope you enjoy the site as much as I enjoy developing the material.