Household hints

[I have made a few revisions in light of correspondence.]


Over the weekend, I touched upon a major public health crisis, perhaps the most consequential of our time: that of excessive cleanliness. The cause of it is obvious: spilt religion. Spiritual rituals of purification have been “materialized,” and the sleepwalker begins to wash hands, like Lady Macbeth. We, at least here in the FWFC (the Far West of Former Christendom) no longer feel comfortable in our skins, nor able to cope with the plainer facts of life. We compensate for irreligion not only by obsessive showering and bathing, but by attempts to sterilize everything in sight. The result is the progressive disintegration of our immune systems, setting us up for terrible plagues, that will eventually be triggered by minor allergens.

Moderation in all worldly things: Mediaeval Man kept himself clean, and bathed frequently enough. The sensible practices of the Ancient World were simply carried forward. In my experience the people of what Mao called the Third World are also cleanly by disposition. There is a human and animal instinct to wash, which is not unreasonable. Indeed, it is universal (“catholic”). But in our present circumstances it has come off the rails.

As ever, the actual history contradicts received progressive views. Should he inquire, gentle reader will find that neurotic health obsessions arose not in the Middle but in the Modern Ages — specifically, in the sixteenth century, coterminously with the Reformation. Strange notions, such as the belief that disease spread exclusively through water, led to a period when bathing was replaced with perfuming. That, along with witchcraft and other hysterias arose at many (chiefly north European) locations. From one extreme, we swing to the other. Our own dietary and environmental neuroses, the omnipresent fads and frauds, are prefigured in that age when Western civilization was losing its spiritual poise.

But this is a huge topic. One hardly knows where to start, for one must face down mental infirmities (“Omigod, I’m using the wrong soap!”) long reinforced by vested commercial interests. A walk down any supermarket cleaning aisle will make my argument, admirably. Dangerous industrial bleaches and detergents; germicides, herbicides, pesticides; all kinds of lethal chemicals and extractions, originally designed for extreme situations, are now shamelessly hawked to the mass market for everyday use. Environmentalist hysterias have in turn launched yet more formulaic products, often as dangerous, and based on even falser claims — taking people “to the cleaners” by exploiting their ignorance, their cravings (often artificially induced), and the lassitude that is the ground condition of superficially frenetic modern life.


We must start somewhere, however, and why not here?

Water is one of the two essential elements in almost every cleaning process. The other is scrubbing. Only the water could cost money, and invariably it is over-used. People rendered inhuman by their ugly jobs imagine themselves physically exhausted, and hence avoid effort on the scrubbing side. They hire illegal immigrants to do this for them — then paradoxically go jogging (with their heads plugged into demonic music); or indulge in other vain and showy physical activities. (Tennis, anyone?)

If you can’t really afford an Hispanic or Filipina (materially or spiritually), then DIY. Household cleaning provides a wonderfully complete exercise regime, which will also spare you the cost of a gym membership.

On the Internet, we read sweet young things giving plausible advice. They’ll say, “This is how it was done by my grandmother!” But these kids today have grandparents who were baby boomers. For better advice, we need to go farther back. No grandparent born later than 1899 can be trusted; for the economy of (impostured) “labour saving” burst forth just after the Great War.

And so, as a public service, I will transcribe a few notes which, I admit, go back only two-thirds of a century. I shall plagiarize from my late mama’s scribbles, clippings and marginalia, beginning the year she was married. But I specify that most of this was in turn copied from a sainted mother-in-law, and a mother back in Cape Breton — both born in the more reliable age. Or from a woman’s encyclopaedia that was, even in 1948, splendidly out-of-date.

I append only what I have tried myself, and stuck with, up here in the High Doganate; and have overwritten some of mama’s notes with my own comments. I recommend each of these household hints, on grounds that it will get things clean enough, short of space-station bacteria free.

Note that a few cheap simple ingredients are all you need. Some double as edible. Note also that they are easier to find in immigrant corner stores than in large supermarkets, whose managers don’t like the profit margins on them.


Scouring powder. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), not Comet. If the issue is serious, add borax and salt. The joke of scrubbing with industrial caustics is, they micro-engrave enamel and other surfaces. Think for a moment. This gives germs a place to hang out.

Sink, tub, and tile. Vinegar and water. Leave it wet for twenty minutes before scrubbing with a sponge. (For sponges, you may grow your own loofies in the garden by the hundred; or buy them from Whole Earth for $19.99 apiece.)

Toilet cleaner. As everyone knows, Coca-Cola makes a superb toilet cleaner. But if you don’t have any in the house (and why would you?) go with undiluted vinegar. A nice trick: pour a bucket of water down the toilet first, which clears the bowl and lowers the water level.

Odours. A wee bowl of baking soda in the ice box or fridge. Borax around the toilet. Tobacco smoke is a marvellous incense for the public areas; pipe by preference, but cigar and cigarette — all good. Frankincense and myrrh also recommended; and surplus fresh herbs trampled on the floors. (This is not the place to discuss personal deodorants.)

Laundry detergent. You can make your own: soap flakes, washing soda (sodium carbonate), borax. Soak the hard stuff overnight in a tub of water; perhaps with a splash of vinegar. And vinegar in the rinse. And remember, throughout the centuries, and even today in that Third World, washer-women use water alone. Verily, water that fish swam in.

Mould and mildew. The best bleach is sunlight — from the Sun, ventilated by a gentle breeze. Borax is pretty effective, too. Hydrogen peroxide might also be mentioned, because it is less lethal than chlorines.

Lime and mineral deposits. Vinegar, vinegar, more vinegar. A good use for a plastic bag, and a rubber band, is to put vinegar in the former and use the latter to clamp round a shower head or other faucet. Leave it on overnight. Stuff comes off like a charm in the morning. Vinegar takes the calcium out of kettles, of course. (You didn’t know that? Oh, Lord.) … And by the way, get a proper full-strength vinegar, not the diluted fairy salad kind.

Spot remover. Borax dissolved in hot water. Let cool, then rub with a clean sponge. This goes for carpets as well as laundry. For wine stains, every chemistry student will tell you to use salt. This lifts the wine, and leaves a salt stain instead. Never take advice from young chemistry students.

Drain cleaner. Vinegar, baking soda, boiling water. You need kids for this. They will want to watch what happens when the vinegar hits the soda.

Window cleaner. Vinegar in water. Newspapers to rub. (The electronic editions can’t even wrap fish.)

Eyeglass cleaner. A slightly dampened microfibre cloth will leave nor streaks nor splotches. But that is post-modern, so until further notice, wash them with the glassware in the kitchen sink.

Plastics. Are essentially unwashable. Put all plastics in the municipal garbage.

Floor cleaner. Less vinegar, more water. Add washing soda or soap flakes if the floor is really filthy; olive oil rubbed in wood to shine. The correct position for floor washing is prayerfully on your knees; but mops are admissible if you are dressed for the grand ball.

Upholstered furniture. A decadent invention. Discard.

Shoe shine. Rub with inside of banana peel, buff with paper towel. Beeswax for waterproofing. But if you have to renew the blacking, no alternative to commercial shoe polish is in sight. Alas, it vents neurotoxins, like most other things from the big box stores. These tend to reduce your brain to porage, and in extreme cases could turn you into a liberal.

Paper towels. According to my mama, the one useful, disposable invention of the twentieth century. You wipe up the worst of the grease and gunk with them, making what’s left a snip. And they are biodegradable, flammable, or flushable — as convenient. A bit extravagant, perhaps, but children can save you lots on paper towels. (“Finish everything on that plate or I’ll kill you.”)

Disinfectant. You don’t need it unless performing open-heart surgery in your living room. Alcohol for topical antiseptic (e.g. inferior blended whisky). Borax will do around the toilet. It is true I use full-strength (made-in-India) Dettol sometimes, but only because the smell takes me back to childhood in Lahore.

Dusting. Sheep-wool dusters, which capture the mites electrostatically rather than tossing them back in the air. (Shake the thing out, outside.) For wiping: a cloth dampened only by your own wetted hand — as every English butler once knew (and would still know, were there still English butlers).

Vacuum cleaner. Makes enough noise to induce fits of violence, and is otherwise vile and evil. Get rid of it. Buy a broom.

Dishwashing and laundry machines. Likewise to be banned. Hand-washing anything is a sensual pleasure, yet highly compatible with philosophical and theological contemplation. The trick is raising the tubs to a comfortable height, and supplying the requisite counter and sorting spaces (i.e. shelves) — especially if you have “back issues.” Plus low stools, so you may put short children to work, or sit yourself in an indoor pond environment.

Dishwashing. Washing soda is the thing, a tablespoon stirred into the water. Or soap flakes, which you can make yourself by grating; or a bar of traditional tallow soap (I swear by Clarim, the Portuguese brand), for which grandma used to own a metal box with holes. You won’t get bubbles, but you don’t need them. Instead the water will look grey. But the dishes will come out clean enough. A shot of vinegar in the rinse tub, and they will sparkle.

Soap. You don’t even need shampoo; “conditioners” are for rakes and dandies. If you are a girl, perhaps I might allow you to use glycerine soap, instead of tallow (or lye); but it is rather expensive.

Brass, copper, pewter. Salt and vinegar, thickened into a paste with flour. On old copper and brass, lemon juice is arguably better. It will not destroy the patina.

Chrome and stainless steel. Cloth dipped in vinegar.

Silverware. Toothpaste is perfect, and a soft toothbrush. (Making your own toothpaste is for a later class.)

Rust removal. Steel wool dipped in vegetable oil.

Filth in the soul. That’s a job for the priests. Go frequently to Confession.

In general. Memorize choice liturgical and biblical passages, the Psalms, and other great poetry (such as Dante, in Italian); plus dramatic passages when working in tandem (from Aeschylus, or Shakespeare) that can be recited in dialogue, with “voices off.” (Or for a sonnet, say alternate lines.) And of course, learn to sing, including madrigals and other part-music for all family and communal labour. There is also a heritage of agreeable work songs; and you may want to compose your own.

For work should be joyful, not only in practice, but in blesséd memory.