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Get Swept Away By These 8 Facts About Spring Cleaning

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Spring is in the air—and so is the smell of lemon- and "sunshine meadow"-scented cleaning products. With the onslaught of reminders that spring is the time to give winter-worn dwellings a vigorous scrubdown, it can sometimes seem like the concept of a "spring clean" was invented to sell vacuums to guilt-ridden adults, the same way Valentine’s Day was invented to peddle chocolates and teddy bears to … guilt-ridden adults. But it turns out the custom of spring cleaning is actually much older than the dawn of modern cleaning supplies; the clean routine has roots around the world in religious customs that have existed for thousands of years.

1. PASSOVER MAY BE ONE OF THE OG SPRING CLEANS …

In the days leading up to Passover, the spring holiday during which leavened food, or chametz, is strictly forbidden, Jews traditionally clean their homes as a way to rid their spaces of any leftover traces of chametz from the preceding months. These days, busy New Yorkers observing Passover can hire a service to take care of the pre-holiday cleaning for them.sp;

2. … BUT ANCIENT PERSIANS SPRING CLEANED THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, TOO.

Then there’s the Ancient Persian festival of Nowruz, commemorating the Persian New Year that occurs on the vernal equinox, which is widely regarded as the first day of spring (usually on or around March 20). In the days leading up to Nowruz, ritual house cleaning called kooneh tekouni, or “shaking of the house” is practiced in preparation for the coming year. The celebration dates back more than 3000 years and is now primarily celebrated as a secular holiday in Iran and as a holy day in Zoroastrian communities.

3. THE THEME OF PRE-NEW YEAR'S CLEANING EXISTS IN CHINESE TRADITION, TOO.

Cleaning religious statues ahead of the Lunar New Year in Bali // Getty


Chinese New Year festivities can fall anywhere between late January and late February, depending on the lunar calendar, and the day after the Chinese New Year is widely regarded as the first official day of spring. Leading up to the Chinese New Year is a holiday called Ninyabaat, which typically falls on the 28th day of the 12thmonth of the Lunar calendar. According to the Cantonese saying, “Wash away the dirt on ninyabaat,” this day is designated for cleaning—a symbolic way to sweep away the bad luck of the previous year and prepare the home to receive the good luck of the coming New Year. In traditional Buddhist and Taoist dwellings, home statues and altars are given special care—in the days leading up to the New Year, old altar ornaments are burned and replaced with fresh decorations. Finally, on the first day of the New Year, brooms and dustpans are put away so that the coming year’s good luck can’t be swept away.

4. IN COLDER CLIMES, FIREPLACES MADE SPRING CLEANING NECESSARY.

Spring cleaning’s more secular iterations tie back to the hearth—when homes were heated by a fireplace and lit by candles, spring provided an opportunity to clear the home of leftover soot and wax. In the days long before the vacuum cleaner, spring was the time to air the house of its collected dust; the warm temperatures meant windows could finally be opened, allowing the breeze to carry away any filth that had accumulated over the winter months. But just because these cleanings weren’t religiously motivated doesn’t mean they were any less thorough; in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, the "Periodical Cleanings” section recommends the following: 

“…[i]t is usual to begin at the top of the house and clean downwards; moving everything out of the room; washing the wainscoting or paint with soft soap and water; pulling down the beds and thoroughly cleansing all the joints; ‘scrubbing’ the floor; beating feather beds, mattresses, and paillasse, and thoroughly purifying every article of furniture before it is put back in place. . . This general cleaning usually takes place in the spring or early summer, when the warm curtains of winter are replaced by the light and cheerful muslin curtains. The same thorough system of cleaning should be done throughout the house; the walls cleaned where painted, and swept down with a soft broom or feather brush where papered; the window and bed curtains, which have been replaced with muslin ones, carefully brushed, or, if they require it, cleaned; lamps not likely to be required, washed out with hot water, dried, and cleaned.”

5. SERVANTS CAME IN HANDY.

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While the intense cleanings described in Beeton’s guide were meant to be carried out by the servants of large estates, the majority of the era’s spring cleaning duties fell to the common woman. In an 1850 journal entry, featured in a 2000 Smithsonian exhibit on the history of housekeeping, women's rights activist Lydia Maria Child recounts that she, “[s]wept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times." Without the aid of modern day cleaning products, homemakers and “help” alike leaned heavily on a combination of elbow grease and household solutionslike lemon juice (used to clean colored marble), tea leaves (sprinkled damp over rugs to absorb odors), and even gin (suggested in a 1850 servant’s manual as a way to polish mirrors).  

6. THE PRECURSORS OF THE PRODUCTS WE USE TODAY EMERGED AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY.

1940s Hoover ad // Getty

The first motorized vacuum cleaner was invented in 1901; Lysol brand disinfectant, first introduced in late-19th century Europe, gained popularity in 1918 as a way to combat the spread of the Spanish flu. Even plain old soap underwent a transformation around this time—with the shortage in fats and oils caused by World Wars I and II, synthetic detergentswere introduced and subsequently shot up in popularity, surpassing the sales of normal soap by 1953.

7. THE BELIEF THAT THINGS ARE ONLY CLEAN IF THEY SMELL LIKE LEMON IS, AT THIS POINT, CULTURALLY INGRAINED.

Despite the advances in cleaning technologies, some of the mainstays of spring cleaning have remained the same. For example, the scents used in cleaning products have carried over from their most basic beginnings, leading to a prevalence of lemon-scented cleaners. “We like a ‘clean’ smell, which is not the smell of an absence of dirt but the smell of whatever chemicals are in the cleaning product we use,” Lucy Lethbridge, author of Spit and Polish: Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust and Decay, and Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, tells the Express. “We’ve made it all rather complicated with a dozen different chemical sprays, for bathrooms, for kitchens, for wooden furniture, for windows ... which could be happily replaced by a gallon container of distilled vinegar costing about £3.50 [around $5]—and all without the synthetic odor of artificial pine.”

8. SPRING CLEANING MAKES BIOLOGICAL SENSE, TOO.

The darkness of winter creates a boost in the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that causes sleepiness. With the arrival of spring, the increase in sunlight and decrease in melatonin gives us a natural energy boost, so it’s completely possible that the urge to clean in the springtime may simply stem from the body’s desire to simply get up and do stuff. According to Psychology Today, there’s a physical payoff to a cleaning as well: Clutter becomes an unnecessary, overwhelming stimulus that adds to stress and decreases physical activity. Neater spaces, by contrast, increase physical activity, as well as creativity and even the urge to eat more healthily. (Consider that the next time you're procrastinating breaking out the broom.) Happy scrubbing!

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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