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!