Are people with good laundry habits morally superior to the sloppy masses? I think this might actually be so, even though I usually fail to live up to my tidy ideals.
I was mightily impressed one evening, for instance, when another writer I know impulsively invited a bunch of people over for an after-party, as we like to say here in Hollywood. She could do this because, despite her slacker/hipster persona, she kept her apartment neat as a pin. Her lingerie was evidently always washed the “good girl” way (sudsed by hand, carefully arranged on a drying rack over the tub, as party guests couldn’t help but notice), rather than tossed in with sheets and towels, as is my sad habit.
The correct way to wash your underwear has been on my mind ever since I read housekeeping guru Cheryl Mendelson’s descriptions of “How Good Girls Wash Their Underclothes” and “How Most Women Wash Their Underclothes” in her surprise 1999 bestseller Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, currently in its 11th printing. Now Mendelson has revised and expanded these chapters into a new book, Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens, just in time for this year’s spring cleaning.
Don’t mistake Mendelson for a clueless, Stepford Wife-style drudge, though. She approaches the subject of housekeeping with the cold logic of a Harvard-educated litigation lawyer (which she was) and the cerebral analysis of a Ph.D. in philosophy (which she is). She applies social theorist James Q. Wilson’s famous “Broken Windows” idea of urban policing to household mess; just as Wilson argued that unmended broken windows send a message that no one cares and invite criminals to do worse, Mendelson sees even a little household mess as the first step to domestic chaos.
She has a dry wit when it comes to common assumptions about housekeeping, noting how she knows from experience that the people most familiar with boring, repetitive tasks are lawyers. Her frequent deadpan irony, however, has a core of complete seriousness. “The old rules no longer seem to work,” she writes in Laundry about the current devolution of sorting habits, “and the standard consequence of a breakdown in rules and values has ensued: the youth have become skeptical and nihilistic. They do not believe it is possible to figure it all out. They do not sort their clothes for laundering, and they sneer that sorting makes no difference. But they are wrong.”
Her writing about housekeeping is steeped in literary references. Watching the current PBS series Bleak House, reminded me of Mendelson’s observation that “the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away. In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys.”
Mendelson’s mastery of the nuts-and-bolts of housekeeping–including the vanishing arts of sewing, knitting, and even embroidery–comes from a childhood spent on a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania, in an extended family that included two old-fashioned grandmothers. “I grew up in the 19th-Century,” she’s fond of saying, and thus soaked up knowledge lost to most women of baby-boomer age (Mendelson’s own generation) and younger.
“There is such growing ignorance on so many subjects that matter,” she added, speaking over the phone from her New York home. As a result, consumers of household products are almost completely at the mercy of advertising.
“Manufacturers grow sloppier and sloppier as they can assume customers don’t know any better,” Mendelson explained. “My grandmothers didn’t go to college but they knew what was in cleaners. People now know to get spot remover, but they don’t know why.”
She gives as an example of contemporary laundry ignorance the rise of the duvet-and-comforter “European bed.” Make up your bed in two shakes! is how these things are marketed. But changing a duvet or washing a comforter is really not so easy, so most people just don’t do it very often.
This is rather stomach-turning when you think about it, and after reading Mendelson’s detailed explanation about why beds should be made up of two easily washed sheets–”they receive saliva, perspiration [as much as a cup each night], body oils and more intimate fluids, skin flakes”–you will try hard not to think about it.
Cooking and decorating have been more popular media topics in recent years than laundry, Mendelson added, because men cook and men decorate. Anything that’s seen as essentially women’s work is relegated to a netherworld of untouchably low status. And laundry was for years so back-breakingly laborious that even the poor sent their clothes out to the local washerwoman, if they could possibly scrape up a few extra dollars.
Even baby boomers are too young to remember those days. But I still recall my mother, who was born in the ’30s, announcing one afternoon as she marched through the house carrying a basket of dirty clothes, “Thank God for the washing machine, the greatest invention of the 20th-Century!”
Housekeeping is really not an area where there is room for moral relativism. There is a right way and a wrong way and attempting to find wriggle room usually ends badly. After I first read Home Comforts, I was inspired to polish the silver, something I hadn’t done for months. This left me with a few very dirty cleaning rags.
My inner slattern wondered: Do I really have to wash them separately like Cheryl Mendelson says? There weren’t enough dirty rags to make a full load, and I needed to wash some other things. As a result, my clothes and I smelled like silver-wear polish for a week.
“Oh,” Mendelson chuckled comfortably when I told her about this laundry misadventure, “I could have told you that.”
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.