Spring Cleaning in the 1890’s
~An Oral History Story~
One fall afternoon in 1976 when we were all sitting around my grandmother’s dining room table, we asked her to tell us more about the time when she was growing up in Ohio County. She was born in March 1889, and grew up in her parent’s two-story weather-boarded log home, with four sisters and four brothers. My grandmother’s job at home every day was to look after and take care of her little brother, Ollie Perry, born February 6, 1894, who died suddenly when he was four in August 1898, from spinal meningitis. He was sick with a high fever for only two or three days. When he died, her mother, Sarah (Sanders) Smith, was in a coma from typhoid fever. A sad story.
After Ollie’s funeral, while her mother was still sick and recovering, it became my grandmother’s next job at home to take care of the baby, Harb, born December 19, 1897, who was not quite one. Grandmother was nearly nine years old. It took several months, but her mother finally regained her health and for a long time afterwards, in the evenings, she would go to the back door and gaze out, thinking about Ollie Perry and, for an instant, wondered why he didn’t come indoors with the other children before dark.
Grandmother also told about the spring cleaning ritual each year at their home, which involved everyone in the family.
Retha: (my aunt). “And mama, you were telling us this morning about cleaning the house, and how you used the white sand to clean the floors.
Grandmother: “Spring cleaning happened at our house every year when I was growing up. Everybody - all of us kids had a hand in spring cleaning. We all knew how to work!
“Well, all the furniture was moved out of the room, and we would get white sand and scrub the floors with it. Used home-made lye soap and hot water. And they was scrubbed pretty and
white when we got through with them. Spotless! Walls and woodwork were washed down, too. Everything had to be clean. Everything! Spic and span.
“And the curtains had to be washed by hand, starched, stretched on stretchers, and ironed…with a flat iron, heated on top of our wood-burning stove. And the windows washed with water and vinegar, inside and outside, and dried with old newspapers until they nearly sparkled. Polished and oiled the furniture. Walls and ceilings were dusted. We used an old broom tied over with an old dampened pillow case. The painting had to go on.
“We beat the rugs. The carpet in the parlor was rolled up and put out on the clothes line and beaten by the boys with brooms to get the dust out. I can remember them having that carpet and it went from wall to wall and they tacked that. But they put down straw and leveled it under this blanket and then stomped and packed it down for a pad. And tacked it. I can remember them doing it, maybe one time. Doors and windows were opened wide to let in the fresh air.
“One of the boys cleaned out the fireplace and all the ashes taken out and spread in the garden spot. For fertilizer.
“The kitchen stove was cleaned and polished. And mother always got a new oil cloth for the kitchen table. In the fall time, the old one was unrolled and used to lay out on the porch roof to spread out layers of cut-up fruit – peaches, cherries, apples - to dry and put up for winter.”
Jerri: “Oh, and Retha, you should have heard her tell about the mattresses.”
Grandmother: “Yes, that’s when they threshed the wheat and had new straw put in the mattresses. And we wasn’t the only ones that had it. Everybody did. Because it was cooler than feather beds. Straw ticks. And they didn’t have zippers to zip everything up. Mother left this place in the center of the ticking and put button holes and buttons close together to button with, and we had to take the old straw out. And put in new. It was cooler and always smelled so good.
“In the winter, we used feather bed mattresses. Everybody had them. But straw ticks in the summer time. Until later on, and then I don’t know what they got. I remember that. We used to air the feather mattresses out. Took them outside and beat them with a broom to smooth them.
“Mother always had a few ducks and geese to supply the family with feathers. She would set a few duck eggs under an old setting hen. And they picked feathers off of the geese and ducks. When they were still alive. Just the down and small feathers were what they picked…they could be picked when they were about two or three months old. After that, they could be picked every six weeks until cold weather set in. Feather mattresses were good and warm in the winter.”
Jerri: “And your mother made her own quilts, Grandmother? “
Grandmother: “Some, she never did quilt much. We always got blankets and comforts. And when we went to Beaver Dam, and it was cold, and we could get in the buggy, we would get…Mother had a big old sand rock and she would put it in the fireplace and get it hot and she had an old quilt that she would wrap around that rock and sprinkle a little water on it and steamed it, and that old rock would stay warm in the buggy floor and keep our feet warm.”
Jerri: “You all had a buggy with two seats, grandmother?”
Grandmother: “No, we just had a buggy with one. And there would usually be two or three of us go together to town…to Beaver Dam…about seven or eight miles.”
On this same tape, my grandmother also told us a little story about working in the garden:
Retha: “And Mama, when you misbehaved, didn’t you have to go to the garden and work and pick?”
Grandmother: “Why yes. We all worked. I can remember them sending me to the garden to pick beans. I don’t know…I wasn’t any larger than her (nodding to Amy, my little daughter, who was about six or seven.) And I would cry. I would pretend I was crying. Trying to get their sympathy. And they could hear me. And then I would look up to see if anybody was coming. And they hid. Auntie did. And she said, “Young lady, you aren’t crying. You are just playing like it.” But I always had to pick that bucket full of beans, before they would let me come in. That bucket would be full!
My grandmother, Eva Caroline Cox, 1889-1988, also told about her mother, Sarah (Sanders) Smith, 1861-1931, taking the hairpins out of her hair, so her hairpins wouldn’t drop out and get lost, when they were coming home from church in the wagon, jostling over the bumps and ruts in the dirt road. Because hairpins were at a premium and she didn’t have enough hairpins, and didn’t want to lose them. (The James Thomas Smith farm was about two miles from Select.)
Submitted by Janice Cox Brown