Spring cleaning isn’t some bygone American tradition. More than three-quarters of Americans do some spring cleaning every year, according to an industry survey, though only about 26 percent of those respondents do a deep cleaning.
But how did this all start, and why do we still do all this cleaning today? We took a look back into the history books, and even into some biological science and psychology, to find the answer.
One of the potential roots of spring cleaning stems from Nowruz, the Persian new year that falls on the first day of spring. As Vox writer Caroline Framke shared, her family and others prepare for the new year “by doing a deep clean of their homes, celebrating a season of new life, and wishing for good luck in the year ahead.”
People prepare up to three weeks in advance by decluttering, cleaning out the grime, and beating the dust out of Persian rugs.
The practice of khooneh takouni, literally “shaking the house,” is meant “to cleanse away the past year so you can start the new one refreshed and renewed.”
During Passover (seven days starting April 20), Jewish tradition dictates that not only are you supposed to refrain from eating leavened or fermented food, but you’re supposed to clear your home of any trace of it.
In practical terms, The Kitchn’s Leah Koenig explains, that means cleaning cupboards, the refrigerator, degreasing the oven, sweeping, and polishing silverware.
The Orthodox Union also strongly suggests using separate food processors and mixers and cleaning out the microwave, your car, garage, clothing pockets, and even cleaning supplies.
Even lifelong, multi-sacrament Catholics may not realize that Holy Thursday (April 18, the Thursday before Good Friday and Easter Sunday) is also Maundy Thursday, when churches will often wash or strip the altar in preparation for Holy Week events.
While the Orthodox Church engages in “clean week” a few weeks earlier, before Lent, that is more about fasting and cleansing one’s body and spirit than cleaning the house.
North American Tradition
In the 1800s, annual house cleaning took place in the spring out of necessity: It was the first time it was warm enough to open windows and doors and sweep out dust, but still cool enough that you wouldn’t let bugs in while doing so.
When homes were heated by fireplaces and wood or coal stoves — and light came from oil or kerosene lamps — winter also left a thick layer of soot and grime to be wiped away.
Consider this account from a housewife in 1864: “Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.”
Mrs. Beeton’s Guide to Household Management by Isabella Beeton was first published in 1861 as a guide to running a Victorian household.
In it, Beeton describes the “periodical cleanings” that became associated with spring: “There are portions of every house that can only be cleaned occasionally; at which time the whole house usually undergoes a far more thorough cleaning than is permitted in a general way.
On these occasions, it 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.” What’s a paillasse? A straw mattress.