A Real 1950s Cleaning Routine
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In the 1950s, it was common for the wife to keep her house exceedingly tidy and well-managed. If you run a search on the internet for how they did it, you will find a list that outlines a typical 1950s housewife cleaning schedule. It shows up on several sites, but I’m not sure where it originated. It appears to be an almost-impossible to achieve list, and after interviewing several women who actually lived as 1950s housewives, I am happy to report that it is indeed not an accurate portrayal of how things typically were. Thank goodness.
So what was a typical day in the life of a 1950s housewife? I am told that it looked more like this:
- (1) Mom would wake up and just like we do today her first chore was often to start the coffee. She had to do this first because it took ten to fifteen minutes to percolate.
- While the coffee percolated, she would often prepare her husband’s and children’s lunches.
- Next was breakfast prep, and despite what we’ve been lead to believe, every day was not a big breakfast day. Oatmeal, cold cereal, or toast were all typical weekday breakfast fare. Big breakfasts with pancakes and eggs, and home fries were saved for weekend days. In some homes dad would eat and leave before the children woke up. And in other homes, everyone ate together. In any event, the entire morning breakfast routine doesn’t seem to be much longer than our modern-day counterpart.
- After eating, dad left for work and children were sent to make their beds, brush teeth and get dressed for school. Clothing was usually planned and laid out the night before so there was no debate. They knew what to put on and any resistance to getting these morning chores completed in a timely manner would be met with a promise to answer to dad later that day, so resistance was rare. Mom would often be tending to younger children at this time as well as possibly making her own bed and tidying her own bedroom.
- Where a 1950s mom’s morning really hit the time crunch that we don’t feel today is when it came time for the kids to actually get to school. Back then, a car or second car was almost unheard of. Mom had to walk the kids to school. I think if I could change one thing from our modern-day morning routine back to the 50s version, the walk to school would be it. It was great exercise for everyone involved, and is probably one of the reasons obesity was less of an issue than it is now.
The time spent walking to and from school was also quality time spent together. Lots of good talks and bonding happened then. I remember walking to school even when I was a kid in the 70s. We lived three miles from my school, and I don’t recall hating the twice daily trek at all. I even remember loving the days when it rained because I got to wear my raincoat and my rain boots and use my umbrella. Stomping in puddles was great fun! In the fall, I’d enjoy swishing through the leaves. In the winter, I remember catching snowflakes on my tongue while we walked. All fond memories.
Late Morning/Early Afternoon
Once mom returned from delivering the children to school, she’d often settle any younger children then she’d take a small break for tea and maybe listen to a morning radio show (usually heavily slanted toward wives and mothers because career women were less common).
“Ajax powdered soap, with borax or baking soda for the laundry. Bleach was only used to soak diapers. Vinegar for rinsing in laundry. Spic n Span once a week on the floors. (Everyday floor wiping was just vinegar in water.) And my one and only luxury was paper towels in bathroom. With so many kids constantly washing and wiping dirty faces and hands, these saved my laundry pile.” — Jan Meyette
Then the busy work of cleaning would begin. The entire cleaning routine involved about three hours each day. The beds were made and bedrooms tidied even before leaving for school, so now it was on to bathrooms, kitchen, living room, laundry, and floors. Most cleaning was done with simple cleaning products such as baking soda, vinegar, ammonia, lemon, castile soap, and borax. There were also some commercial cleaning products like Simoniz floor cleaner, Spick N Span, Brillo pads, and Windex, but most women used the basics and a lot of elbow grease.
Bathrooms were cleaned daily so it was a fast chore–no scrubbing required. A few swishes with the brush in the toilet, a wipe down of all surfaces and mirror, empty trash, shake out carpets, sweep, then a quick mopping. There was usually only one bathroom, so with just ten minutes, the bathroom duties were done.
This 1955 washer/dryer commercial shows that by the mid 1950s doing the laundry was significantly easier than in the days when it took an entire day to wash by hand, so the habit of washing and drying at least one load of laundry per day was born.
Cleaning the kitchen was also done daily, with a thorough cleaning of the refrigerator at least weekly, and a wipe down of all cupboards–inside and out–at least every few weeks. Some things were more complicated back then, like the coffee maker, for example. It needed to be dumped and cleaned by hand every day. Other items didn’t exist at all, like the microwave. So cleaning time between then and now should still balance out.
Next, mom would move on to tidying the living room, dusting all furnishings, and controlling paper and other clutter. Again, this was done daily, so this entire process didn’t take very long.
Lastly, there would be a quick shake out the area rugs, sweeping and damp mopping the floors, and that would complete the morning cleaning rituals. Houses were much smaller, and wall-to-wall carpeting was still a luxury most homes did not yet enjoy, so even the task of floor care was not overwhelming.
Viola. Cleaning complete.
For the 1950s woman, the rest of the day was filled with things like feeding lunch to the husband and children if they still came home for lunch (some did). She might also have to walk to do some shopping and this could involve visiting several places since most items were provided by specialty shops like butchers, bakeries, and the like. She might have mending and sewing or gardening and canning to do. She might bake breads or pies.
Later in the afternoon she’d need to walk back to the school for a second (or third!) time at the end of the school day. Then she had to come home and begin to plan and start dinner.
Evenings and nights were filled with bathing the kids, laying out the clothes for tomorrow, cleaning up the kitchen one last time, and then settling down to listen to your favorite radio program. In those days almost nobody owned a t.v. and if they did it still wasn’t as popular as a good radio show. By the time the evening programs came on, mom was ready to put her feet up and take a well-deserved break.
All in all the daily cleaning routine back then was not bad. It was, and still is, however, monotonous. We talked about ways to combat the boredom in an earlier post.
The only real difference between then and now is that our standards have slipped a bit these days. Our children have more toys. We all have more possessions. We have more clutter and we have more distractions like television and internet. We seldom dedicate three hours every day to getting the house tidy. And when we do, we don’t do it as thoroughly. Doing things like wiping out the oven weekly and cleaning out the refrigerator weekly does not usually happen in every home anymore. It should. If we kept up with these tasks weekly, they would be much quicker and easier and less daunting.
Two months ago I decided to dedicate my days before noon to a routine very similar to the one outlined above. I must confess that my home is sparkling clean and peaceful. My husband compliments me on my efforts all the time, and here’s the kicker. I have actually achieved more outside of my cleaning routine. Dedicating the time to cleaning didn’t hurt my schedule. It helped it. I spend far less time searching for lost items, feeling frantic, and feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I feel so organized that I was able to finally start this blog, something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.
If you need to revamp your home cleaning efforts, why not make it a pact with yourself to try this 1950s schedule for 30 days? The first week might not go as quickly as this suggests because you have some catching up to do, but after that, it’s a breeze. Try it. Let me know how it works for you.