Monday, June 15, 2009

Clean is a relative concept

Whenever I worry that our house isn't clean enough, I remind myself that in previous eras and in other parts of the world, there are different cultural standards for cleanliness.

The truth is that there are no absolute definitions of what is "clean" or "dirty." It is all a matter of perception. What is clean enough for me may be revoltingly dirty for my obsessively neat neighbor. Likewise, my standards of cleanliness would seem excessive and extravagant to someone living in a rural village in Malawi, for instance.

I'm just glad I'm not living in Colonial times when washing the family laundry took three to four days. Lugging heavy wood and water was considered women’s work. Preparing meals required growing the food, then cooking it over an open fire, and, yes, there were still the dishes to do (and no Tupperware to store leftovers!)

Ironically, innovations like the washing machine and vacuum cleaner may have made housework easier – but by raising standards of cleanliness, they also created more work.

During the years domestic appliances became widely accepted in the home, the hours devoted to housework have increased. One study claims that the time dedicated to laundry has actually increased over the past 50 years.

How is that possible? The machines make it feasible to clean sheets once or twice a week, to do laundry daily, to wear clothes only once – practices that were considered a luxury in earlier days.

So while it might have been a bigger drag to do the laundry back then, at least they didn't have to do it every day. Or as Betty Friedan wrote in "The Feminine Mystique," "Housewifery expands to fill the time available."

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