About this project

This is a place for people to share stories, memories, and images of cleaning house. Please follow us, participate and connect:

Share a cleaning story

Pick one or more of the prompts below. Submit text or photos in response.

Click on a prompt to see responses posted by others.

1. What’s your favorite cleaning task? Why?

2. What's your least favorite cleaning task? Why?

3. When you think of your mother (or grandmother) cleaning, what do you see her doing?

4. When you think of your father (or grandfather) cleaning, what do you see him doing?

5. When you think of cleaning, what image comes to mind? Take a photograph that approximates this mental image.

6. Pull out the cleaning supplies, tools, and products under your sink (or wherever you keep them). Take a group portrait of them.

7. Do you have any unique or unusual cleaning tools? Take a photograph and write a short caption describing what it is.

8. Think of the last time you cleaned house. Take a moment to remember the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations associated with that experience. Describe what you did and how you felt.

9. Take “before” and “after” photographs of a room, or part of a room, that you clean.

10. What does cleaning represent in your life?

11. How would/do you feel about hiring someone to clean your house?

12. How would/do you feel about being employed to clean other people’s houses?

13. Take a photograph of what’s in your kitchen sink right now.

14. Is there something culturally specific about the way you clean or your relationship to cleaning? Explain.

15. Do you have any recurring arguments with family members or housemates about cleaning? Describe.

16. Describe a memory about cleaning when you were a child.

17. Take a series of photographs of an area in your house, such as a table, your dish rack, your bed or bedroom floor, one a day, for nine days. Take the photographs from the same angle, so that the space doesn’t change, just the objects in it. You don’t have to do it on consecutive days, just whenever you think of it.



Literary References to Cleaning: For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard turns her unflinching eye on the dirt that slowly buries everything that has ever lived:

(from page 122 of For the Time Being)


Earth sifts over things. If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. The debris on the tops of your feet or shoes thickens, windblown dirt piles around it, and pretty soon your feet are underground. Then the ground rises over your ankles and up your shins. If the segeant holds his platoon at attention long enough, he and his ranks will stand upright and buried like the Chinese emperor's army.

Micrometeorite dust can bury you, too, if you wait: A ton falls on earth every hour. Or you could pile up with locusts. At Mount Cook in Montana, at eleven thousand feet, you can see on the flank a dark layer of locusts. The locusts fell or wrecked in 1907, when a swarm flew off course and froze. People noticed the deposit only when a chunk separated from the mountain and fell into a creek, which bore it downstream.

New York City's street level rises every century. The rate at which dirt buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortés walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except that Mexico City itself has started sinking. Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average of 4.7 feet per century. King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago; the famous Western Wall is a top layer of old retaining wall near the peak of Mount Moriah. From the present bottom of the Western Wall to bedrock is sixty feet.  

Quick: why aren't you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial.

It is interesting, the debris in the air. A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy, Oxford writer David Bodanis says, beause they are hollow. They lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently, they snap off easily and go blowing about. Another unexpected source of aerial detritus is tires. Eroding tires shed latex shreds at a brisk clip, say the folks who train their microscopes on air. Farm dust joins sulfuric acid droplets (from burned fossil fuels) and sand from the Sahara Desert to produce the summer haze that blurs and dims valleys and coasts. 

We inhale "many hundreds of particles in each breath we take," says Bodanis. Air routinely carries intimate fragments of rug, dung, carcasses, leaves and leaf hairs, coral, coal, skin, sweat, soap, silt, pollen, algae, bacteria, spores, soot, ammonia, and spit, as well as "salt crystals from ocean white-caps, dust scraped off distant mountains, micro bits of cooled magma blown from volcanoes and charred microfragments from tropical forest fires." These sorts of things can add up.

At dusk the particles meet rising water vapor, stick together, and fall; that is when they will bury you. Soil bacteria eat what they can, and the rest of it stays put if there's no wind. After thirty years, there is a new inch of topsoil. (Many inches of new topsoil, however, have washed into the ocean.)

We live on dead people's heads. Scratching under a suburb of St. Louis, archaeologists recently found thirteen settlements, one of top of the other, some of which lasted longer than St. Louis has. Excavating the Combe Grenal cave in France, paleontologists found sixty different layers of human occupation.

The pleasantly lazy people of Bronze Age Troy cooperated with the burial process. Instead of sweeping garbage and litter from their floors, they brought in dirt to cover the mess and tramped it down. Soon they stooped in their rooms, so they heightened the doors and roofs for another round. Invaders, too, if they win, tend to build new floors on roofs they ruined. By the nineteenth century, archaeologists had to dig through twenty-four feet of earth to find the monuments of the Roman Forum."


Cleaning and Moving

There's something unique about the havoc created by moving house. There's no way to do it without creating a huge mess. I'm always baffled by the bizarre bric-a-brac that crowds the bottom of my drawers after I have boxed up all the more reasonable clothes and utensils. Unidentifiable cables, extra glasses cases, rarely used toiletries. These are the things that reduce me to a glazed stare. "What the hell do I do with this?" And once you move into a new place, things aren't much better. It takes a while to get everything out of boxes and to feel like you are doing more than camping out in your new home.  

A friend recently sent me a series of photographs that show the chaos in her new apartment shortly after she moved in, and then the order that she established several months later. I am struck by the contrasting energy captured in the photographs. Muffled versus resonant. Bogged down versus uplifted. Hectic versus serene.  

Before (just after the move):

After (several months later):




Literary References to Cleaning: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

I often think of this passage from Marguerite Duras' The Lover when I mop my floors.  The idea of throwing buckets of water on the floor and watching them sluice through the house fascinates me:

"It takes my mother all of a sudden toward the end of the afternoon, especially in the dry season, and then she'll have the house scrubbed from top to bottom, to clean it through, scour it out, freshen it up, she says. The house is built on a raised strip of land, clear of the garden, the snakes, the scorpions, the red ants, the floodwaters of the Mekong, those that follow the great tornados of the monsoon. Because the house is raised like this it can be cleaned by having buckets of water thrown over it, sluiced right through like a garden. All the chairs are piled up on the tables, the whole house is streaming, water is lapping around the piano in the small sitting room. The water pours down the steps, spreads through the yard toward the kitchen quarters. The little houseboys are delighted, we join in with them, splash one another, then wash the floor with the yellow soap. Everyone's barefoot, including our mother. She laughs. She's got no objection to anything."


Literary References to Cleaning: Pippi Longstocking

When we put out a call for literary references to cleaning, several people mentioned Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.

Pippi cleans with gusto but follows her own unorthodox methods.  In her topsy turvy home, all the conventional pieties about housekeeping are turned on their head, so that cleaning becomes a fun and creative act.

Here's a sampling:

"We don't have any school today because we're having Scrubbing Vacation," said Tommy to Pippi.

"Scrubbing Vacation? Well, I like that!" said Pippi. "Another injustice! Do I get any Scrubbing Vacation? Indeed I don't, though goodness knows I need one. Just look at the kitchen floor. But for that matter," she added, "now I come to think of it, I can scrub without any vacation. And that's what I intend to do right now, Scrubbing Vacation or no Scrubbing Vacation. I'd like to see anybody stop me! You two sit on the kitchen table, out of the way."

Tommy and Annika obediently climbed up on the kitchen table, and Mr. Nilsson hopped up after them and went to sleep in Annika's lap. 

Pippi heated a big kettle of water and without more ado poured it out on the kitchen floor. She took off her big shoes and laid them neatly on the bread plate. She tied two scrubbing brushes on her bare feet and skated over the floor, plowing through the water so that it splashed all around her.

"I certainly should have been a skating princess," she said and kicked her left foot up so high that the scrubbing brush broke a piece out of the overhead light.

"Grace and charm I have at least," she continued and skipped nimbly over a chair standing in her way.

"Well, now I guess it's clean," she said at last and took off the brushes.

"Aren't you going to dry the floor?" asked Annika.

"Oh, no, it can dry in the sun," answered Pippi. "I don't think it will catch cold so long as it keeps moving."

And, from a scene at Pippi's birthday party:

When Mr. Nilsson had emptied his cup he turned it upside down and put it on his head. When Pippi saw that, she did the same, but as she had not quite drunk all her chocolate a little stream ran down her forehead and over her nose. She caught it with her tongue and lapped it all up.

"Waste not, want not," she said.

Tommy and Annika licked their cups clean before they put them on their heads.

When everybody had had enough and the horse had had his share, Pippi took hold of all four corners of the tablecloth and lifted it up so that the cups and plates tumbled over each other as if they were in a sack. Then she stuffed the whole bundle in the woodbox.

"I always like to tidy up a little as soon as I have eaten," she said.


Literary References to Cleaning: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

We have been asking friends for literary references to cleaning.  This has yielded an intriguing list that ranges from The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We’ll share some excerpts here over the next several weeks.  Here’s the first installment:

from the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (p. 85):

I remember Sylvie walking through the house with a scarf tied around her hair, carrying a broom. Yet this was the time that leaves began to gather in the corners. They were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins. There were scraps of paper among them, crisp and strained from their mingling in the cold brown liquors of decay and regeneration, and on these scraps there were sometimes words. One read Powers Meet, and another, which had been the flap of an envelope, had a penciled message in anonymous hand: I think of you. Perhaps Sylvie when she swept took care not to molest them. Perhaps she sensed a Delphic niceness in the scattering of these leaves and paper, here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise. She had to have been aware of them because every time a door was opened anywhere in the house there was a sound from all the corners of lifting and alighting. I noticed that the leaves would be lifted up by something that came before the wind, they would tack against some impalpable movement of air several seconds before the wind was heard in the trees. Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie’s housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows. Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. She soaked all the tea towels for a number of weeks in a tub of water and bleach. She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, thought it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother’s plum colored davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink. 

(thanks to Paul VanDeCarr for suggesting Housekeeping)