Sales assistants at Baltimore’s old F.W. Woolworth and Crown five-and-ten-cent stores knew when spring housecleaning season arrived. Customers bought their annual fixes of moth crystals and mothballs for storing woolen garments over a hot and buggy summer.
Those who made an obsession of spring and fall housecleaning loved the sport. It involved multiple trips to downtown Baltimore to the unfashionable parts of department stores. The Hochschild Kohn firm had a basement area for buckets, mops and heavy-duty brushes. Julius Gutman, later Brager-Gutman, took out full-page newspaper advertisements proclaiming an array of fresh shower curtains, folding lawn chairs, wastepaper baskets and window cleaners. The old May Company offered its own store brand of paste wax.
All of Baltimore’s five department stores, grouped around the corner of Howard and Lexington streets, competed with each other. Come May, they had their own versions of summer rugs, a type of carpeting made of a strawlike material. They smelled of hemp, jute, sisal and unknown dry plant material. Lightweight, they looked tropical. The more exotic ones had painted designs of palm trees.
The selling was not all downtown. Sears, Montgomery Ward and the old Epstein chain of neighborhood stores had hoses and summer curtains.
By Memorial Day weekend, the city’s rug cleaners were hard at work. In the 1950s, rug cleaners called at homes and removed wool rugs (the staff had to roll them up and tag them) for cleaning and summertime storage. They returned after Labor Day with the owners’ rugs and a bill.
Spring cleaning meant doing away with winter grit and opening stuck windows. There were always stray Christmas tree needles to be banished, and the truly dedicated fitted cotton slipcovers over the living room furniture.
Summer slipcovers, which tended to shrink after washing, could be a trial to install. Aggressive handling could make the cotton fabric rip, which would mean yet another trip downtown to the fabric department of one of the stores and a secondary appointment with a professional custom slipcover maker. And one more bill.
Proud Baltimore householders observed a number of seasonal customs. They changed window shades in the spring as the light intensified and the days grew longer and warmer. The preferred summer shade was a thick paper model that almost felt like linen. They were known as Baltimore Blues, because they were a navy blue. After years of seasonal usage, they developed pinholes that admitted a starry-sky light pattern. They also flapped wildly during a fast-approaching thunderstorm.
Home air-conditioning was rare at this time. This meant screens had to be pulled out of the basement. If a screen had a hole, that meant a trip to a neighborhood hardware store for a repair. It was also a chance to pick up a gallon jug of Varnolene, a cleaning solvent that, as long as you didn’t breathe too much of it, worked on getting the buildup of wax off the wood floors.
By late afternoon, a Baltimore rowhouse or cottage was broiling. A canvas awning allowed the family to sit outdoors in the shade. Canvas awnings, tailored in alternating stripes of khaki and green, appeared all over Baltimore. They too were custom-made by old-fashioned firms that also made flags and banners and custom upholstery for boats and porch furniture.
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The law of unintended consequences then took over. The house was now oppressive, and the porch shaded by an awning — or any place outdoors — promised a breeze and a respite. People moved outside as the sun began to set, and suddenly a neighborhood became more neighborly. Kids were dispatched to soda fountains for ice cream treats or a pack of cigarettes for their parents. People spoke to each other and caught up on what happened during the previous winter.