Biting the Dust Spring cleaning has gone the way of the coal furnace. Nowadays, we are content to sweep up the spills and let things go...until company comes; RITES OF SPRING


This week, five Today writers document signs of spring. Spring Cleaning, a longtime resident of the better households of America, died recently everywhere but a few outposts of civilization. Spring Cleaning never revealed her age, although some reports put it in the three figures.

She had suffered from a series of maladies for several decades, including the increasingly chronic slovenliness of Americans. Services are pending, and in lieu of flowers, survivors request a moment of silence as you contemplate the accumulated dust of your life.

Spring Cleaning was born of Necessity, back when homes were heated by coal or wood in the winter and cooled only by open windows in the summer. She grew to become a ritual of her season, a sloughing of winter's sooty mask and an anticipation of summer's barefoot indolence. The wool Orientals were cleaned, rolled up and stored, and the cool sisal mats unfurled in their place. Down came the serious pleated drapes and up went the airy, breeze-catching white ones. Soft chintz or cotton slipcovers went over the upholstered furniture. Out with the storm windows, in with the screens.

"It's not the way it used to be," mourned Richard Sunderland, owner of McDowell's Oriental Rug Service, a 163-year-old company in Timonium that has seen its seasonal ebbs and flows mostly disappear.

McDowell's once sent as many as 30 trucks through the area every spring to pick up customers' winter rugs and drop off their summer ones. Every fall, they would head out again.

"We used to be so busy in April, May and June, it was all we could do to just pick up the rugs and let them pile up until we could get to them in July to actually clean and store them," Sunderland says.

Now McDowell's has just two customers who still cycle their floor coverings with the seasons. One is Margery Clark.

"We don't use air conditioning, and in the summer the heat and the humidity get into the wool rugs," says Clark, who calls McDowell's to pick up four big Orientals and various scatter rugs from her Greenspring Valley home once the weather heats up and she "can't stand the smell."

Clark has already put up the window screens to begin the open-window season, but has let the rest of her Spring Cleaning lapse over time.

"It used to be the curtains came down and the slipcovers went on," says Clark, who lives with her husband in a restored carriage barn. "But then the storage of the curtains, which were really heavy, became a problem, so now I just open them. Slipcovers became an added expense. I got lazy. I'm a lousy cleaner. I have grass to cut, vegetables to grow. I do have someone come in once a week to push the dust around."

Intimates of Spring Cleaning say wall-to-wall carpeting and central air conditioning made her increasingly irrelevant: Carpet is year-round, and what difference do the seasons make if the windows are always shut? But most devastating was the trend in cleaning as the occasional touch-up rather than regular maintenance.

Consider the DustBuster.

Iconic enough to merit inclusion in the Smithsonian's American history collection, some $2 billion worth of the cordless, hand-held vacuums have been sold since Black & Decker introduced them 19 years ago. The Towson-based company says the minivacs are designed for use in between the real, weekly vacuuming of the household -- but who are they kidding? In some households, the DustBuster's scooping up of occasional messes is the vacuuming.

"People today do quick pickups as opposed to major, thorough cleanups of the house," says Rick Steinbrenner, Black & Decker's marketing director for its household products. "They're looking for more machines to do the work for them."

Which is why there is now a FloorBuster -- "a DustBuster on a stick," Steinbrenner calls it -- and a ScumBuster, a cordless, immersible scrubber for the mold and soap film bedecking your bathroom tub and tiles.

Such devices, plus the growing array of spray-on, no-scrub products in the stores, may be foretelling a future obituary of Spring Cleaning's close relative, Elbow Grease.

Already, Americans now spend less time housecleaning than in the past. Women, still the primary mop-wielders, spend 10 fewer hours of their week cleaning house than they did several decades ago, says John P. Robinson, the University of Maryland sociologist who tracks how Americans spend their time.

Some of this is the result of more women working outside the home these days, some to the labor-saving devices that have automated much of housekeeping. Robinson found that even though women are cleaning less, they're generally satisfied with their home's condition. In other words, who cares if you can't eat off your kitchen floor?

Still, there's a vestige of guilt remaining. Maid companies say that although they rarely see an extra rush for their services this time of the year, they're swamped in November and December as people decide that the homes that are clean enough for daily living need some Spic and Span for holiday guests.

Spring Cleaning is survived by her less reputable sister, Company's Coming Cleaning.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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