Local History: Our Town – Our Story: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: Part 5, Clean on Fridays

by Ann Koppy, BHSoc HistorianBeaverton-Historical-Society-logo

Pioneer women followed a regular routine for household chores:

  • Wash on Monday.
  • Iron on Tuesday.
  • Mend on Wednesday.
  • Churn on Thursday.
  • Clean on Friday.
  • Bake on Saturday.
  • Rest on Sunday.

Friday’s Chore

Another chore for pioneer women and young girls in the family was cleaning their homes. Although Friday was the designated day, housekeeping was a full-time job. Most tasks were done throughout the week. Houses and cabins were constructed of milled lumber, sod, or logs. Some had finished floors; others had bare dirt. Black soot and smoke from wood and coal burning stoves dirtied carpets, walls, and curtains. Running water and indoor plumbing were luxuries. Without them, housework was particularly challenging.

Floor Cleaning

Floors had to be swept and scrubbed. That often meant several treks to the well or nearby stream to carry water back to the house. Some rinse water from washing clothes was set aside to mop floors and sudsy wash water was used to clean the shed that housed chicks. Almost every Beaverton resident had a well and in late 1912, a municipal water system was established. Access to running water and, eventually to indoor plumbing, made a woman’s work less exhausting.

Before they owned vacuum cleaners, women and their daughters swept carpets and rugs or draped them over outdoor clothes lines or railings. They swatted the floor coverings with a wire rug beater to remove dirt, dust, and animal dander. Early 19th century carpet sweepers didn’t work well, but in 1876 Melvin Bissell patented the first practical sweeper. It didn’t raise clouds of dust, weighed less, and functioned on all floors. Meier & Frank’s ad in the February 19, 1903 issue of the Morning Oregonian offered the Bissell sweeper at a sale price of $1.85, regularly $2.50. Then, a new and improved labor-saving device appeared on the market.

In 1869 a Chicago inventor named Ives McGaffey patented a hand-powered “sweeping machine” called the “Whirlwind.” The device, however, was heavy and expensive and not particularly practical. Thirty years later, a gasoline-powered vacuum cleaner became available and, in 1901, the first electric vacuum was invented. Manufacturers promised “Spring Housecleaning Made Easy” with their easy-to-operate, light weight machines. They began to promote their products as beneficial to health by removing germ-laden dust, as well.

Other Cleaning Duties

Indoor plumbing remained a luxury until the end of the 19th century. Expensive homes in urban areas began to feature bathrooms with a tub, sink, and toilet. Rural residents generally continued to use chamber pots that pioneer women emptied into the outhouse. Sinks without drains entailed dumping dish water and kitchen slops outside.

Before electricity became widely available, kerosene lamps were commonly used. Kerosene, once called coal oil, was a popular fuel, but it was smelly and left dark deposits on furniture and curtains. The lamps’ clear glass chimneys and globes had to be washed or wiped every day. In addition, ragged and charred wicks required trimming and lamps needed refilling after several hours of burning.

Living in sod houses of the prairie lands presented its own cleaning challenges. The constant wind carried dirt and dust that worked their way into nooks and crannies. Whitewash or fabric on interior walls helped keep out grime, but rodents and snakes found their way in and dirt fell from the ceilings. These too needed to be ushered outside.

House Maids

Once an area was settled, the pioneer women might find a young girl to hire to help with household chores. Many women did domestic service for $1.00 – $3.00 per week in the early 20th century. Beaverton’s 1900 Federal census enumerates about ten women ages 17 – 32 employed in housekeeping or housework. It’s unclear, though, whether they were employed outside the home or did the chores for family.

After Friday, Beaverton pioneer women faced only one more daily task – bake on Saturday.

Interested in more local history? Visit www.historicbeaverton.org