Recently, I have been very concerned with the state of my windows, specifically the grit and dust that covers them both inside and out. On a particularly sunny day, I realized that my windows were, in fact, disgusting. My usual method of a paper towel and some Windex produced disappointing results, so I turned to the very specific instructions of Cheryl Mendelson’s 800-page turn-of-the-millennium guidebook, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping A House.
Where I went wrong: I vacuumed neither the windowsills nor the screens, as Mendelson recommended. I could not find a “stiff brush” with which to clean them, either. The day I chose to clean my windows was sunny (wrong) and the fabric I ended up using was not “non-linting” as she suggested. I had attacked my living room windows from the outside, standing on my roof, armed with a tea towel, a paper towel, and some Windex, and scrubbed gleefully until they shone like the top of the Chrysler Building. But sitting in the living room a few days later, I noticed streaks on the living room windows.
Home Comforts is a fascinating time capsule of 2000-era preoccupations, a product of its era that lays out in exacting, excruciating detail the work it takes to keep and maintain a house. But it has new relevancy as so many Americans are spending a lot of time at home, staring at the refrigerator, the walls, the grout in the shower, and wondering what else there possibly could be to do. It offers yet another fantasy of perfectly realized domesticity.
The author is pretty explicit about that, too. Correctly clocking now as a good time for a “cultural re-evaluation of home economics,” the New York Times caught up with Mendelson in a brief interview. Guy Trebay spoke to Mendelson from the comfort of her Upper West Side apartment about the notion of home: “I don’t know that my idea of home should dominate anyone else’s, but identity is a huge part of it in my mind,” Mendelson said. “Home is that place where you have absolute control.” That’s all the more appealing in this current moment, which is defined so totally by individuals’ lack of control. If we can’t control anything except what’s right in front of us, might as well grab the bull of a begrudging move towards domesticity by the horns.
Home Comforts was published in January 2000 in a time that was populated by other, glossier icons of domesticity. Martha Stewart’s cultural relevance has never really waned, but in 2000, she was at the height of her powers. A February 2000 profile of Stewart written by Joan Didion positions the businesswoman as a juggernaut of the domestic arts—an all-knowing, omnipresent font of knowledge about not just how to do things, but why.
What there is instead is “Martha,” full focus, establishing “personal communication” with the viewer or reader, showing, telling, leading, teaching, “loving it” when the simplest possible shaken-in-a-jar vinaigrette emulsifies right there onscreen. She presents herself not as an authority but as the friend who has “figured it out,” the enterprising if occasionally manic neighbor who will waste no opportunity to share an educational footnote.
In contrast, Mendelson’s approach is pragmatic, sensible, and gently strident, less a domestic goddess of Martha’s ilk and more of just a woman who knows what needs to be done to keep a house clean to her standards, and with a heart generous enough to share her wisdom with the rest of the world.
Reading Home Comforts from cover to cover, as I attempted to do, is enough to convince even the tidiest that their homes are teeming with germs, bacteria, mold, dust mites, and pounds of invisible skin flakes, all of which need to be eradicated. Much like its spiritual sister, The Joy of Cooking, the book serves as both a very helpful manual for those uneducated in the domestic arts and a document of one person’s very specific predilections. Mendelson mentions often her two grandmothers, one Anglo-American and the other Italian-American, and contrasts their two cleaning and housekeeping styles as a means of explaining how her method came to be. But in Mendelson’s world, there is really one correct way to run a household, which she recounts in great detail.
“Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized,” she writes in the introduction, anticipating the possibility of backlash to a woman writing a book that, in her words, concerns “attitudes toward home and domesticity modeled on those of that traditional woman.” As an attorney and part-time professor of philosophy, Mendleson makes it clear that her fondness for the domestic arts is the sort of behavior that her cohort generally abhors. This assumption influences the rest of the book; Mendelson references her vocation throughout the introduction, highlighting the strange dichotomy between her passion for cleaning and her professional life. But it is the generational divide between Mendelson and her mother that makes her hobby something to hide rather than to celebrate: “Many middle-aged women of today had mothers who were dissatisfied housewives,” she writes. “These mothers taught their daughters not to get trapped but to get their degree and go out in the world and fulfill their mothers’ frustrated ambitions.”
In an introductory chapter, “My Secret Life,” Mendelson lays out a defense of keeping house, painfully aware of the fact that because she belongs to the first real generation of working women, stating her passion for dusting might make her a bit of an anomaly. “I was raised to be a rural wife and a mother,” she writes, “but I was born too late to find many openings for farm wives.” While farm wife is not the vocation Mendelson eventually chose, her book serves as an instruction manual for a high-powered career woman of the 1990s interested in transitioning their career skills to that of home manager: a proto-Lean In home executive with a desk in the kitchen and a cadre of home improvement professionals in her Filofax at the ready.
For Mendelson, making a home is certainly work, but it is labor from which she derives pleasure—the satisfaction of knowing that your house is not just shelter, but a home: a “small, living society with the capacities to meet the needs of people in their private life: everything from meals, shelter, clothing, warmth, and other physical necessities to books and magazines, music, play, facilities for entertaining oneself and others, a place to work, and much more.” Managing all of those factors is a full-time job, but Mendelson firmly believes that it is possible to have it all, even if it means hewing to traditional notions of femininity and women’s work.
The actual guidance, though, is pretty good. For someone who is truly starting out on their own, Home Comforts, is, as Rachel Wilkerson Miller wrote at Buzzfeed in 2017, an indispensable resource for just about everyone. The “marketing” section, which is about how to best grocery shop, suffers from an obsession with expiration dates, but is immensely helpful for clarifying what vegetables are actually bad. The chapter will teach the intrepid homemaker to identify ripe honeydews at the grocery store and confidently select citrus that is actually juicy and bright.
While the sort of advice offered here would come off as priggish from any other venue, Mendelson’s voice is tempered with a wry humor. The section on TV treats it as an evil but necessary force, to be used with caution: “But just as you would be unwise to choose to have hot fudge sundaes or a bottle of scotch every night of the week, no one can afford a daily habit of television,” she writes. For the more persnickety tasks she advocates, her tone is much more precise and her instructions over the top. In “The Art of Rag Making; Ragbags” section, Mendelson suggests cutting rags with pinking shears to prevent the edges from fraying and advocates for multiple ragbags or boxes to keep your cleaning cloths separated and sorted by task.
Inspired by Mendelson’s go-getter attitude, I turned to her section on the bedroom to see if there was anything I could do to fix my current sleeping quarters, which currently functions as a vacation home from my now-perpetual quarantine position—slumped on the couch in my living room/club/office/home movie theatre. Bedrooms, in Mendelson’s mind, are for sleeping only; the pernicious trend of adding small tables, comfortable chairs, televisions, and other distractions creates a space that blurs the line between living and sleeping, which distracts from the task at hand: a good night’s rest. With this in mind, I considered getting rid of the chair near the window that the cat uses for his midday nap, which I use to hold my tomorrow outfit, but ultimately reconsidered. After two nights of restless, twitchy, half-slumber, I looked to her advice for curing insomnia. “Study your sheets,” she writes. “Try replacing polyester-blend sheets with all-cotton or linen.” I attempted to solve my sleeplessness by looking for the other pair of sheets—an arduous task that did at least leave me exhausted.
The most useful piece of information for me, though, is her advice on daily care and maintenance of the bedroom. Per her specific instructions, I aired my bed, throwing the top sheet, duvet cover, and 15 pound weighted blanket I use to suffocate myself to slumber off to the side. I took a shower and made breakfast. The unmade bed taunted me from the corner of my eye as I got dressed. “The bed should air for at least an hour if you are going to work, or even longer if you’re staying home,” she writes. The sheets will be fresher, the bed more inviting. Do it this way, she suggests, firm but not pushy, and you will reap the rewards.
While I understand why, the part of my brain that insists I make my bed every morning immediately upon waking twitched. I caved after fifteen minutes but thoroughly pumped my pillows. I left the windows open and dutifully hung every discarded sweatshirt in the closet. I tidied the dresser top and picked up the deodorant the cat knocked to the floor in the night. When I was finished to my satisfaction, fifteen minutes had passed and my room looked a little better—not “clean” by anyone’s standards including my own, but slightly more put together. Mendelson is right: “Those new to housekeeping may find themselves wondering if doing all this will really make their homes homey,” she writes. “The answer is that it will take you, in my personal estimation, about three-quarters of the way there.” Perfection is overrated, but this will suffice for now.