My Mother’s Rite of Spring

If there was ever a saying that my mother DID NOT pay attention to, it was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” She, along with the thousands of women in Duquesne, welcomed spring in a very remarkable way…. Spring Cleaning! Whether the house needed it or not, the universal Hunky project was to scrub, wash, air-out, vacuum and re-organize every square inch of their homes. This cleaning frenzy was perhaps an innate prehistoric instinct that began in the caves of Brno, Czechoslovakia. I can just imagine all of the Hunky cavewomen, in their leopard skin babushkas, sweeping out their caves and tossing out all of the old dinosaur bones from their winter meals.


My mom cleaned everything in sight. It all began with the washing down of ceilings and walls in every room. Of course, back in those days, the paint lasted forever. It was more than likely due to the high lead content that it lasted so long and was able to be scrubbed. In fairness to my mother, the walls actually did show a considerable amount of soil after the winter months. The combination of all of grit and smoke from the mills, the months and months of cooking robust winter meals, the behemoth furnace that took up half of our basement, and the smokers that visited our home, left its shadowy mark on our walls. I can still remember the scent of the Spic ‘n Span that she used.


When Mom attacked each room’s walls, she would first remove all of the drapes and curtains, along with any pictures adoring the walls. Furniture would be clustered into the middle of the room so that she and my dad would have free access to the walls. Usually, the wall cleaning took place on weekends, and they would tackle one or two rooms each day. While my dad was at work during the week Mom would continue the Spring Cleaning process by cleaning every little corner of each window, inside and out.  She would then launder all of the drapes and curtains, hang them outside to absorb the freshest smell, expertly press each panel and then re-hang them on each of the windows.


Once all of that was done, she would turn her attention to the furniture and anything that was in the middle of the room cluster. Furniture would be polished; pictures would be wiped down before they were hung back onto the walls, and every lamp and lampshade cleaned. I remember that Mom had this soft wire brush that would use to clean the carpeting along the baseboards around the room. She would make sure that every inch of the carpeting was cleaned. When my dad got home from work, he’d help her to place the furniture back into their proper positions. She would finish the room, long after dark, but vacuuming every inch and replacing all of the chachkies around the room.  


This cleaning process would go on for a couple of weeks, room by room, each place getting the “Mrs. Clean” treatment. Mom would always save the hardest room for last, the kitchen! Each cabinet would be empties and every single item would be washed. Of course, we didn’t have a dishwasher with the exception of my mother’s two untiring hands. The inside of each cabinet would be wiped down and the waxed shelf paper would be changed. I remember that Mom would have Dad take her and I to Schink’s to pick out the shelf paper she would use to reline the cabinets. I really didn’t have much input, but it was thrilling to be included in the decision. Of course, even boxes, jars and bottles of food and drinks would all be wiped off before each would be replaced into the cabinets. I don’t know how many boxes of Spic ‘n Span and bottles of Windex my mom would go through during Spring Cleaning. I am sure that the Hunkies ladies of Duquesne alone, helped to keep those companies in business for many, many years.


As I am writing this post, I’ve come to realize that many of the products that our parents used for cleaning are no longer available. For instance;

  • Spic ‘n Span – It had the cleanest, freshest smell, however I don’t believe it’s available in its powdered form any longer. Who knows, maybe its name fell victim to the Political Incorrectness Police!
  • Glass Wax – before Windex was around, she would use Glass Wax on the kitchen windows. She said it did a better job of getting the cooking residue off of the windows. The bigger loss in not having Glass Wax around is not being able to make those Christmas windows stencil decorations any longer
  • Jubilee Kitchen Wax – we had those big white metal kitchen cabinets. Jubilee would clean them perfectly, plus, it smelled so good too. Can’t find it in the bottles any more
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap – Can only be found in Saddle Shops, if you are lucky. When Mom used it, it cam in a jar and was this thick amber paste that she would glop into a bucket of hot water and use it to clean the woodwork and any hardwood floors.

I guess some of these products became victims of environmental regulation, or perhaps their maker realized that the product was so good, a bottle just lasted forever tucked away in sink cabinets.


The interior of our house wasn’t the only place that Spring Cleaning occurred. When the weather would be good enough, we all would join in on cleaning the exterior areas of the house. So much dirt and grit would accumulate on the front and back porches, Mom or Dad would use one of those stiff bristle shop brooms and buckets and buckets of Spic ‘n Span to scrub off the exterior walls and floors before hosing them down on a final rinse. Dad would then take down all of the storm windows he had installed in the Fall and would store them in the rafters of our garage. The large window screens would be  hauled out from the rafters and my brother and I would be in charge of hosing them down and getting them ready for re-installation by my dad.


While my dad would be putting up the screens, my brother Steve and I would be relegated to the one job I hated most; washing down the outdoor furniture that had been stored in the garage since last fall. The actual washing part wasn’t so bad, it was the discovery of the random creatures that had decided to make the furniture storage area their home, as they “wintered” in our garage. I wasn’t, and I am still not, into spiders. They creep me out. When you disturb their winter’s nap, teardown their home and then confront them with a bucket of hot Spic ‘n Span, well, they’re not happy campers. In my wild and imaginative mind, I was convinced that they were in an attack mode and would soon sink their fangs into my neck.


After the furniture had been thoroughly scrubbed off, Mom and Dad decided if the various items would make it through another summer or if they needed a coat of paint to freshen them up. Usually, Mom won out, and my father would be assigned the additional task of repainting the furniture. Thank goodness for Rustolium! Dad was a firm believe in the product, and it saved having to scrap off layers of rust that had formed during the furniture’s Winter hiatus! If you were to have scraped off the layers of paint of the steel outdoor furniture that we had, you would have found a virtual rainbow of colors that it had been at one time or another. The care that Dad gave the chairs obviously worked! The furniture STILL is being used at my daughter’s home after 60+ years of repainting.



As you might be able to tell, my parents had no problem with having my brother and I do chores around the house. I think they believed it was one of those “character building” exercises that I’ve heard about. The Spring Cleaning ritual was just one of the many in which we participated in our quest for character I suppose. Another part of the Spring clean up was yet another that I dreaded, cleaning out any debris that may have gotten stuck at the base of the hedges that surrounded the front of our house.  Although it sounds like a fairly innocuous job, the fact that the bushes were the infamous “jagger bushes” had it a difficult job. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “jagger bushes” obviously do not speak Pittsburghese. Jagger bushes are these tiny leafed bushes that were prevalent in almost every Hunky yard throughout the Duquesne area. The thorns that were on the branches, were often larger than the leaves themselves!  Our tiny arms were able to reach in and pull out any debris without getting scratched. Extracting the assorted papers and such was never the problem. However, those creatures that were unable to make it to our garage for the winter, managed to make a temporary home in these bushes. I knew they were out to get me! Now THAT was the problem.


After the Spring Cleaning ritual, it seemed everyone’s outlook was brighter. Every home was ready to welcome those perfect days just prior to the onset of Summer when temperatures were mild, breezes would waft through open windows and nights still had just enough chill in them to create the perfect sleeping environment. As kids we’d listen, once again, to the lullaby from the mills and drift off to sleep thinking about the end of school and a summer of fun that lay ahead.




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8 Responses to My Mother’s Rite of Spring

  1. Cheryl Illinois says:

    my Mom always hired a woman to come in and help with Spring cleaning. My Dad worked turns in the mill and wasn’t the type to help with the cleaning. I don’t really do “Spring cleaning” as such but that is the time of year I send the drapes to the cleaners, wash the baseboards, clean out closets etc.It just seems to make sense to do it then and I LOVE the smell of a fresh and clean house! The nicest day of the year is the first day the windows can be opened after winter!

  2. Barry Long says:

    Do you remember WALLPAPER CLEANER ? It smelled like cheap perfume, & you had to knead it like dough with you hands. This pale green putty was rubbed on the wall-paper during the Spring-Cleaning ritual. Our homes were heated with coal furnaces & walls collected most dirt above the registers in the floors. Your porch furniture is now a collectors item. Where can you get a good “GLIDER” today? Before T.V; part of evening social life was sitting on the porch on a GLIDER & watching life go by after rubbing Citronella on your skin to keep off mosquitoes. Payday was particularly interesting because you could see in a persons walk if they had stopped in ZUZICHES CAFE which was on the corner of Grant Av & Earl St. Keep that porch furniture in the family Jim, because they don’t even roll that gauge of steel anymore.

  3. Joe Haver says:

    Does anyone remember “wallpaper cleaner”? It was sort of like silly putty or clay that was rubbed on the walls to take dirt off. Thanks for the memories, I still use Spic and Span, and still enjoy that smell .

  4. Tom Lane says:

    We had wallpaper in our house, so part of this same ritual at springtime, was wiping down the wall paper with this “greenish putty” stuff that had a strange smell. Anyone know what that was. As a kid, of course, I had to taste it and it had a strange sweetness to it. And mom would yell as soon as she saw me doing that! She would rub down the wallpaper with this stuff and it would be black and then she would knead it around a bit and do it again. It came in a coffee type can and could be used over and over.
    By the way, you can get Murphy’s oil soap most places and I still use it today. Good stuff. Amazing how many little rituals we shared back in the day.

  5. Laurine E. says:

    You were lucky to have a garage. We didn’t have one so all the porch furniture (glider and chair frames included) were lugged down to the “coal cellar” part of the basement for storage til the next spring. I had to help scrub off the cushions but Grandpa had the chore of checking the frames to see if they needed work. After scrubbing the porches (front and back) a decision had to be made as to whether the paint on the front porch needed redone. We had many layers of paint, green, gray, dark blue, maroon, and one year we had a purplish color when Pop decided to mix the little bits of paint from each of the cans stored downstairs into one color. Boy, did we get a lot of comments on that color!! We had the exact same glider and chairs on the back porch as the photo!!! We also had a couple of chimneys that needed cleaning, but that wasn’t a little girl’s work, thank God. The worst year was when the City tore down the houses below First Street between Library Place and Grant Avenue to put up the new post office and the parking lots. (That’s probably when your dad closed his shop on First Street, Jim.) We got a lot of HUGH, UGLY river rats fleeing the destruction. I remember my neighbor, Mr. Howard, killing about one a day in their back yard (which was just one yard over from our back porch. They were awful. I hated spring cleaning because the dust always made me sneeze for days, but you are right, everyone breathed a big sigh of relief when it was over and we could all relax in a nice, clean house for another year!!!

    • Colleen Byrne Travis says:

      I still use Murphy’s Oil Soap!!! Love the smell. I think all of that cleaning was a sense of pride. When “they ” came from Europe, regardless of where, they were poor. They eventually acquired “belongings”. They took care of them, which meant cleaning, polishing and taking pride in there homes. Read the book “Back From the Furnace”. It all makes sense. I am still like that, today.The best was that we sat on that clean or freshly painted furniture on our porches, talked to neighbors and passersby. Now, we pull into the driveway, push the magic twanger that opens the garage door, and never venture to our beautiful decks. I want to go back to “porchville” on Omar Street. That was a great vacation!!!

      • Colleen Byrne Travis says:

        Sorry, it’s late and I just got home from the West coast. I meant “their”homes. Sorry Sister Jean Baptist up there!

      • Barry Long says:

        You can sure tell we were educated well in Duquesne when Colleen apologizes for misusing the possessive, & even remembering who taught it to her. Sister Jean Baptist is smiling down on you.

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