Ben Walker in black shirt and white background

If you haven’t read Suellen Hoy’s book, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness, I encourage you to do so. It’s a fascinating read explaining the historical roots and the evolution of the business of clean.

I have a small, personal goal this year to read 30 new books — this one was No. 10. While it is an older publication (originally published in 1995), it is filled with perspective on how cleaning has been perceived throughout history.

Much of the conversation about cleaning in modern U.S. popular culture can be traced back to the Great Depression. Coincidentally, that was also roughly the period of time when hygiene, bathing and cleaning became greatly emphasized. Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for most middle-class American households to have live-in help or a person who came in twice a week to clean.

When the Depression hit, this help became a luxury and an expense that few could afford. Cleaning, laundry and household upkeep became the new normal for wives and mothers. Keeping up with housework gradually became the “duty” of these women.

In an effort to teach these, as Hoy puts it, “domestic scientists” how to save time and expenses in the household, the concept of home economics was born. It was taught in high schools, spread to junior colleges and even became a course in many undergraduate programs.    

With roughly 30 percent of Americans living in rural areas and farms, and a simmering war in Europe that would soon consume the globe, U.S. culture was about to change. Over the course of the next three decades, the percentage of households living on farms and in rural areas decreased to below 5 percent as families opted to live in the suburbs. As this transformation took place and World War II wound down, it became the norm of middle-class households to leave the housekeeping to wives while their husbands went off to work. Manufacturing jobs gave way to service-oriented work and by the early 1950s, the country was in the middle of a consumer products boom.

Capitalizing on the new household dynamic, manufacturers of chemicals, vacuums and tools began marketing to the needs of the American housewife. It created a boom in consumer cleaning products.

Tasked with feeding and raising children, and keeping the household looking spotless, saving time while making things “cleaner than clean” became an enticing message. It wasn’t uncommon to see ads for vacuum cleaners which promised high-powered destruction of dirt, or nuclear-strength cleansers that would destroy germs.

Of course, these all came with the subtle promise of creating more time to do other chores around the house. It was a powerful and effective message.

The thing that struck me most about this is how prevalent the promise of saving time is to this very day. Just look through this magazine and scroll through your e-mail. You will probably find a few articles, ads and editorials articulating how to find time savings in your operation.

I’m not knocking this at all, nor am I saying it is overdone. Talk to any manager of a cleaning operation and they’ll tell you that one of their biggest headaches is trying to budget their department’s time wisely.

What I’m wondering is, what’s the expectation for your daily cleaning, weekly cleaning and project cleaning? More importantly, who sets that expectation and is it realistic? With the constant push that cleaning departments face to cut costs and maintain, or even improve, cleaning outcomes, perhaps it’s time to start looking into how to manage that expectation.

Ben Walker is COO at ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best-selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.