During the middle ages, fragrant herbs such as tansy, wormwood, lavender, and rosemary were spread on the floors to perfume the air of European cottages and castles, and sweet-smelling calamus reeds were strewn on church floors for holy-day ceremonies. Those strewing herbs may have kept medieval homes smelling fresher, but frequently they merely concealed unsanitary conditions, which promoted the increase of vermin, including rats, in the house.
Rats, and their fleas, were the cause of the bacterial disease known as the Black Death or plague, which devastated Europe about 1350. Although it killed about a quarter of the population, the link between disease and filth was not understood until five centuries later, when Louis Pasteur discovered that microbes cause disease. In the case of the Black Death, rats’ fleas carrying the bacterium Yersinia pestis transmitted the disease to humans by biting them.
Pasteur’s germ theory set the stage for the original Mrs. Clean: Mrs. Isabella Beeton of London, who set out in 1861 to remedy the “discomfort and suffering” in households that practiced “untidy ways.” In Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she provided formulas for cleansers, polishes, and medicines along with recipes and menus. Nearly every cookbook published through the mid-twentieth century followed Beeton’s example to some extent by including home-cleaning formulations and recommendations together with their recipes.
Centuries of Scrubbing
By the mid-1800s, Americans for the first time could purchase one-pound bars of plain white unscented household soap. For households with money to spend, this all-purpose cleanser made from fat and lye allowed women to remove soap making from the chore list. But they still had to clean the house.
In 1918, American women won the vote and scrubbed. In the twenties, they bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, and cleaned. During the Great Depression, many struggled to keep the farm while keeping the house tidy, too. During World War II, Rosie not only riveted but also rendered the floors spotless. Today, an unprecedented percentage of American women take home paychecks—and take many loads of wash to the laundry room, too. And they’re certainly not alone: men have joined the scrubbing ranks, as well.
Two incomes seemingly have allowed families to acquire more—more things to store, to clean, to polish, and to scrub. Manufacturers, of course, offer specialized products to accomplish each of those tasks. The drive for affluence has filled our homes with stuff to clean—and stuff to clean stuff with.
By making and using a few simple herbal cleaning products, you can have a home that smells fresh, sparkles with cleanliness, and provides a healthful, pleasant environment. Along the way, you can experience contentment, creativity, and the satisfaction of living lightly on the planet.
Sandy Maine, the founder of SunFeather Natural Soap Company and the author of four books, considers her soaps incomplete without herbs. This article was excerpted from her book Herbal Homekeeping, published this year by Interweave Press.