Should we stop wasting time on housework?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News


A school has been set up to teach people how to run a home. But in an age of fast living and a culture of convenience, do we still care about keeping up appearances?

Lessons in household standards and daily graces, laundry skills, wardrobe care, how to answer the door and afternoon tea.

It sounds like the sort of housekeeping that would be much more in keeping with period drama Downton Abbey than the 21st Century.

But at a private property in Cheshire, a new academy is offering just that. So what type of person are these courses hoping to attract?

Alexandra Messervy, who founded the Household Academy, says while some courses - which cost between £145 and £795 - target "real VIP private housekeepers", others are aimed at anyone.

"There are one-day courses for newlyweds, students, chalet staff, people setting up home for the first time, domestic goddesses," she says.

Far from being an outdated concept, Ms Messervy argues a generation is crying out for help on how to run their home efficiently.

"People no longer know traditional skills - how to remove a stain from a garment, how to change a plug, pack properly or clean silver.

"Thirty or 40 years ago they would have been taught that by their parents, but now they are either too busy or don't know themselves.

"When something happens like tomato ketchup is split on the carpet, people panic," she says.

With everyone feeling a financial pinch, Ms Messervy claims people are cutting back on dry cleaning, but are still faced with a costly bill when they buy a barrage of cleaning products they do not really understand.

"Solutions don't have to be expensive, lots of traditional remedies are really simple and cheap. If we were to pick one product it would be washing-up liquid," she says.

But does the modern man and working woman still take pride in a pristine pad - and even if they do, will they be prepared to part with their hard-earned cash for some seemingly old-fashioned housekeeping tips?

Figures from market research group Mintel show more than three-quarters of adults care about the house being clean - but one in five only clean at weekends.

Victoria Mead, 30, a marketing manager, plans to sign up for one of Ms Messervy's courses.

Image caption,
Victoria Mead gives a day a week to house-keeping

"I take great pride in my home. I've worked so hard to own a home with my husband, it's important to me that it looks lovely," says Mrs Mead, who married five months ago.

"Every morning I put the washing and dishwasher on before work and plump up the cushions. I live on a street in a village where people can look in, so I want to make sure it looks picture perfect for others," she says.

So why does Mrs Mead, who lives near Chester, need to go on a cleaning course? To make sure she is not missing out on "hidden gems from the past", she says.

She already works a four-day week and dedicates Fridays to housework.

"It makes me feel really satisfied - I can then go on and enjoy the weekend ready for any eventuality. I'm a bit of a clean freak. If my house doesn't look good, I think it is a bad reflection on me."

It's not what one would want to be caught saying around the likes of Germaine Greer. The renowned feminist might be more enamoured of Lucy Cavendish, a novelist and mother-of-four, who told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour she has made "a conscious decision" to do little housework.

"A general level of mess doesn't bother me in the way it bothers other people. My house isn't my castle, it does not define me.

"I can understand why tidying makes some people feel in control - and I do keep things clean - but I have no intention of spending hours cleaning my oven," she says.

She did go through a stage of being a domestic goddess after her last child was born. But nobody else noticed, she says.

"Trying to keep a tidy house could drive you to dementia. Life is too short, I'd rather read a book or go to the cinema."

It's all evidence of what Good Housekeeping magazine's consumer editor Caroline Bloor calls a "dirty divide". While she believes keeping a house tidy has a huge psychological benefit, it can be a burden.

"For some a real love of keeping house well is deep rooted in your personality and built in to you from early age. But if you hate housework, reducing your clutter will make it easier."

Either way, she says people should be grateful they are not faced with the chores of the early 20th Century.

"Standards in the home before the war were at levels most women now would find ridiculous - cleaning and dusting were daily tasks; doorsteps and brass were regularly polished; linen starched and spring-cleaning was planned like a military campaign."

Image caption,
Housekeeping was a full time job for many women in the early 1900s

Social historian Juliet Gardiner agrees, adding that when women got married, housekeeping became their full-time job.

"In the 1930s a woman's life was devoted to the house. Keeping it in order would take all week. It was partly due to expectations - in professions such as law, the civil service and teaching there was a formal marriage bar - but there was also a lot more elbow wax.

"It wasn't until the 1960s with the huge spread of vacuum cleaners and washing machines that life got easier and standards started to slip. Mass production brought prices down, women no longer had time and people started to ask does it really matter?"

The prevalence of brands such as Habitat, Heals and Ikea shows people still love their homes and are prepared to invest in them, she says.

But the difference now is people - especially women - are no longer defined by them.

"I can't imagine anyone describing themselves as a housewife now - women that don't work regard themselves as mothers or carers - but nobody really talks about housekeeping anymore."

But Ms Messervy reckons we are in for a revival.

"For a long time it hasn't been very politically correct to be into housekeeping - people pretended they didn't need to know, or want to know how to do things.

"Now people are beginning to realise being a bit savvy saves both time and money."

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.