Spring cleaning: It’s an antiquated ritual—but it’s never been more important.

It’s an antiquated ritual—but we need it now more than ever.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

In New York, you know it’s finally spring when the light changes. There’s usually a morning when I wake up acutely aware of the shift outside my window: The glint off the still-salty sidewalks is more vibrant, the tiny starbursts snuggled in the dints and dings of the glossy black fire escape a little more dazzling. Then, just as you are smiling at the first bird to visit your sill in months, you notice that the light has brought with it another gift—illumination of the fact that your windows are as filthy as sin.

Yes, new light means spring, and spring means it’s time for spring cleaning! Aren’t you excited? I know I am. My spreadsheet currently has about 40 individual tasks remaining to be enjoyed—including, incidentally, the window washing, which involves a delightful bit cantilevering off of that fire escape—and Amazon has been delivering loads of fresh shelf liner and terry cloth bar towels every other day. I’ve got my cleaning caddy stocked with an abundance of basics—vinegar, bleach, wood soap, Bon Ami—and, in case you were wondering, the posh new heavy duty rubber gloves I’m sporting are by Mr. Clean. Spring cleaning is, for me, a holiday that in certain ways tops all the rest: Instead of leaving us (as with, say, Christmas) poorer, fatter, and more exhausted after all the fun, the annual top-to-bottom overhaul sends us off more organized, more serene, and with aspirations toward more productive habits as we move through the rest of the year.

But I’m preaching to the choir, right? A 2013 survey conducted on behalf of the American Cleaning Institute found that, in a 10 percent increase from 2012, 72 percent of respondents planned to spring clean every year. Not bad—but then, other data suggest that something’s getting between that plan and its execution. A separate survey conducted by the home cleaning company Merry Maids (admittedly a stakeholder in this matter) found that 68 percent of respondents viewed spring cleaning as “an overwhelming and time-consuming chore,” and that the kinds of “extra” tasks that really define the activity—scrubbing baseboards, washing window sills—were the very ones that people were most likely to ignore. Clearly, many of us like the idea of spring cleaning, but when it actually comes time to put sponge to tile, we lose our gumption.

Our reluctance to tackle such a large project is, it must be admitted, somewhat logical. In Home Comforts, her engrossing, 884-page housekeeping opus, Cheryl Mendelson points out that, in the age of soot and grease-free heating systems, “most of the rationale for doing spring cleaning has … gone by the wayside.” Our houses are not necessarily coated in winter filth anymore, and, with tools like the vacuum, we need not wait for fair weather to take the rugs out to be beaten. That said, Mendelson does allow that spring cleaning still has a place for anyone “who rather likes the feeling of renewal that follows the major upheaval of turning your home inside out.”    

Try it once before you rule it out. It is delightful to begin the new season with a home that has been scoured top to bottom, every drawer emptied, eve piece of china washed, every bit of metal polished, every fabric washed, every square inch of all surfaces washed, polished, scoured, waxed, or otherwise brought to its finest state. This helps you feel motivated to keep things as pleasant as they are after the spring cleaning.

I’m with her, especially on the psychological bit. To my mind, spring cleaning is as much a ritual as a chore, an opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation. Even the cleanest among us often find ourselves in a state of triage, barely keeping the house together as life pushes and pulls us in a thousand directions; spring cleaning requires that we take time to take stock of not only what needs to be done—what did I miss last year? Which new systems would I like to put in place? Which benighted crevices have I never once visited?—but also of our philosophical approach to cleaning in general.

A philosophical approach to cleaning? Yes. Because I would argue that to become a “clean person” (as we are called these days), a person who can not only will himself to complete a proper spring cleaning, but also internalize a clean sensibility that carries him throughout the rest of the year, you need to approach cleaning as both a set of methods to be learned and as a kind of mindfulness to be practiced. All the know-how in the world is useless if you don’t know how or where to apply it.

In that spirit, this series will address some of the biggest challenges facing the spring cleaner but it will also distill—from sages like Martha Stewart, Mary Gilles, Jolie Kerr and, of course Mendelson—a practical philosophy of cleanliness. That’s what we need if we desire a clean sensibility, a way of thinking about cleaning that will help even the cleaning-averse to manage their home. Armed with both improved skills and a well-honed sensibility, we’ll be ready when the light streaming through the window fades from the freshness of spring into the dull glow of summer and the bright gasp of fall, prepared to greet the new smudges of any season not only with technique, but also with a deeper appreciation for cleaning’s central place in the rhythms of life.

Next up: Start with the closets.