For every blog post I write, I think long and hard about a fun, witty title that not only piques the reader’s interest but is also relevant to the topic. For this post, I hit gold. “Little Women,” written by Louisa May Alcott, is based on the childhood of the four Alcott sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. The home Alcott is writing about is the Wayside, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park. At one point of the story, the girls are helping with the housework and refer to a quote from their cook and housekeeper Hannah that “housekeeping ain’t no joke.” This could not be more true, especially when it comes to housekeeping in a historic house.
The Wayside was not only home to the Alcott family, but also to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop (known as Margaret Sidney) who wrote “The Five Little Peppers.” Because of the many prominent writers who called the Wayside home, it has come to be know as the “Home of Authors.” Three years ago, the home was closed for an intensive restoration and preservation project. Now that the project is mostly completed, NMSC and the park completed an extensive cleaning of the home.
Cleaning a historic house is different than cleaning a modern home and entails much more than simple dusting and vacuuming. While it doesn’t sound very glamorous as museum jobs go, we think of this type of cleaning as one of the most important things we do. It is probably the best way to preserve these special resources from many forms of deterioration. And, it is a fundamental part of making sure that we are presenting the structure and artifacts in a way that is not only accurate, but honors the efforts of these important historic individuals for whom this wasn’t just a house, but their home.
When cleaning a historic house, the standard procedure is to clean from the top to bottom, and from the inside out. This ensures that you will not have dust falling on an already cleaned surface and also is very efficient. Also unlike cleaning a modern house where people rely on a variety of chemicals for their capacity to work quickly, or sanitize surfaces, we take special care with the types of vacuums, dusters, and other cleaning products being used to make sure old, fragile finishes are not damaged.
For instance, where you would use a standard glass cleaner at home, museum professionals use a much milder solution of distilled water, alcohol, and a few drops of ammonia. Once the windows and other glass surfaces are washed with this solution, they are wiped with distilled water to remove any of the chemicals still on the glass.
When it comes to cleaning the floor, you must take the flooring material/floor covering and condition into account. Unlike our rugs at home, many historic floors cannot be vacuumed the same way we are used to. If the rug is in good condition, it can be vacuumed but not with the revolving brush attachment since it may pull up portions of the rug. Instead, a vacuum with no brush, or even a nozzle attachment with a piece of screen on the end can be used. If the floor is wood, it is cleaned differently based on whether it is painted or varnished. We try to avoid wetting old linoleum, sometimes working on our hands and knees with a faintly damp rag to keep from dissolving the old adhesive.
Special care is taken to clean all of the surfaces in the home including often overlooked places like the tops of window frames and doors, and even dusting the ceiling. I certainly don’t get to this level of cleaning at my own home!
Once the rooms are thoroughly cleaned, objects and furniture (which also have been cleaned!) can be moved back into the room and the house prepared for tours. NMSC, MIMA staff, students and volunteers spent more than a week going through the Wayside and making sure it is clean for its grand-reopening coming up in 2016 – an effort of 310 person-hours. For more details, check out our Facebook album of photos and the MIMA website.