It is a cold day in northeastern New Jersey, and Jessica Holoka is carefully taking inventory around the home she shares with her husband of 11 years. She is not planning to move, nor is she preparing for doomsday. She’s gearing up for her annual spring cleaning marathon, some three months away.
Ms. Holoka, 41, does not take spring cleaning lightly. It involves about a week of backbreaking work. The blinds, windows and trim must be washed, the rugs shampooed, the ceiling fans cleaned, the bathroom — including the tiles and grout — scrubbed to perfection, the refrigerator cleaned out and the smoke detectors checked. To top it all off, the paint throughout the home must be touched up. In a good year, her car might get a thorough cleaning, too.
Ms. Holoka said her husband, Mike Holoka, usually hangs out in the garage or assigns himself yard work for that week, while she spends a few hours each day tackling various tasks.
Odds are she’ll have plenty of company. Spring cleaning has its roots in a dirtier time, when people heated their homes by burning wood and, later, coal, and the end of winter meant scrubbing surfaces caked with soot and dirt. The tradition endures today as an annual ritual of purification and renewal — a time to purge old clothing, shred junk mail, donate unwanted food and clear the gutters.
“I’m a self-proclaimed clean freak, a female Danny Tanner,” Ms. Holoka said, referring to Bob Saget’s character from the sitcom “Full House.” “I prefer to do it alone. I feel like everybody has a certain way that they clean.”
Ms. Holoka, a lifestyle blogger, shares recipes and do-it-yourself projects on her website, livinglavidaholoka.com. She said she never feels overwhelmed by the volume of work that awaits her each spring because she has prepared for it, and because she keeps a well-stocked cleaning kit.
The idea of an annual deep cleaning is not new, but it’s not possible to assign a date to when the tradition began, said Susan Strasser, a historian and the author of “Never Done: A History of American Housework.”
Before the 20th century, all light and heat in households came from burning fuels, Ms. Strasser said, and before kerosene and coal, people heated their homes with fires. That meant that by the end of winter there was soot and dust all over the house. “People who valued cleanliness at all really had to clean up in the spring, because the winter left places really dirty,” she said.
For some, spring cleaning takes place around the time of the vernal equinox, which this year fell on March 20. Others take their cues from nature, choosing to break out the sponges and brooms when the trees begin budding and the flowers begin blooming. Some Jewish families do a type of spring cleaning, principally in the kitchen, in preparation for Passover.
The number of Americans who do some sort of spring cleaning appears to be rising. A survey by the American Cleaning Institute, which represents producers of household and industrial cleaning products, found that 78 percent of Americans did an annual spring cleaning last year, up about 10 percent from 2021.
On social media, there is a sharp divide between people who love to clean and those who despise it. On TikTok, videos tagged “cleantok,” many of which show cleaning tips and hacks, have received nearly 27 billion views. On Facebook, there are groups where people vent about their hatred of cleaning, and on Twitter, a search for “I hate cleaning” returned hundreds of tweets from people complaining about having to tidy their kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms.
Among them was Hugo Martinez, 22, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, who shared his frustrations about cleaning on Twitter in early February. He said in an interview that, for him, cleaning was tied to his emotions, and that the tidiness of his home reflected that.
“I feel like everything is mental,” he said. “If you’re not in a good mental state,” then it’s unlikely that spring cleaning will happen.
Grace Reynolds, president and chief executive of the American House Cleaners Association, a membership organization that raises awareness of the necessity of cleaning and the skills it involves, said it could be “mentally draining” for many people.
“It’s an acquired skill and a lot of people have not acquired it,” she said. Some people experience guilt over it, while others don’t have the time, particularly those who are working or managing children, she said.
Complaints on the subject are well documented. In 1866, Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter: “‘House’ is being ‘cleaned.’ I prefer pestilence.” Nellie Kedzie Jones, a pioneer in home economics who taught “domestic science” at several universities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote that spring cleaning was an “abomination of desolation” and that the task “breaks women’s backs and causes men to break the Ten Commandments.”
House cleaning is “the kind of work that we just don’t think of,” Ms. Strasser, the author and historian, said, in part because women traditionally have done the bulk of it.
In an earlier time, before the turn of the last century, heavy curtains that were used to insulate a home during the winter would be removed, she said. Walls would be whitewashed, and carpets would be removed and beaten. Chimneys would be swept out and the windows thoroughly cleaned. If a household could afford help, either from enslaved people or servants, they would be enlisted as well, she said.
“You start on the top floor and one by one, literally, take the rooms apart,” Ms. Strasser said.
In modern times, few people take their spring cleaning to such extremes. But Rajiv Surendra, a calligrapher, domestic arts specialist and actor (“Mean Girls”), relishes his cleaning ritual.
Mr. Surendra, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has a YouTube channel where he teaches the art of living well, offering tips on how to iron a shirt, for example, or how to properly wash whites.
“I don’t believe there is a more effective way of cleaning the floor than being on your hands and knees, what I call ‘Cinderella style,’” Mr. Surendra said. “I do a full, full clean twice a year.”
Mr. Surendra said the process, which includes precariously maneuvering himself to clean the outside of the windows of his one-bedroom apartment, takes him about a week.
“For the week that I’m cleaning, I feel like I’m not living, like I pressed the pause button,” he said. But his cleaning routine is inexpensive. The biggest cost is his time, as he typically sets aside commissions or projects to focus on cleaning.
He also recommends decluttering. As he cleans, he makes a point of touching every item in his possession at least once, he says. Anything left behind, he said, needs to be washed, polished, vacuumed or dusted.
“Clean smells really good,” he said. “My smell of clean is not something that’s associated with a product. It’s this emptiness. It’s space. It also feels like peace.”