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Some people have traced the origin of spring cleaning to the Iranian New Year, which is on the first day of spring. However, it seems like I can find earlier origins of this. What is the true origin of the phrase "spring cleaning" and why do we use it so much (why not another season - for example, places like Scotland, Ireland, and Japan clean in winter)? Does it have something to the with human biology or is it just a word preference?

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    The exact origin of spring cleaning is debatable, but one thing is certain: It’s been a ritual for generations. Jewish custom links spring cleaning to Passover, which takes place in early spring. Members of the Greek Orthodox church celebrate “Clean Week,” a week of cleaning before Lent. The tradition also has a place in Iranian culture, when families spend several days cleaning (or “shaking the house”) prior to Persian New Year. safespaceco.com/…
    – user 66974
    May 5, 2021 at 21:48
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    The view from a UK resident is that the house has been shut up tight all winter and come the spring it is time to throw open the doors and windows and clean up. That's not to say it's the only time it gets cleaned, but is the first major cleaning of the year, and spring follows winter in those parts of the world that have distinct seasonal variations in their climate. May 5, 2021 at 22:03
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    @JohnLawler - I think you should tell Chaucer to work on his spelling.
    – Hot Licks
    May 6, 2021 at 0:46
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    I had learned that it was due to the use of coal for heat during the winter, especially in big cities. When it was warm enough people would get their rugs and all out into the air to clean the soot from them.
    – Elliot
    May 6, 2021 at 13:33
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    A big part of spring cleaning in the 19th and early 20th century, when carpets had become widespread but vacuum cleaners had not, was the process of taking carpets outside, hanging them on the clothes line and beating them with cane carpet beaters. This could not have been done in winter because of poor weather and short days and did need to be done before the onset of summer heat made the carpets smell. Interestingly Hoover added beater bars to the brush cylinders of their electric vacuum cleaners and used the advertising slogan "beats as it sweeps as it cleans"
    – BoldBen
    Jun 25, 2021 at 3:46

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I suspect that the origin of "spring cleaning" is agricultural and has to do with clearing fields of the previous year's stubble prior to sowing a new crop. The historical record suggests that "spring cleaning" was a familiar farming expression—though perhaps not a set phrase—in Great Britain by the late 1700s, and that it was an established term for seasonal housecleaning in parts of the United States by the 1840s.

Here in chronological order, are the earliest matches for "spring cleaning" from a Google Books search of works published before 1860. From "Letters and Papers on Agriculture, Planning, &c.: Selected from the Correspondence-Book of the Society Instituted in Bath, for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, within the Counties of Somerset, Wilts, Glocester, and Dorset, an the City and County of Bristol," in The London Review of English and Foreign Literature (April 1780):

[Field] No. XVI. was a barley stubble, with a good plant of clover. I dressed the clover well, and mowed near two tons at two crops, and sowed the land with wheat. In the spring the wheat was very thin and worm-eaten. I strewed some soot over the parts that were injured, which stopped the further progress of the worm ; and the land being in good heart ; from the dung I had put on the clover, the wheat tillered amazingly, and produced, totally unexpected by me, three quarters and a half per acre. However a spring cleaning of foul land for barley may answer for that crop and the crop of grass, yet when the land comes to be sown with wheat afterwards, the couch will almost get the better of the wheat, and inevitably do it considerable damage ; of this I had an instance in [field] Np. XVII. which was a clover-stubble left after barley, where great pains had been taken to clean the land and rid it of couch ? but the land, when turned up and sown with wheat, was so foul, that the crop hardly paid the expences, and I repented I did not summer-fallow and sow it with turnips out of the clover.

From "On Spring Wheat," in Agriculture Magazine (February 1805):

It has been, I believe, generally observed, that light loams, or at least dry, healthy soils are most proper for spring wheat, and that the success with it has been very indifferent upon clays, or upon cold, wet, and baking soils. Of course, the best of the turnips and barley soils will be chosen, as most fitted to the purpose. Indeed such will probably be the only vacant soils, and as the barley crops have been abundant for two seasons, a substitutionary wheat will be advantageous. I hope every farmer, on soils of this description, so well fitted for the drill, will adopt that mode, or at least set the wheat by the dibble, not only as giving the crop the best chance to succeed in so short a time, from the air afforded by the spaces, but on account of the vast saving in the seed, in the present high price and scarcity of wheat, a matter of much consequence both to the farmer and the public. The cultivators of their own property, who may have lands lying in fallar, will do well to break a rule on this occasion, and put in spring wheat immediately, which, being set, will leave spaces for the hoe, that they may continue throughout the spring cleaning their lands.

Both of these early instances of "spring cleaning" appear in letters written by English farmers.

From John Sinclair, An Account of the Systems of Husbandry Adopted in the More Improved Districts of Scotland, second edition (1813):

In those parts of Berwickshire, Roxburghshire, and East Lothian, at a distance from town manure, potatoes are not approven of as a preparation for wheat, farmers considering them as little better than a nursery for weeds, and on that account they are often planted on clover leys, that the whole may be cleaned by fallow or turnips, the ensuing season. It is very difficult to raise a clean crop after potatoes, as they must be planted too early for spring cleaning, (unless a scuffler is repeatedly made use of), and they must be earthed up too early for summer cleaning. From the time of earthing up in July, the root weeds cannot be disturbed, but retain full possession of the ground, for at least two months of the most growing part of the summer.

From John Shirreff, "Account of the Grubber" (April 27, 1814), in Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland Society of Scotland (1816):

The great objection to sowing on the winter furrow has been, that the effects of a spring ploughing, to operate complete cleanness, is lost. To this it may be answered, that it is a bad account of the state and previous management of either summer, turnip, or potatoe fallow, that it wants spring cleaning of root weeds, and that no good farmer ever relies on a spring ploughing to obtain that purpose, far less to destroy annual weeds, which a spring ploughing is sure to promote the growth of in a tenfold degree.

Benjamin Holdich, "An Essay on the Weeds of Agriculture" (1825):

As a weed, in fen soils, it [annual snakeweed] is the most ramping and and cumbersome of any weed that grows. Its seeds abound in the soil, and increase by scattering from each crop, so that in many cases, by spring cleaning, the whole surface is covered with the plants ; these are usually ploughed down, and the land sown upon the second earth ; but often as many more appear, and very much injure the crop.

And from William Prince, A Treatise on the Vine: Embracing Its History from the Earliest Ages to the Present Day (1830):

The proper period for poling the vineyards, is immediately after the first spring cleaning, before the vines commence growing, sometimes however it is done after the second cleaning, at which time the shoots have acquired a part of their growth.

In Google Books search results, Prince's book is the earliest published in the United States by an American author to use the term "spring cleaning."

Instances of of "spring cleaning" in the context of house cleaning begin to appear in books and newspapers published in the 1840s. From "Abby's Year at Lowell," in the Sunbury [Pennsylvania] American and Shamokin Journal, reprinted from the Lowell [Massachusetts] Offering:

“But I do not see how I can spare her [Abby, who wants to work in a factory in Lowell] ; the spring cleaning is not done, nor the soap made, nor the boys' summer clothes ; and you say that you intend to board your own men-folks, and keep two more cows than you did last year ; and Charley can scarcely go alone. I do not see how I can get along without her."

From Mrs. M.E. Doubleday, "Choosing a Wife," in The Ladies' Companion (New York, February 1843):

Matters had proceeded so prosperously, that the whole village considered the thing as settled. When Mrs. Smith commenced her spring cleaning, it was decided she was preparing for the wedding, and when Mrs. Stebbins went to see about getting her old rocking-chair mended, it was declared that she had been to purchase some new furniture, and it was remembered that her sofas were old-fashioned, and she had neither ottomans, nor divans, nor many other things that were necessary, and undoubtedly, for once, she would wish to open the house and give a party.

From "Deal Gently," in The Lowell Offering (Lowell, Massachusetts, 1844):

Madam Bradshaw was the widow of the old village clergyman ; who, when he died, left her poor, though not destitute. In the parish she had been much respected and beloved, and there was no fear that Madam would ever be left for want, among so many friends. They had a very delicate way of bestowing their bounty, and made several annual parties ; when they went to the old parsonage, always "carrying their welcome." The children went when her cherries were ripe ; the married ladies at Thanksgiving time, bringing their bounties ; the elderly spinsters—considerate souls—just after Fast, did her spring cleaning for her, and replenished her exhausted winter stores.

From Oneida Seaton, It Is All for the Best: or Clarke the Baker (Boston, 1845):

As spring drew near, Mes. Simmons began to talk of what she would do after they were gone. Should would not white-wash, she said, while Mrs.Williams was there, it would only give her the trouble of moving all those great trunks twice. She should not even shake the carpets yet, as she didn't think it was polite to begin spring-cleaning when friends were on a visit. This was all said with a good show of civility and kindness, but neither Mrs. Williams nor Rachel could doubt that their visit must come to a speedy termination.

From a letter by Mary Ware received in May 1848 and reprinted in Edward Hall, Memoir of Mary L. Ware, Wife of Henry Ware, Jr. (Boston, 1853):

We are beginning to look lovely here. It seems to me the spring was never so charming; but perhaps it is that I am more charming than usual! Certain it is that I have seldom been in so favorable a state to enjoy it, so free from the pressure of care and the sense of hurry, which has been the bane of my life. I am more willing to leave some things undone than I was. Is not this a great virtue in a housekeeper, whose spring-cleaning is not done, or likely to be these three months?

From a diary entry dated May 1, 1848, in Mary Wallis, Life in Feejee: Or, Five Years Among the Cannibals (Boston, 1851):

May 1. The weather is pleasant, and all hands [aboard the bark Zotoff at St. Helena] are employed in scrubbing, painting, tarring, &c., to clean and improve the appearance of the bark. The spring cleaning at home is nothing compared to this home cleaning in the spring.

From Emma Embury, "Minnie Clifton: A Heart-History" in Graham's Magazine (Philadelphia, October 1849):

But changes will occur in human life, notwithstanding all our efforts to prevent them. The Woodleys had a sort of morbid dread of a wedding, but they did not seem to remember that there might be such think as a funeral to alter the aspect of affairs, until one fine morning, just as Mrs. Woodley had succeeded in turning the whole house out of the windows, preparatory to what she called her "spring cleaning," she was struck with apoplexy, and died in a few hours.

The striking thing about these 1840s instances of "spring cleaning" as a domestic activity is that all of them come from a fairly compact area of the northeastern United States—Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Lowell Offering—the source of two of the earliest three instances cited—was a collection of pieces "written, edited and published by female operatives employed in the mils" of that city.

The two stories from The Lowell Offering cited in this answer also appeared in miscellanies published in Edinburgh and London in the mid-1840s, but no home-grown English or Scottish instances of "spring cleaning" in the sense of an annual major house cleaning effort appear in Google Books search results until at least 1854, when Hogg*'s Instructor* (an Edinburgh publication) printed a serialized work titled The Struggle, by an unidentified author, which included this instance of the term:

'I shall hope for a speedy answer. I am longing for the country, and feel that there are many things I ought to be seeing to. Do you happen to know if Anne had her "spring cleaning" while you were away?—With kind love to John, believe me, dear Gertrude, your very affectionate aunt, MARGARET ESSERY.'


Conclusions

The term "spring cleaning" in an agricultural sense (of preparing a field for the sowing of a new crop) appears in Google Books search result from as early as 1780; the earliest matches (through 1825) are from British authors, with instances of U.S. origin that use the term in the same sense beginning to appear in 1830.

"Spring cleaning" in a domestic sense (of conducting an annual very thorough cleaning of a house), on the other hand, seems to be of U.S. origin. At any rate, the earliest instances of it (from the 1840s) are from U.S. author and publications—and are concentrated in publications from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island (an instance from 1850).

Whether the housekeeping sense of "spring cleaning" arose from the agricultural sense is not clear, but the timing of the emergence of the housekeeping sense of the term is certainly compatible with the hypothesis that it originated as a farming term. Nonetheless, it is certainly possible that the expressions arose independently of one another—one in rural England, and the other in Boston or some other northeastern city in the United States.

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  • The importance of diligent use of the scuffler can't be overstated. Dec 5, 2021 at 17:21

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