Cultural drift: cleaning methods

Forgotten chores and their use by Romanticism
sociology, criticism, poetry, politics, survey, Google, bibliography
2013-05-072017-03-26 in progress certainty: likely importance: 3


Some old books men­tion sandy floors and sprin­kling water on the ground; these asides seem to go unno­ticed by most/all read­ers. I high­light them, explain and dis­cuss their use as now-ob­so­lete clean­ing prac­tices, poll Inter­net users to see how for­got­ten they are, and pon­der impli­ca­tions. In an appen­dix, I dis­cuss a sim­i­lar issue I encoun­tered in pre-­Space-Race Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion.

I find it inter­est­ing how small cul­tural changes impede our under­stand­ing of even recent mate­ri­als, in a less recon­dite form of . I am sure his­to­ri­ans could cite thou­sands of exam­ples where ordi­nary prac­tices or beliefs or tech­niques have been lost and baf­fle mod­ern-­day peo­ple read­ing about them, but I would like to record here some of the ones I have dis­cov­ered for myself. For exam­ple, this com­men­tary by on (1910):

Tu Mu relates a strat­a­gem of Chu-ko Liang, who in 149 BC, when occu­py­ing Yang-p’ing and about to be attacked by Ssu-ma I, sud­denly struck his col­ors, stopped the beat­ing of the drums, and flung open the city gates, show­ing only a few men engaged in sweep­ing and sprin­kling the ground. This unex­pected pro­ceed­ing had the intended effect; for Ssu-ma I, sus­pect­ing an ambush, actu­ally drew off his army and retreat­ed.

In this case, barely a cen­tury sep­a­rates me from Giles’s trans­la­tion, but nev­er­the­less, I have to think care­fully to under­stand all of what he wrote, and specif­i­cal­ly, the “sprin­kling the ground” bit which he writes with­out any anno­ta­tion or fur­ther expla­na­tion (as if it was obvi­ous, as per­haps it was). Some meth­ods of clean­ing have just been for­got­ten—who these days can read a clause like “sprin­kling the ground” and under­stand implic­itly what it means?

No, it does­n’t mean that the men were water­ing plants - that would­n’t make sense in the quoted con­text of a city gate. Water-sprin­kling reduces dust. Nor does it mean that they’re build­ing some sort of water-­trap—the point of Chu-Ko Liang’s strat­a­gem is that this is an activ­ity which looks com­pletely nor­mal and inno­cent. It’s not reli­gious, either. So what is it? As the con­junc­tion with “sweep­ing” sug­gests, the rea­son for sprin­kling water is really very sim­ple: it’s to keep the dust down. In such a high traf­fic area of an ancient city, the plants on the ground will have died ages ago and the soil been rubbed away by feet and wheels, leav­ing just dust, clay, feces, etc to raise a cloud and choke trav­el­ers and be a nui­sance. Sim­ple, log­i­cal, use­ful, but not nec­es­sar­ily the sort of thing that would occur to a mod­ern reader so accus­tomed to con­crete and asphalt and heav­ily built-up urban envi­ron­ments. More recent­ly, , born in the Chi­nese treaty port of in 1914, home to recalled in 1986:

I remem­ber once going home from school, I came on a water cart—wa­ter was brought from the river to sprin­kle on the dusty streets to keep dust down so the for­eign­ers would­n’t be trou­bled by it. It was a ter­rif­i­cally heavy bur­den when a two-wheeled wooden cart, with a rec­tan­gu­lar cask of prob­a­bly ten cubic feet, was filled with water. A coolie had stopped his cart, that day, propped the shafts up with a stick. I had never seen the inside of one of these things, and was barely tall enough to look over the edge; I reached up and grabbed one side to take a look, and upset the cart. The water spilled, and the coolie’s labor of haul­ing it all the way there from the river was lost. He was not sup­posed to shout at a white child, but I under­stood why he did. His rage at me was some­thing I have never for­got­ten.

An allu­sion in Greek poet­ry: from Amor­gos II, 1943 (pg138, A Euro­pean Col­lec­tion of Social Poetry and Art (1800–1950)):

To com­plain is use­less
Life will be every­where the same, with a flute of ser­pents in a land of phan­toms
With a song of thieves in a for­est of fra­grance
With the knife-blade of sor­row in the cheeks of hope
With the yearn­ing of spring in the inner­most heart of an owlet
If only a plow may be found and a keen-edge scythe in a joy­ful hand
If only there blos­som
A bit of grain for the hol­i­days, a lit­tle wine for remem­brance, a lit­tle water for the dust.

Sand

I remem­ber a sim­i­lar exam­ple in the poems of Wal­lace Stevens (born 1879): there was a pas­sage in “” about poor women (maid­s?) and a “beachy floor”1, and I pointed out to my pro­fes­sor (who loved Stevens and had taught him for many decades) that the most obvi­ous mean­ing of “beachy” was “sandy” and par­tic­u­larly in a large build­ing such as a palace, this was how one might clean a wooden floor, by scrub­bing it with sand. He said he had never heard of clean­ing floors in such a man­ner. A rare audio­vi­sual depic­tion of scrub­bing tables with sand comes to us cour­tesy of Game of Thrones, sea­son 1 episode 4, but more famous­ly, wooden sail­ing ships did­n’t nec­es­sar­ily have sand handy, so they used sand­stone rocks or “” for scrub­bing the decks.

We can find other men­tions of sand and floors, often praise; for exam­ple, :

Sim­plic­ity of life, even the barest, is not a mis­ery, but the very foun­da­tion of refine­ment: a sanded floor and white­washed walls, and the green trees, and flow­ery meads, and liv­ing waters out­side; or a grimy palace amid the smoke with a reg­i­ment of house­maids always work­ing to smear the dirt together so that it may be unno­ticed; which, think you, is the most refined, the most fit for a gen­tle­man of those 2 dwellings?

Or in , May­hew 1851 (pg110-111):

In all the houses that I entered were traces of house­hold care and neat­ness that I had lit­tle expected to have seen…In one house that I vis­ited there was a fam­ily of five per­sons, liv­ing on the ground floor and occu­py­ing two rooms. The boards were strewn with red sand, and the front depart­ment had three beds in it, with the printed cur­tains drawn closely round…The bet­ter class of Irish lodg­ing-­houses almost star­tle one by the com­fort and clean­li­ness of the rooms; for after the descrip­tions you hear of the state in which the deck pas­sen­gers are landed from the Irish boats, their clothes stained with the manure of the pigs, and drenched with the spray, you some­how expect to find all the accom­mo­da­tions dis­gust­ing and unwhole­some. But one in par­tic­u­lar, that I vis­it­ed, had the floor clean, and sprin­kled with red sand, while the win­dows were sound, bright, and trans­par­ent. The hobs of the large fire-­place were piled up with bright tin pots, and the chim­ney piece was white and red with the china images ranged upon it.

The Vic­to­rian nov­el­ist 2

I had never had a piece of toast
Par­tic­u­larly long and wide
But fell upon the sanded floor
And always on the but­tered side.

Sanded floors still exist in some places. The (late 17th-­cen­tury Sephardic syn­a­gogue in Ams­ter­dam) uses them (see photo of inte­rior):

The floor is cov­ered with fine sand, in the old Dutch tra­di­tion, to absorb dust, mois­ture and dirt from shoes and to muf­fle the noise. Only five syn­a­gogues in the world have a sand floor, and this is the only one with such a floor sur­viv­ing out­side the Caribbean region.

Part of what inter­ests me is that not only have we for­got­ten, we’ve for­got­ten that we’ve for­got­ten. If Wade-Giles or any of the Stevens antholo­gies had included foot­notes explain­ing their uses of water or sand, this would be much less inter­est­ing to me. They would sim­ply be known unknowns, not unknown unknowns.

Historical context

How were sanded floors described or viewed by peo­ple back then? Search­ing Google Books for “sanded floor” and going through the first few pages of hits turns up mod­ern mate­r­ial on home con­struc­tion & repair and occa­sional lit­er­a­ture using it as an epi­thet for the desert, but also a num­ber of older pro­saic uses - rang­ing from trav­el­er’s accounts to min­utes of insane asy­lum meet­ings to nov­els and short sto­ries and poems (one of which is hard not to read as bla­tant Quaker pro­pa­gan­da), and in par­tic­u­lar, if we put them in chrono­log­i­cal order, we can see some inter­est­ing trends:

  1. The Poet’s Craft: A Course in the Crit­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Poetry, Scott 1957:

    most famous poem, , was enthu­si­as­ti­cally received when it first appeared in May, 1770…It comes from a let­ter writ­ten to his broth­er…:

    Your last let­ter, I repeat it, was too short: you should have given me your opin­ion of the design of the hero­icom­i­cal poem which I sent you…The room in which he lies, may be described some­what in this way:

    The win­dow, patch’d with paper, lent a ray,
    That fee­bly shew’d the state in which he lay.
    The sanded floor, that grits beneath the tread:
    The humid wall with pal­try pic­tures spread…

  2. John Clare and Com­mu­nity, John Goodridge 2012:

    …The last of the group of four early ‘wish’ poems is “After read­ing in a Let­ter pro­pos­als for build­ing a Cot­tage”, pub­lished in Clare’s sec­ond col­lec­tion, The Vil­lage Min­strel (1821)…­Clare is clearly deter­mined to do things his own way. There are to be no redun­dant pos­ses­sions or lux­u­ries here, not even a library or a study, just “A cub­board for the books” (l. 32). He would like a sanded floor, though, as he points out in the con­clud­ing lines:

    Along the floor some sand Ill sift
    to make it fit to live in
    & then Ill thank ye for the gift
    As somthing worth the giv­ing (ll. 33-6)25

    This may merely reflect the com­mon rural real­ity of a well-trod­den earth floor in need of sand, but it might also recall the “nice­ly-sanded floor” of Gold­smith’s ide­alised ale­house in The Deserted Vil­lage (l.227), or per­haps Robin­son Cru­soe in his snug cave, an early lit­er­ary hero whose story could always, as Clare puts it, “fill my fan­cys” (By Him­self, 57).

  3. The Lon­don Lit­er­ary Gazette and Jour­nal of Belles Let­tres, Arts, Sci­ences, Etc 1827 gives us a humor­ous poem about a delu­sive drunk­ard sailor which con­cludes

    …The wet decep­tion from his eyes / Kept fad­ing more and more; / He only saw the bar-­maid stand / With pout­ing lip, before / The small green par­lour at The Ship / And lit­tle sanded floor!

  4. Three Courses and a Desert, Clarke & Cruik­shank, 1830 humor­ous nov­el:

    …“Hon­our them as much as you please, Wal­dron”, replied Archibald: “hon­our them, and wel­come: but I beseech you, do not entrap me to hon­our another of them…­con­ceive the mis­ery, if you can, of din­ing in a room, falsely des­ig­nated a par­lour, with a sanded floor! My teeth were set on edge every time I moved a foot.”

    “Ay, but, broth­er, pro­vided the table be well cov­ered”, observed Regi­nald, “one might, methinks, even put up with a clean, dry, sanded floor.”

    …“Pin­daruum quisquis studet emu­lari, brother Wal­dron”, exclaimed Regi­nald; but he was cut short, in his intended quo­ta­tion, by Archibald, who said, “And if I plume myself on any merit of mine, - except, from my boy­hood, always hav­ing bal­anced to a frac­tion, - it is on that of pre­fer­ring a good car­pet to a sanded floor; a Hoby’s boot to a hob-shoe; a tooth by Rus­pini, to fill up a gap made by time, to no tooth at all…”

  5. The Spirit of the Eng­lish Mag­a­zines 1832, “The Spy and the Trai­tor”:

    …It seemed to be an unin­hab­ited build­ing…His com­pan­ion, how­ev­er, soon joined him and silently led the way towards a low door. hav­ing entered, he made it secure, and request­ing him to fol­low, he con­ducted the stranger along a nar­row pas­sage…He now stood in a low square room, slightly fur­nished, and with an unpainted wain­scot, and a sanded floor. Here and there a coarse pic­ture, in a black frame, under a tri­umphal arch of aspara­gus or ever­green, hung against the white wall…

  6. The Jan­u­ary 1839 South­ern Lit­er­ary Mes­sen­ger: Devoted to Every Depart­ment of Lit­er­a­ture and the Fine Arts, Vol­ume 5 offers this archi­tec­tural descrip­tion:

    …The room was illu­mi­nated by eight win­dows with not even a paper cur­tain - noth­ing but the dark scar­let bom­bazet demi-cur­tain, which seems the favorite ensign of our coun­try inns…And fur­ther, this “delight­ful Saxon” apart­ment had a sanded floor, which, as my young com­pan­ions chose to course up and down its fifty of length, was rather unfriendly to the sweet offices of sleep. But in spite of this - in spite of the win­dows rat­tling in their case­ments - in spite of a ris­ing north­easter - of the blow­ing open of the door, and the pelt­ing in of the rain, a king might have envied our sound sleep on the team­sters’ beds of this “delight­ful Saxon” apart­ment! Such won­der­ful trans­muters are exer­cise and fatigue, of straw-beds and coarse cov­er­ings into down and fine linen.

  7. The Boston Quar­terly Review 1841, “Con­ver­sa­tions with a Rad­i­cal”:

    R.: …Poverty and wealth are merely rel­a­tive terms. The only true method of judg­ing of this mat­ter is to ascer­tain whether the posi­tion of the pro­duc­er, rel­a­tively to that of the accu­mu­la­tor, be higher or low­er, than it was at the epoch of the Rev­o­lu­tion, before the mar­vel­lous pow­ers of machin­ery, of sci­ence, and cap­i­tal had been made to bear on pro­duc­tion, as they have been since. Grant that a yard of cal­ico may be pur­chased now at an eighth of what it cost fifty years ago; what is gained, if in order to main­tain the same rel­a­tive social posi­tion, the black­smith’s wife must put seven yards more into her gown, or have eight gowns to one then? You know, Sir, if you know any­thing about it, that, notwith­stand­ing the gen­eral advance of wealth and the vast mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of the nec­es­saries and con­ve­niences of life, it is alto­gether more dif­fi­cult for the com­mon laborer to main­tain the same social posi­tion now, than it was fifty years ago….The mechan­ic, it may be, receives two and even three times as much, nom­i­nal­ly, for his labor now as he did then, and is required to pay two or three times less for what he pur­chas­es; but then he must have as much more as this dif­fer­ence implies in order to be a man of the same con­se­quence that he was. The black­smith’s wife must have a car­pet now, where a nicely sanded floor was enough then; and a French cal­ico instead of a home­made, cop­peras-dyed, two-and-­li­nen gown, which was her pride then…

    C. And I should sup­pose that with your great affec­tion for black­smiths, and espe­cially for black­smith’s wives, you would rejoice that it is so.

    R. No. My friends, the black­smith and his wife, the shoe­maker and his wife, the house­wright, and the wheel­right and their wives, are all poorer than they were. Their houses may look bet­ter out­ward­ly, but they are not so com­fort­able inside. They have more com­pared with what they then had, but less com­pared with what is now the gen­eral style of liv­ing. The sanded floor, the cop­peras gown, the checked apron, the but­ter­nut coat, and tow shirt, frock, and trowsers, were good enough for them then, for they were as good as their neigh­bor’s had…Each fam­ily man­u­fac­tured for itself, and felt itself inde­pen­dent; and the feel­ing of inde­pen­dence, that we have within our­selves the means of pro­vid­ing for our own wants, is worth more than all the car­pets, French cal­i­coes, French silk, sat­in, lace, and the like things in the world. Those were happy times.

  8. Friend­ship’s Offer­ing, Phillips and Samp­son, 1843:

    The Sab­bath morn called him to seek the meet­ing-­house of his sect, which was sit­u­ate at a short dis­tance from the vil­lage. There it stood, with its gray walls and flagged roof - its bright smal­l­-­paned win­dows, and weath­er-beaten door and shut­ters - its shade of arch­ing lime trees, and its green grave­yard, sur­rounded by a low wall and hum­ble wick­et, on which the peas­ant might lean and mor­al­ize; for the dread of des­e­cra­tion which encir­cles the bur­ial places in cities with pal­isa­does and chevaux-de-frise had not reached the inhab­i­tants of that peace­ful land. Its inte­rior cor­re­sponded with the neat­ness and sim­plic­ity of its out­ward appear­ance. The walls seemed to have been recently white-washed, and the sand on the floor cracked beneath his tread, as he sought a seat on one of the old oaken forms. Few were the assem­bled wor­ship­pers.

    …he mar­shalled us into the house. The ben end of the old-­fash­ioned farm­house, had exhib­ited the usual dec­o­ra­tions of an amrie, a clock and a pair of press-beds, with a clean swept ingle, and care­fully sanded floor, had under­ground a meta­mor­pho­sis not less vio­lent than some of Ovid’s or Har­le­quin’s. The amrie had given place to a sat­in-­wood work-table, the clock to a mir­ror…and the once sanded floor was cov­ered with an already soiled and faded car­pet, to whose del­i­cate colours, Peter, Fresh from the clay fur­rows, and his two sheep­-­dogs drip­ping from the pond, had nearly proved equally fatal.

  9. A His­tor­i­cal Guide to Henry David Thoreau 2000 pro­vides a handy dis­cus­sion of clean­ing floors with sand in New Eng­land (ex­actly the region of con­cern for the poem quoted pre­vi­ous­ly):

    …Ad­di­tion­al­ly, Thoreau argues that kind­ness to the poor might best be shown by self­-em­ploy­ment of heads of house­hold in the kitchen (Walden 1854, 76). He assents to [Har­ri­et] Beecher’s notion that house­work can be a “pleas­ant” pas­time and offers his own guide to sim­pli­fied clean­ing:

    When my floor was dirty, I rose ear­ly, and, set­ting all my fur­ni­ture out of doors on the grass, bed and bed­stead mak­ing but one bud­get, dashed water on the floor, and sprin­kled white sand from the pond on it, and then with a broom scrubbed it clean and white. (Walden, 112-113)

    The white wood floors, as Jane Nylan­der explains in her study of New Eng­land house­holds, were those left unfin­ished, with sand the favored abra­sive clean­ing agent into the early nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. One New Hamp­shire woman recalled that in the 1830s, “It was all so very clean, the chairs, table, floor and all the wood­work was unpainted and was kept white by being scoured with sand” (Ny­lan­der, Our Own Snug Fire­side, 118-119). Thore­au’s sand scrub implic­itly rejects the lat­ter days of car­pet­ing and of paint (the lat­ter sur­face eas­ier to main­tain, accord­ing to Beecher), and his exam­ple of house­keep­ing argues for a sim­pler domes­tic­ity prac­ticed in the recent past, once again uphold­ing the ethos of clean­li­ness.

  10. The recre­ations of a coun­try par­son, Boyd 1866:

    I like to think of the effect which tidi­ness has in equal­is­ing the real con­tent of the rich and poor. If even you, my read­er, find it pleas­ant to go into the hum­blest lit­tle dwelling where per­fect neat­ness reigns, think what plea­sure the inmates (per­haps the soli­tary inmate) of that dwelling must have in daily main­tain­ing that speck­less tidi­ness, and liv­ing in the midst of it. There is to me a per­fect charm about a sanded floor, and about deal [“A slice sawn from a log of tim­ber (now always of fir or pine), and usu­ally under­stood to be more than seven inches wide, and not more than three thick”] fur­ni­ture scrubbed into the per­fec­tion of clean­li­ness. How nice the table and the chairs look; how invit­ing that soli­tary big arm-chair by the lit­tle fire!…­God has made us so that there is a racy enjoy­ment, a delight­ful smack, about extreme sim­plic­ity co-ex­ist­ing with extreme tidi­ness. I don’t mean to say that I should pre­fer that sanded floor and those chairs of deal to a Turkey car­pet and carved oak or wal­nut; but I assert that there is a cer­tain inde­fin­able rel­ish about the sim­pler fur­ni­tures…So if you gain some­thing by hav­ing a grand house, you lose some­thing too, and some­thing which is the more con­stantly and sen­si­bly felt - you lose the joy of sim­ple tidi­ness; and your life grows so arti­fi­cial, that many days you never think of your dwelling at all, nor remem­ber what it looks like.

  11. Sin­ful Tunes and Spir­i­tu­als: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Epstein, quotes an 1876 South Car­olina travel account of a black “jig”:

    …The feet moved about in the most grotesque man­ner stamp­ing, slam­ming, and bang­ing the floor, not unlike the pat­ter­ing of hail on the house­top. The con­flict between bro­gan [leather shoe] and the sanded floor was ter­rif­ic. It was hard work, and at inter­vals of five or ten min­utes, he was relieved…

  12. , 1880

    The sit­u­a­tion was really thrilling, and it scarcely seemed to her a false note when her com­pan­ion asked for an oys­ter stew, and pro­ceeded to con­sume it before her eye­s…­Mor­ris looked some moments at the sanded floor of the shop; he seemed to be dis­posed to linger a moment.

  13. Poems, by David Atwood Was­son 1888, “O’er The Sanded Floor”:

    …She sits o’er the sanded floor / By the fire­place wide and high; / And there she is sit­ting for me ever­more, / Still and pure as a star in the sky. / A child of three sum­mer sea­sons then, / Three dream­ing sum­mers, was I; and when / Another was gone of those long years, / Unmoth­ered a month had I been…

  14. The Atlantic Month­ly, Vol­ume 65 1890 “The Begum’s Daugh­ter”:

    …“I will do noth­ing of the sort!” cried the daugh­ter, in a sud­den flut­ter. The matron, open­ing wide her small black eyes, started after the retreat­ing maid­en, and there­upon spent a good half hour puz­zling over this tri­fling cir­cum­stance, as she paced to and fro upon the sanded floor.

  15. Hilton Hall, Or, A Thorn in the Flesh: A Novel, Louise Dubois 1898

    “The white­washed wall, the nicely sanded floor,
    The var­nished clock that click’d behind the door.”

    A charm­ing, delight­ful spot on the banks of the Win­nip­isoegee river, is the lit­tle ham­let of the Bridge. On the crest of the hell, near the out­skirts of the ham­let, stands the three roomed cot­tage of the black­smith. His fam­i­ly, a wife, two sons and a daugh­ter, Edward, Don­nallen and Mary Hilton. The house con­tained a sit­ting-­room, fur­nished with chairs, cen­tre table, small mir­ror, fire­place adorned with ferns and cat­tails upon mantle, two brass can­dle­sticks and snuffers, sanded floor. Bed­room, a rag car­pet, tiny foot rest, chairs and bureau. Kitchen, a shade at the back, white­washed and sanded floor, kept spot­lessly clean by Don­nal­len, the youngest boy…The out­door premises were equally clean…They lived fru­gal­ly, as the mother wished to keep up the old cus­tom of sav­ing some­thing to start the chil­dren in life. So Don­nallen was a happy bare­foot boy…

  16. Year Book, Vol­ume 3, Row­fant Club 1899, “Pres­i­den­t’s Address”:

    …The best estate of the Row­fant Club is an alert, active, eager mem­ber­ship to plan, invent, sug­gest, adopt, and a will­ing, capa­ble board of Fel­lowes to exe­cute. We turn with fond­est rec­ol­lec­tions to the vig­or­ous days of this club, housed in a sin­gle scant­ily fur­nished room at Case Hall, on a sanded floor. But the sanded floor did not give it vig­or. It existed in the men who trod the sanded floor. Our scant sur­round­ings did not inspire its life, but the aims, the ambi­tions, the lively club aspi­ra­tions of the men who sought these sur­round­ings…

  17. House Beau­ti­ful, Vol­ume 15, “Our Colo­nial Room”, Stevens 1903

    …Joan gazed at me with a con­vic­tion that would have done credit to Molly Pitcher, or Bet­sey Ross, or any of those women. “Your colo­nial nov­els will never got out of fash­ion”, she said…She extracted from the file the descrip­tion of the set­ting for the sec­ond act; over this she pon­dered a moment, run­ning a fin­ger along the lines, as her habit is when she con­sid­ers a bit of man­u­script crit­i­cal­ly. “Of course”, she said, “you had to change it for the stage. they could hardly be expected to use the sanded floor; but I liked it bet­ter in the book.” A pause. “Pic­tures in oval frames - striped wall - hair­cloth - long sofa - andirons - can­dle­sticks -” she mused. “I sup­pose we shall have to give up the sanded floor, too”, she said rue­ful­ly. “It was con­sid­ered com­mon and out of date, even then”, said I. “I would­n’t be thought so now.” “Let’s pass over the ques­tion.” She sighed del­i­cate­ly…“I will for­get about the sanded floor”, she said.

  18. Gate­way, Vol­umes 5-6 1905, “A Leg­end of The Flag”:

    …Bet­sey Ross in her home­spun dress / Has paused for a moment of idle­ness; / The lit­tle shop with the sanded floor / Looks bright from the half-way open door; / But Bet­sey watches with anx­ious eyes / A cloud of dust that sees arise. / Adown the street there’s a goodyly stir - / A party of horse­men are seek­ing her. / “Mis­tress Bet­sey”, the first one cries - / Low on his fore­head the cocked h lies - / “In the name of Con­gress, we bid you leave / Your other labors a flag to weave:”…Then the years went by, and Bet­sey’s soul / Had fled ere the war-­drum ceased to roll; / And Bet­sey’s daugh­ter stood by the door / Of the lit­tle shop with the sanded floor. / “Give us more flags”, the sol­diers cried; / “We have naught but rags where the stars are dyed / With the blood of foes, and the milk-white bars / Are torn, like our breasts, with ragged scars.” / But the maiden said, “Do you know the Friends [Quak­er­s]? / They weave no ban­ners for war­like ends. / …I can weave no flags that may wave in strife / Whose brother is seek­ing a broth­er’s life.” / Then silent the vet­er­ans turned away / From that quiet maid in the robe of gray, / Who after them closed the heavy door / Of the lit­tle shop with the sanded floor…

  19. , Sin­clair Lewis 1914:

    As he stole into the car Dr. Mit­ty­ford seemed com­par­a­tively human, remark­ing: “I feel bored this evening. I thought I would give you a nuit blanche. How would you like to go to the Red Uni­corn at Bremp­ton - one of the few untouched old inns?” “That would be nice”, said Mr. Wrenn, unen­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly…The tap-­room of the Red Uni­corn was lighted by can­dles and a fire­place. That is a sim­ple thing to say, but it was not a sim­ple thing for Mr. Wrenn to see. As he observed the trem­bling shad­ows on the sanded floor he wrig­gled and excit­edly mur­mured, “Gee!… gee whit­tak­ers!” The shad­ows slipped in arabesques over the dust-gray floor and scam­pered as bravely among rafters as though they were in such a tale as men told in believ­ing days. Rus­tics in smocks drank ale from tankards; an in a cor­ner was snor­ing an ear-ringed ped­dler with his beetle-black head propped on an oil­cloth pack. Stamp­ing in, chilly from the ride, Mr. Wrenn laughed aloud. With a com­fort­able feel­ing on the side toward the fire he stuck his slight legs straight out before the old-­time set­tle, looked dev­il-­may-­care, made delight­ful ridges on the sanded floor with his toe, and clapped a pewter pot on his knee with a small emphatic “Wop!”

  20. Annual Report of the State Board of Insan­ity of the Com­mon­wealth of Mass­a­chu­setts 1915, unex­pect­edly brings up an exam­ple in the com­ments of trustee Edmund A. Whit­man:

    …I did, how­ev­er, come to this meet­ing with some degree of enthu­si­asm, because at least one sub­ject to be dis­cussed was one in which I was inter­ested at home; that is, the ques­tion of slip­pery floors…I think we can go to an excess of clean­li­ness. It has dis­turbed me on var­i­ous occa­sions to see these demented patients trav­el­ling back and forth mop­ping or swab­bing the floors with these wiper­s…If a chance could be made so that the rules will pre­vent any patients from touch­ing one of these things, and that all the clean­ing should be done by the atten­dants, you would get floors that would not be any­where near as slip­pery. I have been, per­haps, brought up in as much hor­ror of dirt as the rest of you. It is the very wealthy only who can afford to keep their floors in this highly pol­ished con­di­tion in the out­side world; mine are not, I know. It is not so very many years ago when our ances­tors had a dif­fer­ent kind of floor. You recall that old poem: -

    I never had a piece of bread, par­tic­u­larly good and wide,
    But that it fell upon the sanded floor, and always on the but­tered side.

    If we could go back to our sanded floor we would not have this trou­ble about falling down. If too much is done about keep­ing the floors clean they will be super­clean…this con­stant rub­bing is not nec­es­sary…

  21. Old-­House Jour­nal, Mar-Apr 1988; “The Bare Facts About Early Floors”, Cot­ton:

    Another tech­nique, one that now seems par­tic­u­larly pecu­liar, was “sand­ing” the floors clean. Sand was sprin­kled over the bare floors to col­lect dirt and grease, in the man­ner that dry-­clean­ing com­pounds are used in today’s auto­mo­bile repair shops. When the sand was swept up, the week’s dirt went along with it. An occa­sional good scrub­bing with sand and water kept floors look­ing rel­a­tively new. And in accor­dance with an early Amer­i­can naval tra­di­tion, floors also were “holy stoned” - that is, a porous, pumice-­like stone (some­times sand­stone) was rubbed across a sanded floor to clean it.

    A less com­mon, but not rare, prac­tice was to cre­ate a “sand car­pet”. Dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns were cre­ated in sand spread across the floor. Accord­ing to one account, the best par­lors were “swept and gar­nished every morn­ing with sand sifted through a ‘sand sieve’ and some­times smoothed with a hair broom into quaint cir­cles and fancy wreaths.” Her­ring­bone pat­terns were also doc­u­ment­ed.

  22. Dic­tio­nary of New­foun­land Eng­lish 1990, includes an entry for “planch­ing”, which reads in part:

    …(a) Floor-boards; the floor of a dwelling; (b) planks laid down to form the floor of a barn, fish­ing-stage, or the cabin or engine-­room of a ves­sel.

    1901 Christ­mas Review 5 “The Out­har­bour Planter”: his house the vil­lage meet­in’ place, tho’ it not always was a man­sion; / Its car­pet was a sanded floor, with some­times saw­dust on the planch­in’ 1906 Nfld Qtly Dec, p. 4 the floor or ‘plan­chio’, as it is called, is well scrubbed and sprin­kled with sand….1972 MURRAY 188-9 Some early kitchens had the ‘planchen’ (floor) cov­ered with tar paper, except for about a foot around each side which was left bare.

  23. The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Kitchen His­tory, ed Snod­grass 2004, as one would hope of “an overview of the evo­lu­tion of foods and cook­ing styles, food stor­age, uten­sils and equip­ment from pre­his­tory to the present day” men­tions sand repeat­edly for its uses in cast­ing con­tain­ers, build­ing ovens, stor­ing sen­si­tive veg­etable mat­ter, and in par­tic­u­lar, offers mul­ti­ple use­ful quotes on its employ­ment in floors and clean­ing:

    …Be­cause of the dif­fi­culty of remov­ing con­gealed grease and baked-on crust from cook­ing and din­ing imple­ments, dish­wash­ing has tra­di­tion­ally been, as the essay­ist Christo­pher Mor­ley described it, “an igno­ble chore, a kind of hate­ful dis­ci­pline.” (Franklin 1997, 429) The job began in pre­his­tory with sand-s­cour­ing of pot­tery and uten­sils at the near­est water source. In the Roman vil­la, slaves cleaned table­tops and scoured stone and tile floors with hand­fuls of sand. Another use­ful sub­stance, cut­tle­fish bone, served as a clean­ing abra­sive, as did the horse­tail (Equi­se­tum), com­monly called pewter wort, scour­ing rush, or shave grass, a plant with jointed stems suit­able for scour­ing wooden uten­sils, dairy ves­sels, and pewter.

    …The first brick­yard in the colonies, which opened in Salem in 1629, pro­duced square-­cut, stack­able mate­ri­als to even out a floor and brick a chim­ney. By sweep­ing sand between the pavers, the house­keeper cre­ated a durable floor that absorbed kitchen waste and slops, yet dried quick­ly.

    …Hum­ble home­mak­ers kept a box of sand lay­ered with grass or straw for scrub­bing forks

    …In addi­tion to a stiff broom, brush­es, abra­sive pow­der, and sand, the cleaner of floors relied on a home­made device com­posed of old rags sliced into strips and spiked onto a mop nail that was dri­ven into a han­dle.

    …In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth vis­ited hum­ble High­land cot­tages that she described in Rec­ol­lec­tions of a Tour Made in Scot­land. In one kitchen, she found a sanded floor and tiny dresser with benches along the wall, where the cook stored peat. Besides a bag of oat­meal at the hearth, the flour bar­rel dou­bled as a table with the addi­tion of a bak­ing board as table­top.

    …In the South, Mar­seilles-born Antoine Alci­a­tore launched a tra­di­tion of kitchen élan at his , opened in New Orleans 1840. An immac­u­late, sand-floored din­er, it grew to rival the rep­u­ta­tion of Del­moni­co’s and the Cafe Anglais in Paris from the skill of the mas­ter chef, who returned to France in 1885 and left son Jules Alci­a­tore in charge.

    …In her Cook­ing School Text Book and House­keep­er’s Guide to Cook­ery and Kitchen Man­age­ment (1879), the U.S. domes­tic author­ity Juliet Cor­son empha­sized the impor­tance of cop­per uten­sil­s…She reminded the thrifty cook that old cop­per had a higher resale val­ue. On the mat­ter of clean­ing cop­per cook­ware, she cited the New York Cook­ing School’s best chef, who washed uten­sils in soda water and scoured them with a blend of soft soap and sand.

  24. L.M Mont­gomery’s 1923–1927 tril­ogy (set in Canada’s ) men­tions scrub­bing floors with sand as one of its pro­tag­o­nist’s chores in the first two books:

    • Emily of New Moon (1923):

      Emily had never seen a kitchen like this before. It had dark wooden walls and low ceil­ing, with black rafters cross­ing it, from which hung hams and sides of bacon and bunches of herbs and new socks and mit­tens, and many other things, the names and uses of which Emily could not imag­ine. The sanded floor was spot­lessly white, but the boards had been scrubbed away through the years until the knots in them stuck up all over in funny lit­tle boss­es, and in front of the stove they had sagged, mak­ing a queer, shal­low lit­tle hol­low.

    • Emily Climbs (1925):

      Emily had fin­ished mop­ping up the kitchen floor at New Moon and was absorbed in sand­ing it in the beau­ti­ful and com­pli­cated “her­ring-bone pat­tern” which was one of the New Moon tra­di­tions, hav­ing been invent­ed, so it was said, by great-­great-­grand­mother of “Here I stay” fame. Aunt Laura had taught Emily how to do it and Emily was proud of her skill. Even Aunt Eliz­a­beth had con­de­scended to say that Emily sanded the famous pat­tern very well, and when Aunt Eliz­a­beth praised, fur­ther com­ment was super­flu­ous. New Moon was the only place in Blair Water where the old cus­tom of sand­ing the floor was kept up; other house­wives had long ago begun to use “new-­fan­gled” devices and patent clean­ers for mak­ing their floors white. But Dame Eliz­a­beth Mur­ray would none of such; as long as she reigned at New Moon so long should can­dles burn and sanded floors gleam white­ly. Aunt Eliz­a­beth had exas­per­ated Emily some­what by insist­ing that the lat­ter should put on Aunt Lau­ra’s old “Mother Hub­bard” while she was scrub­bing the floor. A “Mother Hub­bard,” it may be nec­es­sary to explain to those of this gen­er­a­tion, was a loose and shape­less gar­ment which served prin­ci­pally as a sort of morn­ing gown and was liked in its day because it was cool and eas­ily put on. Aunt Eliz­a­beth, it is quite unnec­es­sary to say, dis­ap­proved entirely of Mother Hub­bards. She con­sid­ered them the last word in sloven­li­ness, and Laura was never per­mit­ted to have another one. But the old one, though its orig­i­nal pretty lilac tint had faded to a dingy white, was still too “good” to be ban­ished to the rag bag; and it was this which Emily had been told to put on.

      Emily detested Mother Hub­bards as heartily as Aunt Eliz­a­beth her­self did. They were worse, she con­sid­ered, even than the hated “baby aprons” of her first sum­mer at New Moon. She knew she looked ridicu­lous in Aunt Lau­ra’s Mother Hub­bard, which came to her feet, and hung in loose, unbeau­ti­ful lines from her thin young shoul­ders; and Emily had a hor­ror of being “ridicu­lous.” She had once shocked Aunt Eliz­a­beth by coolly telling her that she would “rather be bad than ridicu­lous.” Emily had scrubbed and sanded with one eye on the door, ready to run if any stranger loomed up while she had on that hideous wrap­per. …Just as Emily fin­ished sand­ing and turned to place her can of sand in the niche under the kitchen man­tel, where it had been kept from time immemo­ri­al, she heard strange voices in the kitchen yard

      …Poor Emily - no, no, we must not call her poor Emi­ly; she does not deserve pity - she has been very silly and is served exactly right; Emi­ly, then, already vio­lently per­spir­ing in her close quar­ters, agreed wholly with her. “I don’t feel the heat as fat peo­ple do,” said Miss Pot­ter. “I hope Eliz­a­beth won’t keep us wait­ing long. Lau­ra’s weav­ing - I hear the loom going in the gar­ret. But there would be no use in see­ing her - Eliz­a­beth would over­ride any­thing Laura might promise, just because it was­n’t her arrange­ment. I see some­body has just fin­ished sand­ing the floor. Look at those worn boards, will you? You’d think Eliz­a­beth Mur­ray would have a new floor laid down; but she is too mean, of course. Look at that row of can­dles on the chim­ney-­piece - all that trou­ble and poor light because of the lit­tle extra coal-oil would cost. Well, she can’t take her money with her - she’ll have to leave it all behind at the golden gate even if she is a Mur­ray.”

Taken as a whole, the excerpts seem to tell a story of sanded floors going from ordi­nary unre­marked part of life to increas­ingly dis­liked com­pared to alter­na­tives like car­pets (re­lated to eco­nomic growth & increas­ing wealth?) to an exam­ple of the growth of con­sumerism and then to a back­lash where the sanded floors become a nos­tal­gic emblem of the ‘good old days’ and actual sanded floors only appear in busy restau­rants, to final­ly, com­pletely obso­lete and even­tu­ally a for­got­ten part of his­tory to be res­ur­rected in spe­cial­ist tomes.

In par­tic­u­lar, I’m fas­ci­nated how a num­ber of the post-1840 quotes take a mor­al­iz­ing approach: in these quotes, sanded floors rep­re­sents the bat­tle of the good old vs the bad new - mocked by arriv­ing con­sumerists as unpleas­ant and prim­i­tive, and admired by more con­ser­v­a­tive per­sons as cleaner and purer and sim­pler. Who knew? I guess clean­li­ness really is next to god­li­ness - after all, purity/disgust/cleanliness is one of the moral dri­ves iden­ti­fied by like (The Right­eous Mind), talk of clean and pure appear in all sorts of racist or geno­ci­dal pro­pa­gan­da, and the best book on North Korean racial ide­ol­ogy is not called The Clean­est Race for noth­ing (and was not a stock trope of Chinese/Japanese/Koreans depic­tions of West­ern­ers was por­tray­ing them as infe­rior “bar­bar­ians” by focus­ing on their poor per­sonal hygiene - they smelled bad and did­n’t bathe?).

Poll

Curi­ous to what extent this knowl­edge has been lost, how many well-e­d­u­cated intel­li­gent West­ern­ers were still able to inter­pret the specifics cor­rect­ly, I posted a poll on Less­Wrong writ­ten as fol­lows:

This is a poll on a minor historical point which came up on IRC where we wondered
how obscure some trivia was; please do not look up anything mentioned here - knowing the
answers does not make you a better person. I'm just curious.

1. Do you know what a "holystone" is and is used for?

    - no
    - unsure
    - yes
2. In this passage:

    > "Tu Mu relates a stratagem of Chu-ko Liang, who in 149 BC, when occupying Yang-p'ing
      and about to be attacked by Ssu-ma I, suddenly struck his colors, stopped the beating
      of the drums, and flung open the city gates, showing only a few men engaged in sweeping
      and sprinkling the ground. This unexpected proceeding had the intended effect; for
      Ssu-ma I, suspecting an ambush, actually drew off his army and retreated."

   Do you know why the men are "sprinkling the ground"?

   - no
   - unsure
   - yes

   If yes, please reply to this comment using rot13, with
   what you believe they are doing and why.
3. In this passage:

    > "Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement:
    a sanded floor and whitewashed walls, and the green trees, and flowery meads, and living
    waters outside; or a grimy palace amid the smoke with a regiment of housemaids always working
    to smear the dirt together so that it may be unnoticed; which, think you, is the most refined,
    the most fit for a gentleman of those 2 dwellings?"

    Does "sanded floor" refer to...?

    - a floor made of dirt
    - a floor recently repainted
    - a dirty floor
    - a floor scrubbed with sand
    - a floor made of sandstone

LWers tend to be intel­li­gent and well-read, hence the num­ber who know the right answer is prob­a­bly an upper-bound on the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion’s knowl­edge of this triv­ia. The responses were mostly as expect­ed:

  1. no: 90%, yes: 5%

  2. no: 66%, yes: 3%

  3. in descend­ing order:

    • “a floor scrubbed with sand”: 82%
    • “a floor made of dirt”: 13%
    • “a floor made of sand­stone”: 3%
    • “a dirty floor”: 2%

Most­ly, because while we obtained the expect major­ity igno­rance on the mat­ter of holy­stones & sprin­kling water to keep down dust, the major­ity cot­tons on the right guess in the third ques­tion. Some of the replies to the poll agreed with me that this meant I screwed up the word­ing of the options or its place­ment, and made it too easy to guess. It seems impos­si­ble that a full 82% of LWers would know about scrub­bing floors with sand - when they did­n’t know about scrub­bing ship decks with sand­stone or the now equally obscure prac­tice of water­ing dust.

So pre­sum­ably the peo­ple tak­ing my lit­tle LW poll were clued in by either the first two ques­tions, the cor­rect response stick­ing out, or by the pas­sage itself giv­ing too much con­text and implic­itly defin­ing what “sanded floor” means. All three hypothe­ses can be tested by run­ning suit­ably mod­i­fied polls:

  1. if the first two ques­tions alerted pol­l-­tak­ers to what was going on, then pre­sum­ably putting the key ques­tion first would resolve it
  2. if the cor­rect response is too obvi­ous, then replace it by an option which is a super­set: “none of the above”. Any­one who knows what a sanded floor is will know that none of the other options match, and pick “none of the above”.
  3. if the pas­sage is too obvi­ous, use a dif­fer­ent pas­sage. The Row­fant Club pas­sage looks like a good can­di­date.

So I made 3 sur­veys on Toluna/QuickSurveys (which I used for my pre­vi­ous iodine eye­-­color sur­vey): the first ran­dom­ized the order of ques­tions, which will let us com­pare how being put first affects the Mor­ris quote; the sec­ond was iden­ti­cal except it replaced ques­tion 3’s “a floor scrubbed with sand” by “other (none of the above)”; the third was iden­ti­cal to the first, except it replaced the Mor­ris quote with the Row­fant Club quote pre­vi­ously quoted from Google Books. Tol­una does­n’t seem to eas­ily sup­port test­ing all 3 vari­a­tions at once, so I will sim­ply run each sur­vey for a week or so, and ana­lyze each hypoth­e­sis sep­a­rate­ly. If a tweak elim­i­nates the absurdly high guesses at what “sanded floor” means, it should be pretty obvi­ous as the cor­rect response rate plum­mets from 82% to more like 5%.

Appendix

“Scanners Live in Vain” as realistic SF

Cord­wainer Smith’s clas­sic SF short story “Scan­ners Live in Vain” is remem­bered in part for its use of the space-­mad­ness trope, “the Great Pain of Space”, usu­ally inter­preted symbolically/psychologically by crit­ics. I dis­cuss the state of aero­space med­i­cine in 1945 and sub­se­quent research on “the break­away effect”, “the overview effect”, and other unusual psy­cho­log­i­cal states induced by air & space trav­el, and sug­gest Smith’s “the pain of space” is more founded on SF-style spec­u­la­tion & extrap­o­la­tion of con­tem­po­rary science/technology and anx­i­eties than is appre­ci­ated due to the obscu­rity of the effects and the rel­a­tive benig­nity of the sub­se­quent best doc­u­mented effects.

Split out to due to length.


  1. A short excerpt:

    Then from their poverty they rose,
    From dry catarrhs, and to gui­tars
    They flit­ted
    Through the palace walls.

    …The gaunt gui­tarists on the strings
    Rum­bled a-day and a-day, a-day.
    The moon­light
    Rose on the beachy floors…

    ↩︎
  2. Attrib­uted to Cham­ber­s’s Jour­nal 1884-02-02, by Oxford.↩︎