Why are today’s homes so filthy?

(This post is the first in a three-part series on getting our houses clean for good.)

I don’t know about you but I feel like I am always cleaning. And what reward do I get for my tireless efforts? More chores. Things seem to return to their formerly disgusting state faster than I can set down the duster.

I recently had to dig a piece of pillow “fluff” out of my gagging six-month-old’s mouth after he stealthily crawled his way under a chair and discovered it. And my daughter is beginning to look like a cross between Linus and Pig-Pen, dragging dirty blankets from room to room, using them to build forts or wearing them as superhero capes.

Surprisingly, most folks who visit my home comment on how clean it is compared to theirs, which is scary to me. The point is that it seems even the most caffeine-charged moms among us are struggling to keep from being buried under a mountain of housework.


Photo of my laundry room before its makeover

Because I’m ever the optimist and I believe there must be a better way, I thought I’d start to solve this conundrum by researching why today’s “nests” seem so hard to maintain. (Plus I needed an excuse to take a break from cleaning.) I thought you might be interested in my findings.

The 1950s called. They want their paradigm back. 

The average size of the American home in 1950 was 983 square feet. The average size of the American home in 2010 was 2,377 square feet. That’s a heck of a lot more space to clean!

In the 1950s, parents were accustomed to letting their kids play outside (often with neighborhood friends) for the majority of their free time at home. Less time with kids inside the house equals less mess.

And, of course, the primary role for the majority of women in the 1950s was to keep the house in order and take care of the children. Ladies, we’ve got a lot more going on these days.

We’ve taken a more-is-more approach.

In case you haven’t noticed, advertisers don’t refer to us as people. They call us consumers. They’ve gotten great at convincing us of what products we can’t live without. And we’ve gotten crappy at saying no to ourselves.

We have way too many things and nowhere to store them all. Our kids are whiny and selfish and we’re up to our eyeballs in debt. A cluttered house stuffed to the gills is just one symptom of a bigger problem. Why clean when we can shop for cleaning tools on QVC, right?

We’re sabotaged by distractions.

For most of us, cleaning is not fun. We’d rather be doing any number of a million other activities. And, unfortunately, today’s “death by entertainment” culture is all to happy to oblige.

It’s easy for us to avoid cleaning when we have so many important things to do, like watch the Real Housewives of New Jersey not clean their houses.

The verdict? As much as we would like to pass the toilet brush, we may have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and admit we are helping contribute to the mess in our homes.

The good news is that admitting we have a problem is the first step toward recovery (or so the psychologists tell us). So be sure to stay tuned. Later this week I’ll be sharing Step 2, which is to create a cleaning game plan that works and still lets us have a life.

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56 Responses

  1. Joy2Journey says:

    You are so right on all these points! And throw in a full time job and the commute … Looking forward to the series so much that I subscribed to your blog 🙂

  2. Sharon says:

    Very interesting fact about the size of the 1950’s home. And even when I was a kid, we played outside almost all day. We only came in to cool off.

    Life sure has changed. Looking forward to your series!

  3. Suzanne says:

    I’m really looking forward to the next two parts. We have recently “downsized” and I love it! I can’t believe how much STUFF we got rid of and there is still more to go…

  4. Andrea says:

    Love this series already! I had no idea the used to be that small! We could have so much more time for the more important things if we could purge and simplify! Thanks for this reminder!

  5. Andrea says:

    OOPS! Left out homes. It is 6:15 in the morning. Is that a good excuse? 🙂

  6. You had me from the word “filthy”! Some interesting observations from the get-go, Susan… I think we’re all as bewildered about the “why?” as we are about the “how?”. Great post!
    xo Heidi

  7. sarah says:

    Yes, yes, yes! And speaking of distractions, I’m supposed to be making out a grocery list right now. 🙂 Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  8. Ruth says:

    This is something that, as a realtor, I notice frequently. Even when the homeowners have prepared their homes for showing, they haven’t really cleaned, just straightened up. A dirty home is harder for me to sell. Buyers notice it and it gives them the feeling that maybe there is deferred maintenance on other important things in the home.
    Personally speaking, when my home isn’t as clean as it needs to be, it’s because of lack of time and energy, especially during my busy time at work. I suspect that could be the reason for many. We are pulled in lots of directions and it’s hard to do it all well.

    • Susan says:

      Great insight from a realtor’s perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    • Linda says:

      I looked at a house before I bought this one that is still on the market- yes it was ‘neat’ and uncluttered- but there was a dirty diaper pail smell- and every time I see that house on line- as I still enjoy looking- I want to gag!

  9. Karen J says:

    You have hit the nail on the head and I look forward to your series. I will take all the help I can get.

  10. Meghan says:

    Trust me Susan, you house is a LOT cleaner than mine! Less is more….bring on the garbage bags is my opinion. Does anyone else have a hubby that is a saver???

    Looking forward to the rest!

    • Susan says:

      Raising my hand on the “saver hubby” question. He’s not as bad as some, though. Right now, I’m trying to convince him to get rid of his 1990s-era ties. Would you believe I had a bag of them ready for Goodwill and he secretly confiscated it and put them back on his tie rack? Gotta laugh.

  11. Faye says:

    Can’t wait to read more! Thank you!

  12. Victoria says:

    I’ve had a housecleaning business since 1984. I’ve seen the problem getting increasingly worse. When my house is a mess, I get depressed… I wonder, too… this generation of moms had moms who grew up in the 80’s. Most of those moms worked outside the home. Perhaps, this generation of moms were never taught how to keep a home…

  13. Elizabeth Hansen says:

    SO INTERESTING! I think, that in addition to the above reasons, people don’t teach their children to wipe their feet before coming into the house, AND carpeting holds ALOT of dust…and it just refluffs when we walk on it going absolutely everywhere. Back in the 50’s, most homes had hardwood floors and then linoleum in the kitchens and baths, or ceramic tile baths. Sweeping and damp mopping took care of a lot of dust. I find dusting with just a damp microfiber cloth and then using a damp mop in the kitchen help to cut down on ALOT of STUFF!

    • Susan says:

      Ooh. I would love to have hardwood in my living room. Someday …

      • Amy F says:

        My house has all hardwood floors and I just can’t keep up with them. I can sweep/dust mop and within an hour I see huge dust bunnies floating across the floors. I wanted hardwood floors for years and I HATE them. I’ll never have them again.

        • Susan says:

          Wow, Amy. I’ve heard others say this too. I’m torn. Carpets are comfy but so hard to keep clean. But hardwood floors seem to require almost daily maintenance too. I guess it depends on your choice of stain and finish.

          • Amy F says:

            it’s more than daily – sweeping would have to be a several times a day job to keep them at what I consider clean. I’ve done a thorough cleaning/sweeping for guests coming over, etc. only to find more dust somehow floating around the floor before the guests even arrive.

  14. susan says:

    I think we have too much STUFF now, so there is more to take care of, more to sweep around and dust around. Women today also want to have lives for themselves and pursue interests, and spend quality time with their kids when they can, so cleaning just isn’t as important.

  15. Claudia says:

    What an interesting fact to address about houses back in the 50’s and now – SO TRUE! and so sad at the same time because we let ourselves get involved with the slang “more is better”

  16. Anne says:

    I’m so glad I bought a small house this last time! I’ve discovered that the more I love my decor, the more willing I am to keep it clean and tidy. 🙂

    Happy cleaning!

  17. Linda says:

    All I could do while reading Part 1 was nod and smile, thinking back to those days of endless playtime outside! Egads, what happened between then and now? Many things happened, obviously, to warrant major changes in how we all entertain ourselves and our children, but it is a sad sign of the times. You have crammed so much good ‘food for thought’ into your reflections and insights, and I can’t wait to read the rest of your series! Thank you for casting light on a dark subject that will benefit from the illumination!

  18. Jacqueline Allison says:

    Although my house is small, I still struggle to find time to clean with EVERYTHING else going on!!! Ahh…you’re right, it’s time for me to slow down and eliminate some mess!

  19. Angie says:

    I think about my grandmother whose house is NEVER dirty. I’ve never seen one piece of laundry in the floor or dirty dishes piled up on the counters or a bed that was unmade. She is 85 and her house is still immaculate! And the funny thing is, she doesn’t work really hard at it. I call what she does, “piddling.” She’s always piddling and doing something…except when it’s time to kick back with a cup of coffee and watch “The Price is Right” at 11 am, and her “stories.” But by that time, she’s been up since 6 am, has gotten all her tasks done for the day and probably mowed her grass too. She’s the perfect example of someone who does a little bit every day and over a lifetime, it has equaled “immaculate.” Wish I was more like her.

    • Alida says:

      That’s how I think it should be done. Piddle about everyday. Don’t let anything pile up on you and you’re pretty set to sit back, relax and enjoy it. Unless like me you have a 4 yr old son that I pick up after all day long just following him around like a lost puppy picking up crumbs, sweeping or vacuuming. Imagine if I didn’t do that everyday though? Oy! I cringe to imagine. So many people wouldn’t be bothered by it get to it on their wkly cleaning day or whenever. I can’t. I just can’t. Your Grandma sounds like a heck of a lady to me 😉 lol she’s me in the future. Sweet story you shared.

  20. Mrs.W says:

    I think something we also forget is that many times the “average” middle class housewife used to be able to afford and find someone to come in and help with tasks even if it was only 1 day a week!

  21. This is exactly what I needed! I’ve told my husband for years, I just want a small house, Instead he added my son a bathroom in the attic…now I have four to clean 🙂 I’m subscribing and I’m looking forward to reading!

  22. JaneEllen says:

    What an excellent topic to digest, curse, decide, wonder, etc. I swear I feel like I clean all the time and it’s just us two old farts sitting around or outside.
    I have to take most of the blame, I’m not dirty but when I’m in midst of projects they seem to wander all over the house. Gee do ya think they did that on their own, duh? lol
    I work in the kitchen quite often on the island, if I’m working with fabric I’ve got it all over our bed, another part of the house.
    I vacuum/mop the bare floors every other day at least, all year due to a very furry shedding black dog called Tommy. You can almost see it falling off him as he walks. He’s a very dear fellow but very dirty and messy. He loves to roll in the dirt and if one of us doesn’t catch him it’s in the house. I can dust and 2 mins. later it’s dusty again in the house. Sheesh, I’ve got other things to do. I love winter cause he just gets wet. We keep old towels by the front and back doors to wipe his feet and rest of him if he’s been rolling in the snow. I thought I raised my kids? Now I’ve got two furry ones.
    I find this topic very interesting to contemplate. We have a small single wide 16×80, 3 bdrms, 2 full baths. I feel like I could be cleaning every day and it would still need to be cleaned. I have to agree we have too much stuff, not only in the house but out in the shed.
    I look very much forward to part 2. Happy week

  23. Rory Vaden says:

    Hey Susan! Nice to meet you! Great to connect. I’m not a mom, I don’t have kids, and I rarely clean and I STILL loved your post! 🙂 I relate with many of the same feelings because my wife and I travel almost constantly and every time we return home we have to deal with piles of mail, etc. All the best and look forward to staying connected!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Rory. It’s so awesome that you and your wife have the opportunity to travel together. Once you have children, although life gets exponentially better, it also gets crazier and more challenging. 🙂 Take care and God bless.

  24. some houses are filthy but some are far too clean I think a bit of mess is fine.

  25. Lori says:

    Loved this… I am a single mom and work a full time job and fixing to start a second seasonal full time job. Although my children are older, but not yet out of the house I find what I have read here to be true. We have got EVERYTHING we could ever want or need, so why do we want more. I have been pondering this and definitely praying for contentment. When it boils down to it to be just Content our Blessings is all I ask for. Thank you for your talented writing

  26. Ana says:

    Just discovered your wonderful blog…full of useful ideas. Your house cleaning facts and advice will be a tremendous asset to many.
    Thanks, Ana.

  27. Alida says:

    I like everything you had to say. I have ocd and cannot, Cannot even stand to see a crooked frame, offset curtain, so much as a crumb on my floor and I cringe. I cannot cook if there is dirty dishes in the sink. I use nothing but bleach to clean my home and still I am so hard on myself about how clean m house looks and good it smells. I need to cut myself some slack. I am one exhausted mom. This article was helpful to me because I know I put way too much pressure and (really unnecessary) work on myself to keep a “spit shined” house.

  28. Mary Wren says:

    I was one of those moms with 4 children and a full time job. Our house was a perfect size for us all but as my kids starting to move out I was faced with a big house and too much cleaning. My husband and I decided that we would build a granny flat onto our large house. So by the time we both retired we were living in our granny flat. Our son and his wife rent the big house. I love this small space, I don’t have a dishwasher but my sweetheart of a husband helps with dishes,laundry and even making the bed. My house is a lot less cluttered with “stuff” we don’t need and a lot cleaner.

  29. Amanda Zellers says:

    Why? Because todays world had no clue on how to keep things clean after you cleaned. A stitch in time saves nine. If you do it right away, instead of continuously pushing it till later, all the laters don’t pile up and you never have to do it later. Example; you splash water all over your faucet and countertop, and you walk away from it. What happens? It repeats throughout the day, right? If multiple people are doing this, omg! What happens after that? Water dries, gets residue crust; lime deposit. If there’s soap or toothpaste in that splash along with bacteria, ect, it gets nasty looking, cement-like. Bacteria grows. Then comes nightfall after a long day at work and you see it all gross and you just don’t want to deal with it so days go by till you get to it. By the end of the week, when you should be enjoying your weekend, you’re scrubbing to get it all off, and you realize as the weeks go by, your once new faucet no longer looks like it did. Hope I haven’t lost anyone here… I have a boyfriend who does/did this and his new faucet is now gross. If you all would just take two seconds before you walk away, you never have to scrub your sink or countertop. It’s clean all the time. After a week, you do have to disinfect it before you put clean towels there. But a quick wipe down beats scrubbing. If you used this technique habit throughout your entire house, you’d be surprised how amazing it is. I’m talking, cleaning entire kitchen countertop and stove after you do dishes every night, washing the sink out after dishes are done every time, wiping the water messes up anywhere every time, squeezing shower walls and giving tub a quick soapy washing and rince and drying the water up every time, putting shoes away where they belong, picking up the mess you made right away, ect… Multitask by watching TV while doing laundry, set times for tasks and get them done. And so much more, like never leave a room without something in your hand, may it be wash to put away, or recycling to put outside. If you can get the rest of your household to adapt to it, it’s mind blowing what a household can accomplish. 40 years in a house that still looks brand new all day every day.

  1. June 18, 2013

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