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Cultural drift: cleaning methods

Forgotten chores and their use by Romanticism

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 incommensurability. 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 Lionel Giles on The Art of War (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, John Hersey, born in the Chinese treaty port of Tianjin in 1914, home to many foreign concessions 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, Nikos Gatsos 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.


I remember a similar example in the poems of Wallace Stevens (born 1879): there was a passage in “The Ordinary Women” 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 “holystones” for scrubbing the decks.

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

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 London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew1851 (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 James Payn2

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 Portuguese Synagogue (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, Scott1957:

    Goldsmith’s most famous poem, The Deserted Village, 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 Goodridge2012:

    …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, Boyd1866:

    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. Henry James, Washington Square 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 Wasson1888, “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 Dubois1898

    “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”, Stevens1903

    …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. Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, Sinclair Lewis1914:

    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 Snodgrass2004, 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.” (Franklin1997, 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 Restaurant Antoine, opened in New Orleans1840. 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’s1923–1927 Emily of New Moon trilogy (set in Canada’s Prince Edward Island) 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 moral psychology like Jonathan Haidt (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?).


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.

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

    - no
    - unsure
    - yes
#. 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.
#. 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%.


“Scanners Live in Vain” As Realistic SF

Split out to ‘“Scanners Live in Vain” as realistic SF’.

  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.↩︎

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