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Housework

A boring chore or a rewarding routine, keeping our homes clean and tidy is a task we all face.

Whether cleaning carpets or battling bugs, housework is a story of hard work.

Swept up with overworked servants, exciting inventions and gender protest, it is a history that demonstrates both change and continuity in society.

Who keeps your home spick and span?

A display of five vacuum cleaners from throughout the years

Stories to look out for

Cream plastic vacuum cleaner: with a spherical base and long tube Hoover Constellation, Model 862, 1962. Object number 13/2002

Hoover Constellation, 1962

Instead of wheels, the Hoover Constellation hovered on a cushion of exhaust air. Its spherical design was futuristic, influenced by the Atomic Age and developments in space exploration.

Wooden box with metal handle Object number T 215-1

Housemaid's box and tidy tray, 1850–1920

Until the early 1900s, it was usual to employ servants in medium to high-income households.

Housemaids would carry a box or bucket around the house containing the tools needed for tasks such as cleaning fire grates, brushing mattresses and polishing mirrors.

Illustration of a person in bed clothes killing bugs in a bedroom Credit: A man in bedclothes prising insects (?) off his bed-curtains with a fork into a saucepan. Etching by T.L. Busby, ca. 1826. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Etching by T.L. Busby, ca. 1826

By the 1700s, bed bugs were a common pest in Britain. To get rid of the bugs people picked and crushed them. One early remedy even suggested mixing the drippings from a roasted cat with egg yolks and oil to form an ointment that could be rubbed onto infested furniture.