Modern Domestic Manuals

I'm one of those rare individuals who not only enjoys cleaning, but also enjoys reading about it. No, seriously... The act of cleaning and getting your house in order can be an enjoyable process once you've learned to appreciate the benefits and rewards they bring: not only do you achieve an aesthetically-pleasing space but one that is easy to navigate, simple to maintain and comfortable to live in. By reading about some of the best practices for cleaning, organizing and maintaining a home, I've come to understand some of the best ways to do "chores" as well as how often to do them, what tools to use, even what thoughts to keep in mind while doing them!
Building a homekeeping library is something I've done over a period of time. I didn't just go out and buy every single book on cleaning and organizing I could find. Instead, I've curated a small library of good reference materials that I do source often for good advice or for a refresher in the philosophy of clutter-free living. Below are the books on the subject I have in my own personal library that I find informative and inspirational with a brief description of each.
If you can only get one book on the subject of maintaining a functional home then Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook is the one I would recommend to every homeowner or apartment dweller. I refer to it consistently. Put simply, the book has all the answers to all the questions any homeowner or renter might conceivably have about the maintenance, layout and function of a home's exterior and interior spaces. It contains specific, detailed instructions and how-tos for all forms of cleaning and organization. It has checklists, timelines and trusted techniques that are beautifully presented in an organized and well-formatted book that is encyclopedic in scope and size, with over 750 pages of information. This is THE book on maintaining a safe, functional, inviting home - day to day, week to week, month to month and season to season. The design of the book, too, is a pleasure to admire: all of the photography is black-and-white and the only accent colour used throughout the book is a cool teal. It enhances the experience of referencing its pages. Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook is the modern day encyclopedia of household maintenance and I feel every household should have a copy.
 The Martha Manual is similar to the Homekeeping Handbook but is less of a giant and has a slightly more approachable air about it. The book promises to teach you how to do (almost) everything and it very nearly does! Whether it’s organizing, celebrating, cleaning, cooking, decorating, or any number of other life skills, the team at Martha Stewart Living delivers its strategies for meeting frequent challenges with basic how-to knowledge that everyone should have at the ready. Also included are plenty of solutions for the not-so-common conundrums, such as how to transport a decorated cake to a party, bathe a cat, or the proper way to fold an American flag. It teaches cooking basics, gardening basics, even how to play lawn games and wrap presents! It's definitely a fun book for a new homeowner to receive and its friendly layout, full-colour photography and bullet-point information makes it a pleasure to read.
The follow-up to The Martha Manual is Martha Stewart's Organizing - published in exactly the same hardcover format but with a specific focus on getting your life and all your personal spaces to work more efficiently. Lessons are divided by the various approaches to organizational strategies (room by room, seasonal, daily and weekly) complete with organizing lessons, charts and to-do lists. Through setting goals, learning the principles of organizing, obtaining the right tools to help in the process and creating effective systems for ongoing tidiness, the reader develops practical techniques and good basic habits. There are lessons, too, on how to keep your home clean as well as DIY projects to make tackling the challenge of organizing a little more creative and fun. Martha also shares her own organizing schedules and calendars with the reader as examples to work from.
Cheryl Mendelson may not be the household name that Martha Stewart has become, but she's enjoyed tremendous success as the author of several books on the art of keeping house. She's even been a guest on Martha's television show, just to illustrate there's no real rivalry here. The two books shown above (which were purchased secondhand at a used bookstore - hence the missing dust jackets) are Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House at left, and Laundry: The Home Comforts Book on Caring for Clothes and Linens shown at right.

The former is the largest of the two, coming in at over 900 pages! Published in 1999, the book was a national bestseller and is considered today to be a classic. Choosing fabrics, cleaning china, keeping the piano in tune, making a good fire, folding a fitted sheet, setting the dining room table, keeping surfaces free of food pathogens, watering plants, removing stains — Home Comforts addresses the methods as well as the meanings of hands-on housekeeping, which is what gives the book its charm and wit. 

Laundry is essentially an embellished excerpt from Home Comforts - the entire section on laundering from its parent book is presented here in a revised and updated format with a new introduction by the author. If it's caring for clothing and linens (and rugs and upholstery and curtains) you're interested in, this book dives deep into that subject. Not only does the book instruct you on how to wash literally every form of textile in your home (from the canvas of your shoes to the fabric of your bathmats, to every form of carpet and upholstery and table cloth) it also deconstructs and evaluates the chemical compositions and effects of the various detergents and solvents we use to clean those textiles. Every form of washing is researched at length, from hand washing to dry-cleaning to every cycle of the washing machine to every cycle of the dryer: every type of stain and every single way that stain can be removed. It's a lot. But as resource books go, this is THE book on laundry.

If you can only choose one, choose the Home Comforts book, since it covers everything and contains most of the content found in the laundry book. I found both books in used condition for very good prices so I decided to add the two of them to my library. 
From the creators of that amazing design repository, Remodelista, comes The Organized Home, one of a series of books on the art of creating a considered home. Employing a "less-is-more" approach, the constant push towards minimalism in the book can at times feel a bit pedantic but the principle of the book and its multitude of ingenious little ideas makes it worth having. The slim book is not at all prosy - staying true to its minimalist nature - and relies instead on bright, crisp imagery of a perfectly-organized pantry or closet to say what it needs to say. Bullet-point notes and captions beside the images guide the reader through the finer points of achieving the look. The chapters are divided by rooms and there is a definite emphasis on paring down to the most essential of essentials. The book advocates natural cleaning, living in a plastic-free environment and investing in quality storage that is also stylish and pleasing to the eye. Remodelista has a very definite and recognizable brand and it may not be to everyone's taste: pared-down rooms awash in neutrals with not a stitch out of place. But if you can get past the branding, the ideas are quite useful and attractive. The resource guide at the back of the book has excellent information on how and where to donate, sell or recycle your unwanted goods as well as an extensive list of retailers that procure containers and stylish storage options to help you get the look. I so appreciate that section!
No discussion of modern domestic manuals can be complete without a look at the ever-controversial Marie Kondo. Her books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy were both international bestsellers, suggesting we all needed a little reminder to take a good, hard look at the 'stuff' in our lives. The two books really should be read as a series; they are meant to be companions. Although, if you can only choose one, choose the former. 

Essentially, the subject is about the "Japanese art of decluttering and organizing," written by professional organizing guru Marie Kondo, who lives and works in Japan. The book is much, much more than that, however. It is really a philosophy book. Although it does offer up some step-by-step advice on getting rid of things you no longer need or want, its primary purpose is to get you to think differently about the material things that surround you: treating objects as though they have energy or a kind of life force of their own. Throwing your clothes on the floor, for instance, is a sign of disrespect for that object; even hanging your sweaters, which leads to stretching and pulling, is a form of abuse in Kondo's world. Folding garments is a much gentler and kinder option, she suggests, and the gesture itself symbolizes your gratitude for that garment.

The book forces you to look at the objects you keep near you as things that have the potential to be sacred. If they are not sacred or have no purpose, they are taking away from your enjoyment of life and sapping you of energy. I find the philosophy to be very positive and quite accurate. My criticism of the book is that too often the solution is to simply "throw it away." In today's world, the concept of donation and/or repurposing would have been a more responsible suggestion. Also, not everyone will be inclined to organize the way Kondo suggests: putting everything of one type (clothes, books, shoes, papers) into giant piles in the middle of the floor and then sorting through the items to determine what to keep and what to remove. I'm sure it is effective but it requires absolute devotion and the strictness of her insistence of doing it this way - and only this way - may put some readers off. The book is well worth a read, however, as I do believe it has the power to alter your way of thinking about how we live with objects.

Its follow-up companion book, Spark Joy, is the practical guide you'll need to put Kondo's suggestions into practice. The book features step-by-step folding illustrations for everything from shirts to socks, plus drawings of perfectly organized drawers and closets. Kondo also answers frequently asked questions, such as how to keep “necessary” items that may not bring you joy but that serve a very functional purpose. With guidance on specific categories including kitchen tools, cleaning supplies, hobby goods, digital photos, and even building your own personal “power spot” in your home, the book is thorough and helpful.


If you enjoy the subject of the domestic arts (and I think if you've read this far, you probably do) then these are my personal recommendations to start a homekeeping library. I suggest starting with the gargantuan tomes, acutally: Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook and Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts contain such a wealth of information that you really get more bang for your buck. In another post I may look at the original books (from the early 1900s and on) that lay the foundation for books like the ones mentioned above. Books like An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, The Concise Household Encyclopedia and Mrs. Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper were the great-grandmothers of today's modern domestic manuals and are worth sourcing if you can find them.


Anne Van Acker / Saratoga Springs, NY said...

I'm a cleaning and organizing fan, too- I have each of the books on your list! I also have the books by Toni Hammersley and Becky Rapinchuk - they are filled with great cleaning tools/techiniques information, as well as lots of DIY cleaning solution recipes. I make so many of my own products now- low environmental impact, low cost, and they work! Thanks again for your blog- it's very comforting during this horrid time, especially here in the U.S.


Yes, Anne, it certainly is. And I, too, make most of my own cleaning solutions now. If I do buy commercial cleaners, I make sure they're safe. Please read this blog I did about the subject. I think you'll enjoy it:


Take care!