The Care of the Cellar

This is the third article in July of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on June 18, 1909, and is an article on why keeping the cellar clean is important.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Care of the Cellar

FORTY years ago, chancing to stop at a New Jersey farmhouse in the course of a dive through the country early in the spring, my senses were assailed at our entrance into the hall by a peculiar and displeasing combination of evil smells and dankness.

I use “sense” in the plural advisedly. For the villainous combination aforesaid offended taste and smell and struck to the bones in an indescribable chill. I analyzed it during the half hour that sufficed for repairing the broken harness that had obligated us to halt by the way. I detected onions, I was sure of cabbage and turnips, and I suspected bets and potatoes. Mingling with these was the subterranean odor which lingers in disused wells and is never absent from unaired excavations—“of the earth, earthy.”

Above vs. Below.

We did not prate much of germs 40 years back, or my aversion to the celary smell would have been dashed by fear. As it was, I brought away from the homestead that had been in one family over 100 years an impression of uncleanliness and slovenly housewifery. Yet the upper part of the infected dwelling was as neat as hands could make it, and I learned subsequently that the mistress thereof had the name of being the most notable manager in the region.

“Almost too fussy and particular!” affirmed my informant. “You might live in her house for a month at midsummer and never see a fly indoors.”

“Yet she lived, day and night, with that smell!” I commented inly.

It was 10 years later in my life, and I was, by virtue of the added decade, a shade less uncharitable in judgment, when I unlocked the front door of the cozy cottage we had built a year before in the hill-country, beside the prettiest little lake in the State, and met a breath from the airless interior that confounded me. There was no furnace in the old-time homestead we had visited, and the more I thought of the “combination” the more the wonder grew how it had found its way to the upper floor. There was a furnace, with tell-tale registers, in our summer cottage, and open fireplaces in the living rooms. It was easy to decide how that noisome breath crept through the house. The question was how the smell came to be there at all.

Before the house was closed for the winter the cellar had been cleaned, swept free of dust and garnished with a coat of whitewash. The vegetable bins from which supplies were shipped to us weekly were duly overhauled by the faithful gardener and the decayed esculents thrown away. Yet there was the identical odor I had analyzed disgustfully that spring day. Onions and turnips entered into it, but the rankest and most offensive element was the strong earthiness of sprouting potatoes.

A Week of Airing.

It required a week of diligent airing and purging of the premises to rid my olfactories and throat of the rank effluvia. Before the month was out we had a root-cellar dug at a safe distance from the dwelling and the polluted bins removed thither. Since then no vegetables are stored in the cellar over which we are to live by day and sleep by night.

An underground room is never fit for human beings. In the teeth of the fact that thousands of our fellow-being do live below the ground level of our cities, no student of sanitary conditions pretends to dispute that dogma. We may drive currents of pure air through the vaults all day long; the floors and walls may be of waterproof cement, “dry as a bone,” according to the architect and landlord. Shut up the place for 24 hours and the dank odors are there, and the chill and the peril to lungs and blood and bones. In a “Talk Upon Apartment Life” we held some weeks ago, I spoke of the “germ belt,” or stratum of the exhalations of the soil in the most carefully constructed cellars. The upper floors are drier for having it. Hence, no well-built house is without the excavation. If you doubt what has been said here of humidity and chill, leave a linen sheet or garment shut up in the basement for a month, or a stack of papers, and report upon their condition at the end of the time.

We may not if we would, and we would not if we could, abolish our cellar. The trend of what I have tried not to make a philippic is to inculcate the necessity of managing them to the best advantage.

Never keep green vegetables and fruits in the basement that is below the street level and underlies a residence of human creatures.

“Sweating” and decay are inevitable. As inevitable is the subtle throng, creeping into the stories above, of gases engendered by dampness and rot. Your coal bin may be there, and whatever of rubbish or disused properties that will not be injured by humidity. Crockery, glassware and even barrels of fine china are safe in the orderly recesses. Trunks and clothing, pictures and books—never! I wish you could have seen a packing-case of clothing and fine linen that was brought upstairs in a fine, modern apartment house in a big city last year after six months’ storage in the cellar warranted to be “perfectly dry.” Mildew and mud were over every article, and the metal clamps of the trunk were red with rust.

The country cellar does not claim the modern improvements which would win us to trust the city basement. It is, usually, a hole in the ground, lined with stone masonry or faced with cement. The country householder knows its uses. He gives, as a rule, little thought to its probably abuses. When it gets too full of “truck and stuff” he has a general cleaning-up and sorting. The place is scraped clear of dirt and the walls are whitewashed. This done, his conscience is easy for six months to come so far as the hole in the ground is concerned. When a snake creeps in at the window and lives a contented life in the far corners until mistress or maid chances to espy him and goes into hysterics, the beast is hunted and killed, and the rubbish left is a lair for “rats and mice and such small deer” until the next periodical clearance day.

Build we never so wisely, it is not always practicable to have a cellar that will be dry the year round. But it is possible, and it should be obligatory upon the owners, to see that it is clean. The walls should be whitewashed twice a year, the windows should be protected from unclean beasts and creeping things by wire netting and stand open all the time except in rainy weather. The free circulation of fresh, living air makes the dwelling overhead sweet and wholesome.

There is no dust in our cellar unless when the coal is put in. And a word on that point comes in partly here. Coal dust flies upward through register and window to blacken furniture and floors above stairs. See to it that the man who brings the load to your cellar window sprinkles the coal from a watering pot before he begins shoveling it into the chute. It will save chagrin and dusting in dining room and parlor. Have high bins for the fuel, from which it will not escape all over the floor; likewise a wide plank on the side opening into the cellar.

If you keep glasses of pickles and and preserves down here, have constructed an inner room for them, well ventilated, but secluded from the coal bins and the lighter part of the cellar. Arrange the pickles and preserves upon swing shelves away from the dampness of the floor and the inroads of the “small deer” aforenamed.

Order, cleanliness and as much dryness as is compatible with the conditions I have enumerated as prejudicial to human health are the essentials to the right care of the cellar.

Marion Harland

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