Time was when housewives had to do all of their cleaning with a small number of products, including soap, baking soda, salt, vinegar, ammonia, borax, and lemon juice. At least they could buy soap. Their frontier ancestors had had to make it themselves.
As the twentieth century progressed, the trickle of convenience products became a steady stream. My personal memories of it begin with TV commercials in the late 1950s.
A Windex™ commercial showed a woman mixing ammonia and water, wrinkling her nose at the awful smell, and sloshing the mixture out of the bucket as she struggled to carry it to the windows. Modern housewives, who switched to Windex, needed only to spray and wipe. The windows got cleaner faster, and the process smelled better, too.
I don’t remember the product, but another commercial declared, “vinegar is for salads.” On television, radio, and in print, advertisers made all-out war on the older, more generic products. New products were more convenient and more pleasant to use. But each new housekeeping breakthrough only performed one kind of task. Just look at the house-cleaning section of any store today. You’ll find:
- Detergents that work for laundry
- Detergents that work for dishes–if you wash by hand
- Detergents that work for dishes–if you use a dishwasher
- Products to clean the oven
- Products to clean the floor
- Products to wash windows
- Products to wash counters
- Products to wash walls
- Products to clean the sinks and bathtubs
- Products to clean the toilet
- Products to unclog the drain in sinks and bathtubs
- Products to unclog the toilet
- Products for dusting furniture
- Products to polish furniture
- Products to make the room smell better
- And more
I found it very amusing, several years after I saw the last Windex commercial to try to persuade housewives to give up ammonia, that ads began to tout a new formula. Now with ammonia!!!
And furniture polishes gushed that they had real lemon juice!!! I know I’m not the first to smirk that furniture polish has real lemon juice and so many brands of lemonade do not.
I suspect that housewives began to enjoy the new conveniences, but found performance lacking. I know from experience at a store where I once worked that if you mix ammonia and water, apply it liberally to a window, and then use a rubber squeegee to wipe it off, you will not get the streaks that seem to be unavoidable with the spray and wipe cleaners. And what side of the window are the streaks on, anyway?
Today it’s not at all difficult to find recipes for cleaning various products using only various combinations of baking soda, salt, vinegar, and the rest. I easily found a formula for something I wanted to do that required borax. I just had to go to three or four different stores to find the borax.
The people who post these recipes and eagerly use them must think that they work just as well as the newer, specialized products. And, in fact, the newer products have some steep costs:
- They cost more that the earlier, simpler but more versatile products.
- They take more room in kitchen and bathroom cabinets and contribute to clutter. What’s the tradeoff if a specialty product saves a little time if the number of them you have makes it hard to find any one of them?
- The greater number of products you take home means a greater amount of packaging you must eventually discard.
- Some of them are classified as hazardous wastes when and if you want to discard them.
- Even the ones with no hazardous chemicals contribute to water pollution, or at least make the treatment of wastewater more complicated and costly.
- Some of these products contribute to pollution of indoor air. Air fresheners in particular work because of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they contain.
- Some VOCs are known allergens and suspected carcinogens. Others are harmless unless mixed with ozone, which has become an unavoidable air pollutant.
Every new convenience is someone’s business, someone’s livelihood. Of course the company that makes it, whether a large corporation or a small startup, will market it by highlighting its advantages. Consumers ought to weigh the costs and benefits carefully.
Convenience costs something. Maybe it costs a lot. Is the benefit is worth the cost? We’ll never know the answer to that question until we ask it, until we come to understand the costs beyond the purchase price.