From DDT to Mr Sheen: Looking back on the spring cleaning products of yesteryears

Sep 10, 2023
Exploring the past and present of spring cleaning, from vintage cleaning products to today's eco-conscious choices. Source: Getty Images.

And just like that it’s Spring. According to all the best fairy tales, this is the time that all the cutesy forest folk give their wee houses a Spring clean and whitewash the walls. Some researchers have linked it back to ancient Iranian customs or to the Jewish Passover but really, in my house, it just seems to be that time of year, perhaps due to the extra sunlight, when I can no longer look at my pantry shelves and pretend that the dust, gecko detritus and that screamingly dead packet of pepita seeds is not really there. Happily, I have overcome the procrastination and it is now a sight to behold. God help anyone who messes with my herbs and spices.

Of course, it took me back to Mum, hanky around her face and on hands and knees pulling everything out of the kitchen cupboards, using a hand insecticide spray pump, and blasting the corners with some noxious chemical called Checkpest. It was probably DDT or Dieldrin. DDT, in its time, was actually a lifesaver being used in World War II to kill insects that would have otherwise passed on malaria and typhus to thousands of soldiers. Unfortunately, its true colours came out much later and it was banned in Australia in 1987 (although the US banned it in 1972) due to its human health risks and adverse environmental impact.

Other cleaning products we had when I was growing up were pretty innocuous. Mum didn’t go in for buying anything other than the basics. A good scrub with Ajax kept most things sparkling although you did have to be careful not to be too heavy-handed on that lovely laminate and lose the sheen, or worse still go through the layers. Speaking of sheen, who doesn’t remember the jolly bespectacled Mr Sheen who slid his bottom over timber furniture leaving a sparkling skid mark? This was the first aerosol cleaning product on the Australian market taking off when the jingle and character (supposedly modeled on an employee) were created in the late 1950s. ‘Wax and polish as you dust with Mr Sheen’.

Madge the manicurist convinced us that Palmolive dishwashing detergent was ‘mild on your hands while you do the dishes … you’re soaking in it!’ Up until then, we’d been happy to swoosh the wire soap saver with its sliver of Sunlight Soap around in the sink. In fact, Sunlight Soap was one size fits all for every cleaning need – clothes, dishes, hair, body, dogs. It was the very first soap to be imprinted and packaged. Tough grunge that the wire-handled cotton mop didn’t touch got the steel wool treatment.

We had timber floors. One of Mum’s big jobs was to haul out the polisher and go over them all with the O’Cedar oil. It’s not surprising that wall-to-wall carpet eventually covered all the floors. Throwing the Electrolux around was a much friendlier proposition (although her first one was a big heavy beast).

The plethora of cleaning products that line the shelves in the stores today is mind-boggling. Of course, we are hoping that the manufacturers are a little more enlightened with their contents although being able to claim environmental friendliness is a bottom-line necessity rather than an ethical decision in many cases.

Unfortunately, it is up to the individual purchaser to check that they aren’t being ‘greenwashed’ into assuming that the claims made are legitimate. Check the ingredients people!!!

To read more nostalgia articles from Pam Van Der Kooy, head here. Or you can find her brilliant nostalgia book Stuff We Had in the 50s and 60s here.

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up