One of my roommates periodically gets a very crafty idea when it comes to the maintenance of our apartment—he’ll stay up all night and bleach the counters, then pull old wine bottles out of the recycling bin and fill them with olive oil or tap water. The sparkling counters or the shiny glass bottles are refreshing additions to the space; they are also ironic reminders that the floor is covered with little pieces of … something, and the baseboards are grimy, and the sink is full of dishes. The one way to regain control of our lives, given our overall apathy, was through performing a chore that was fun.
That roommate was a frequent reader of Jolie Kerr’s “Ask a Clean Person” column on the women’s interest site The Hairpin, which provides advice to novice homemakers. The advice is, at once, delightfully voicey (“Bleachie,” Ms. Kerr’s term for her favorite cleaning solvent, is a recurring character to whom the author and readers express their “<3”) and useful (bleach really does clean up surfaces like counters). And Ms. Kerr, with her column teaching millennial, gen-Y and gen-X readers how to remove personal fluids from leather or upholstery, is at the forefront of an online movement that’s taking homemaking from the stodgy, didactic world of Martha Stewart et al. to the cluttered homes of youngsters who apparently have no idea how to perform even the most basic task. “How to clean up vomit is a topic you’ll see on Heloise, on Martha,” Ms. Kerr said, “but you won’t find them in a context of people being honest about why they were vomiting on their party clothes.”
It was easy, in the days of Martha’s dominance, to look up to Ms. Stewart while sensing her looking down on you. Ms. Stewart’s business model is based upon marketing the unattainable life. All those lemon centerpieces and deep-fried turkeys and carefully groomed horses add up to a consistent message: you’ll never be this good (prison’s softened her up, but not much). Ms. Kerr and other lifestyle bloggers make cleaning and decorating and cooking seem as easy as, well, blogging.
“Ask a Clean Person,” for instance, takes as its thesis that its reader will know literally nothing about cleaning. Ms. Kerr passes along the knowledge our mothers might have imparted in decades prior: “Hey ladies, do you polish your shoes?” read a column last year. “No? You should!” While Ms. Kerr studiously avoids making fun of those who write in for advice, one question does shock her: “People who don’t understand how to use a sponge … You wonder—has someone else been washing your dishes your whole life?”
Since its inception in March 2011, the column has drawn more than a million unique pageviews, making it one of the most popular features on the site; comments on each post generally number in the hundreds.
While Ms. Kerr’s advice takes into account basic needs, Brit Morin provides the answers to questions never asked. The California-based former Google employee has created a company, named Brit, that aims to share ways to hack the homemaking process. She has shown readers how to convert used laptop chargers into jump ropes and how to make a homemade pizza entirely from canned goods. “If you look at Pinterest and Etsy and Food Network exploding,” said Ms. Morin, “people are enjoying learning to create.”
Ms. Kerr sees it as an “outgrowth of the economy tanking,” she said. “All of a sudden, people couldn’t afford to be eating out as much so they started cooking at home. And all of a sudden they’re in their home and noticing messes.”