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Time to Get Organized? Check Out Advice-Books

July 24, 1993|S. J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came dual-income families, then came giant dust bunnies. Now, the inevitable--an avalanche of books on how to clean and de-clutter.

We no longer want order in our universe. Mess has become a global problem, and neatness, thank you, would suffice. "Look at the newspaper," says Don Aslett, best-selling author of 13 cleaning books. "One day I saw four front-page stories--on barges, an oil spill, the ozone hole, highway clutter--all about cleaning problems."

Not to mention the mess in our own back yards, kitchens and closets.

Everyone wants to help. Bookstores are crammed with housekeeping books, which seems odd and anachronistic when there are fewer homemakers, less interest and no spare time.

"There are two things going on," says Mary Ellen Pinkham, a guru of household hints. "People are doing less housework because they don't have the time. But they're very concerned about how their homes look."

The experts are not talking simply about cleaning anymore, of course. They're talking organization, a whole-life systems approach to today's housekeeping problems.

Just look at the books. Since 1985, for example, Jeff Campbell and the Clean Team--not a rock group but a San Francisco cleaning service--have hit the charts, first with "Speed Cleaning," then "Spring Cleaning" and now "Clutter Control."

Housekeeping has a rich history. As Aslett points out, the oldest profession in the Bible--you can look it up in Genesis--is cleaning, not prostitution: God put Adam in the earthly garden and told him to take care of the place.

It even has a literature. Isabella Beeton's half-practical, half-spiritual guides to 19th-Century household management were probably housekeeping's first bestsellers. And the genre's most prolific publisher has been Uncle Sam. In the first half of this century, the federal government produced tons of official guidance for homemakers--charts of the various cuts of meats, booklets on stain removal, guides to canning and home decorating.

But these tracts had no art, no layout. And they weren't much fun. "Cleaning is a hard sell," Aslett says. "It's not like food and sports and sex."

Fun reading started with Heloise Cruse and the 1959 newspaper debut of her household hints column. It was pretty homely stuff: how to get ink off clothes and gum out of hair, freshening old bread, endless uses for empty plastic bleach bottles.

But it wasn't really basic: The very idea of "hints" implies an audience familiar with the problems, aware of standard treatments and looking for quick and easy ways to avoid them. Then as now, the tips range from elementary to far-out--from putting a dab of Super Glue over the thread to keep buttons secure (Mary Ellen) to dropping denture tablets in the toilet for a quick clean (Heloise).

"It's like art, all in the eye of the beholder," says today's Heloise, Ponce Cruse Evans, who took over the columns, books, name and mantle when her mother died in 1977. "You might find three hints absurd and one the greatest idea in the world."

The literature of hints provides ideas in bite-size pieces--easy to swallow, easy to remember. It's an American tradition that goes back to Ben Franklin's saws, notes Pinkham, who entered the field in 1976 with a self-published book, "Best of Helpful Hints"--750 "fast-easy-fun" solutions to household problems that she and her mother pulled together.

Part of the subject's wide appeal is that anyone can master housework. And the audience isn't just homemakers, but anyone who maintains a home, keeps food, does laundry or wears clothes.

"I'm not writing great literature, not solving world hunger or helping people make their mortgage payment," acknowledges Heloise. "But if I can help with the little things that drive us crazy every day, that's real life."

Variations from book to book are slight, the repetitions many. Still, they sell, often to the same people. "It's a lot like diet books," says Sue Ann Stein at the Cincinnati publishing house Writer's Digest Books. "There's always a need."

But just how much can be new with carpet stains and laundry?

"A lot of books recycle stuff in other books," Pinkham says. What's more, she adds, "people are always sending me my own old stuff."

No matter: Supply and demand continue undiminished. Heloise is about to publish her seventh book in 13 years. Pinkham's four previous housekeeping books--she, too, has a new one--have sold 13 million copies. Don Aslett is on his 14th cleaning guide.

The market, however, is not all household hints, and the audience not all hints fans. "People are getting leery of all the miracle tricks," Aslett says. They've discovered that hair spray doesn't take out all ink stains: Some require alcohol or soap and water or dry-cleaning solvent or bleach. And for some, he says, "you need scissors."

In Aslett's view, what people really need is a comprehensive approach. And even if our mothers had one, he says, they "probably didn't have time to teach us."

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