Is Your House a Holy Mess? Sandra Felton Suggests Ways to Get a Clean Start

For most of Sandra Felton’s 24-year marriage, cleanliness wasn’t next to godliness, it was next to impossible. “I’d put dirty dishes in the refrigerator rather than clean them,” recalls Felton, 46, a junior high math teacher and wife of a minister at Miami Community Church. “Any piece of paper that came into the house, I kept. There were drawers that hadn’t been opened in two years, maybe longer.” The clutter was so bad that spoons, forks and unpaid bills would disappear for months. Says Sandra’s husband, Ivan, 46: “Nobody could ever come over unannounced.”

But in May 1980, after years of searching for many things, including a section of her master’s thesis, Sandra resolved to put her house in order. Now she has not only cleaned up her own act, but has started Messies Anonymous, which is dedicated to teaching the hows of housekeeping. Since MA’s formation in July 1980, 600 messies have paid $35 to attend Felton’s all-day workshops, which have been held in Dallas, Houston, Austin and throughout southern Florida.

When Sandra herself could not find courses on housekeeping, she bought books on the subject and interviewed good housekeepers. After launching her own cleanup by emptying an end-table drawer in her living room (“It was a thrill—until then I had felt impotent”), she began holding no-charge classes to share her knowledge. A Miami Herald story on her doings was reprinted around the country, and within a month 7,000 letters poured in, mostly from chronic messies. “Some letters arrived with coffee rings on them,” says Sandra. “One person wrote on a paper bag; probably she couldn’t find her stationery.”

Sandra touts what she calls the. “Mount Vernon Method,” used at the George Washington mansion in Virginia and other public buildings. In this routine, cleaners start work in one corner of the building, proceed methodically through other areas, then start over when they reach the original corner. “Begin in the closets, and throw out everything you don’t need,” advises Sandra. “You have to decide whether you’re going to have a home or a warehouse.” Messies are urged also to use Felton’s “Flipper System,” a schedule of chores, menus and shopping needs kept on color-coded daily flip cards. Other hints: Use a filing cabinet for bills, because this will encourage the opening of mail (“Many messies just put letters in piles”); make a habit of using rooms only for their intended purpose (i.e., never dine in the living room or undress in the kitchen).

“Messies don’t tune in visually to things,” says Sandra. But many slobs, she insists, are intellectual, practical people at heart. “They think, ‘Who cares if a glass is out on the table—children are starving in Biafra.’ ” Growing up as the child of a paper company executive, Sandra’s picking-up was done by a live-in maid. Now she does her own tidying (for about two hours a day), with help from her husband, who scrubs the walls, ceilings and floors. Their children—Lucy, 18; Peter, 16; Doug, 13—tend to their own rooms. “We’re trying to cultivate order,” says Ivan, a recovered messie himself. “We’ve all had to change our habits.”

In addition to her MA lecturing, Sandra writes a monthly newsletter for would-be cleanies. A subscription costs $10 a year. She will also publish a how-to book (title: Messies Anonymous) in October. Though most of her students are female, she dismisses complaints by feminists that she is abetting the stereotyping of cleaning as women’s work. “Housekeeping is neither noble nor ignoble,” she says. “It’s practical.”

Related Articles