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Oakmont's Kerr museum evokes yesteryear with antique housekeeping exhibit

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 8:38 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Jan Shoop, a board member at the Kerr Museum, holds a washboard from the 1800s and is surrounded by a curtain stretcher and laundry rack from the same era at the “Spring Cleaning” exhibit in the Oakmont museum on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Toy sewing machines are on display at the 'Housekeeping' exhibit at the Kerr Museum in Oakmont on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
A full-sized Singer sewing machine from the turn of the century is on display at the Kerr Museum in Oakmont on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The 'Spring Cleaning” exhibit, featuring cleaning products and accessories from the 1800s at the Kerr Memorial Museum in Oakmont on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
(From left) a brass charcoal iron with a steam funnel, a bride's charcoal sad iron, and a goffering iron for ruffles at the 'Housekeeping' exhibit in the Oakmont museum on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

Oakmont's Kerr Memorial Museum is in the midst of spring cleaning — but that doesn't mean they're scrubbing the Victorian-era home from top to bottom.

While the museum's volunteers work diligently to keep the representative museum in tip-top shape, the spring cleaning that's on the schedule this year is open to public display.

“Spring Cleaning at the Kerr House” is designed to share with visitors the interesting ins and out of housekeeping at the turn of the last century. The exhibit runs through June 7. Admission to the museum includes the “Spring Cleaning” exhibit.

The Kerr house, which was in the hands of its original owners, the Kerr family, from the Victorian era to the middle of the 1990s, offers visitors a chance to see how the middle class lived. When it was time for spring cleaning this year, those behind the exhibit turned to the museum's ample collection of antiques and artifacts.

“We thought this would be fun to do, because we have a lot of things to display,” says Jan Shoop, a museum volunteer.

“It sort of makes you smile,” she says. “It brings back memories and, hopefully, they are thoughtful memories and typical spring memories that you think of when you think of spring cleaning.”

The exhibit's offerings include just about everything needed to make the stately three-story Queen Anne-style Anne spic and span. Among those are familiar household items like washtubs, scrub boards and sewing machines. Lesser known cleaning implements in the exhibit include a curtain stretcher, a collection of specialized irons and a floor polisher.

The polisher, Shoop says, is “an amazing piece of equipment.”

Akin to a brick positioned on the end of a pole, the floor polisher is designed to do just what its name implies.

“There were no Swiffers, none of the things we use today that make (cleaning) easy,” Shoop says, referring to the popular floor-cleaning device.

Not only were household cleaners more complex, cleaning itself was a challenge, as well.

“When you think about it, how different and how hard it was to keep house at the turn of the century,” she says.

Part of that had to do with the conditions of the time.

“Pittsburgh during the turn of the century was so sooty,” says Jan Stewart, a docent at the museum. “Spring housecleaning was a real routine.”

That routine likely would have meant scrubbing a home from top to bottom, using everything from the curtain stretcher to make sure lace curtains dried straight to cleaning carpets with a Bissell sweeper, a forerunner to today's vacuum cleaners.

Aside from the fitting items from the museum's collection, Stewart had something appropriate to contribute: her mother's collection of antique irons.

The pieces, which are situated throughout the house, are made for every ironing need, from Goffering irons for pressing ruffles to a sad iron — whose name means “heavy” in Old English. Stewart's collection also includes trivets, tiny toy irons and small samples used by iron salesmen. Some have decorative handles shaped like ducks and swans.

The spring-cleaning exhibit, Stewart says, was a pleasure to put together.

“It's a fun exhibit, it's just different.”

Those at the Kerr museum hope that visitors will feel the same.

Regardless of the season, Shoop says visitors are always touched by taking the trip back in time.

“People will walk into the house, and they'll remember something from their childhood, in terms of the older folks,” she says. “And children will come in and look at something and not be able to imagine what people did with it.”

Julie E. Martin is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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