The great American dustbowl settles under the refrigerator

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SPRING is in the air at last, but not in American homes. The idea of a spring-clean is a distant memory for most Americans, who simply do not have the time to pick up a mop, according to home economists and makers of cleaning products.

Household movers report 'third- world conditions' behind sofas and under refrigerators in many homes - and not only in poor families. Housekeeping columnists are facing up to the dirt era. 'Bless the mess, people have better things to do with their time than clean,' said Mary Ellen Pinkham, whose advice is syndicated in 150 American newspapers.

For a nation known for obsessive cleanliness this is a shock. Some prefer to say Americans are 'reprioritising' their lives: others admit they are learning to live with the dust. An obvious cause is that more women are working outside the home. One study suggests that for every hour a woman spends on her job she cuts 30 minutes' housework. American men have been known to pick up a broom, but not often.

According to one telephone survey of 500 adults, 43 per cent of women said they were doing less house cleaning than five years ago, but only 21 per cent felt their husbands were helping more.

In place of the hard scrub comes the once-over-lightly. While sales of floor-care products are down, those of surface spray cleaners are up. A quick wipe of the counter top is all a kitchen may get these days.

Those without time to clean are exploring other solutions. One Park Avenue person interviewed by the New York Times said she had knocked her home into a single room without curtains and with only marble and stainless steel surfaces. She still used a mop, however.