The best cleaning ideas: Past, present and future

Updated 2:34 PM ET, Tue March 26, 2013
Past, present and futurePast, present and future
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Real Simple culled the smartest strategies and products from all possible eras, so you can be as scrappy as a Colonial settler and as high-tech as Jane Jetson—and make your cleaning routine faster, easier, and more effective than ever before. dan winters/real simple
In 1893 the Fels soap company added naphtha, a kind of solvent, to their formula to create a much loved product that thrives to this day. Use it to pretreat oily (or otherwise tough) stains, like chocolate, makeup, baby formula, and ring around the collar. "Wet the bar, rub on, let sit for a few minutes, and wash as usual," says Steve Boorstein, the author of "The Clothing Doctor's 99 Secrets to Cleaning and Clothing Care." jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Clean brass and copper by sprinkling salt on a lemon half and rubbing it on the metal, then rinsing thoroughly. To bleach acidic-food stains from dishwasher-safe items, rub lemon juice on the spots, let the items dry in the sun, then wash as usual. Use the same process to coax food smells out of wooden spoons. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
This spinning wonder was patented in 1876 by Melville Bissell. He created the carpet sweeper at the behest of his wife, Anna, who was frustrated with the existing rug-cleaning technology. After Melville's untimely death in 1889, Anna became America's first female corporate CEO and helped the company grow into a powerhouse. Today the Bissell Swift Sweep remains a go-to gadget for quick (and quiet) cleanups. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Vinegar: It inhibits the growth of mold, mildew, and some bacteria, so go nuts with it in the kitchen and bathroom, cleaning cutting boards and wiping soap residue from shower doors. But don't stop there. Spray it on the underarms of clothing and let soak for 30 minutes to deodorize! Mix it with an equal amount of warm water for a streak-free window cleaner! Remove rings left by wet glasses on wood by rubbing the rings with an equal mix of vinegar and melted beeswax! Pour it in the washer to rescue a forgotten load from funky despair—or sans clothes to refresh the machine! jens mortensen sill-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Mix 1 tablespoon peroxide with ¼ cup water, then spray it on fruits and vegetables to kill bacteria and rinse. Use it to disinfect cutting boards (they've never gotten so much love). Mix it with a little liquid dish soap to deodorize the cat box and trash cans. Do not use it to bleach your hair at home (1980s punks, you feel us, right?). jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Add it to a bit of liquid dish soap and tackle the refrigerator shelves. Pour it down a clogged drain along with boiling water. Sprinkle it around the house exterior to deter insects. Dilute and spray it to kill mildew in the bathroom. Pour it in the toilet and let sit overnight; the next day, swish with a brush and flush to get rid of rust stains. Clean countertops and walls by dissolving ½ cup in 1 gallon of hot water, pouring it into a spray bottle, spritzing it hither and yon, then wiping with a damp cloth. Oh, borax, is there anything you cannot do? jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Make a paste with an equal amount of water to clean smudges on washable wallpaper. Take on dingy grout by mixing 3 cups baking soda with 1 cup warm water and applying to the nasty area. Let sit, then rinse well. Also superb on a damp cloth for removing heel marks from linoleum floors. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
"For polishing anything from silver to jewelry to vehicles, these can't be outdone," says Mary Findley, the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Green Cleaning." And cloth diapers won't leave lint on mirrors or windows, she adds. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
In these times of better living through gadgetry, we want a just-right tool for every job. The rotating curved edge on this pan scraper, for example, fits the shape of any pan to dislodge stuck-on foods (scrambled-egg cleanup is a breeze). And the finely tapered nylon head won't scratch even delicate nonstick surfaces. Designed for the Museum of Modern Art, it's as snazzy as it is brilliant.
jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
The robot vacuum has a new cousin—the Mint 4200 Automatic Floor Cleaner is a wet mop and a duster. And, yes, a robot, too! Set on "sweep," it moves back and forth in neat lines, catching dust and dander. In "mop" mode, it uses its own wet cleaning cloths (or disposable cloths from most big-name brands) to make floors shiny and fresh. Flat and small enough to zip under furniture and into tight spaces (measuring only 3.1 inches high), it uses GPS-like technology to map its path and built-in sensors to avoid stairs and area rugs. When it's all done, it returns to its starting spot. And it's super-quiet, so it won't terrify the cat. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
The long-reaching Baseboard Buddy is shaped to nestle in the curves of molding—and tall enough to keep you off the ladder while you work. Spray the disposable pads (which have the texture of a velour lint brush) with the cleaner of your choice and get swiping. Hit the tops of doors and window frames while you're at it. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
We'll all soon be hooked on this tiny OXO double-tipped doohickey. The silicone end removes dust, crumbs, and goop from around computer keys, and the retractable soft-bristled brush is gentle enough for detailing a cell-phone camera lens. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Save the Q-tips for makeup removal. This tough-bristled tool from QVC quickly and efficiently cleans window and sliding-door tracks. After you loosen the grime, pick up what's left with a damp cloth or a paper towel. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Never again splatter bleach on your clothes while doing laundry. Evolve Ultra Concentrated bleach tablets offer a precisely metered dose of controlled bleachy goodness and take up practically no space in the laundry room. Keep a bottle in the bathroom as well, and drop one into the bowl between cleaning days. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Whatever the shape and contours of your tub or shower, this Rubbermaid brush can get right in there. A button lets you slide between flat or flexed mode. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
What the what?! A magic wand for fighting germs? Using the same technology employed to sanitize hospital equipment for the past three decades, the ultraviolet light-emitting the Clean Wave is said to kill bacteria on all sorts of hard surfaces. It works without chemicals, so it's safe on electronic devices, like keyboards, remotes, and phones, as well as countertops and door-knobs. (But, no, not on germy humans and pets. We were wondering, too.) jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
Here's an important industry-wide innovation inspired by plain old logic: Ready-to-use products contain about 10 percent cleaner; the rest is water. So if a spray product costs $6, you could be paying something like $5 for water. Enter concentrated cleaners, sold in starter kits (bottle included) and refill pods or tablets that you mix with tap water. They save you money and put less stress on the planet. (Lighter products require less fuel for shipping.) One of our favorite all-purpose concentrates is the Replenish: $6.50 for a starter kit. jens mortensen still-life props by elizabeth maclennan
An industrial designer in Chicago named Elie Ahovi has come up with a prototype for a washing machine, called the Orbit, that uses pressurized dry ice to smash dirt particles off clothing. The dry ice starts as a solid block that stays cold thanks to liquid nitrogen. When you turn on the machine, the block is transformed into a gas and blasted at laundry. The Orbit process takes only a few minutes, after which the gas is transformed back into a solid. Even more fun: Clothing floats while it spins inside a glamorous spherical see-through machine that could have been a set piece in Barbarella. Laundry never gets wet and there's no need for detergent, so it comes out dry as well as clean. The dirt from clothes is sucked into a tube, which needs emptying now and then. Thinkstock
A vacuuming robot called Cocorobo (in Japanese, a play on words for "robot with a heart") does everything but make you dinner. Newly available in Japan, this product from Sharp lets you map out your floor plan on your phone so you can decide exactly where the robot should go. It beams you floor's-eye-- view pictures as it works so you can spy on its progress. Want to be really hands-on? You can use your phone as a radio controller to steer the gizmo. Some models have voice-recognition software and can chat with you via a few dozen programmed phrases. This level of braininess doesn't come cheap. In Japan the robots retail for over $1,000. Sharp hopes to introduce an American version soon. Thinkstock
A British research project known as Catalytic Clothing focuses on fabrics that use existing technology to purify the air. Tony Ryan, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sheffield, and Helen Storey, a fashion designer, run the project. They have created prototypes for dresses and jeans treated with an additive that's a photocatalyst (a light-triggered energy source) that breaks down airborne pollutants. In the future, the creators aim to have the photocatalyst delivered to clothes through detergents or fabric conditioner. There needs to be mass adoption of the technology for it to make a meaningful difference in air quality. Ryan and Storey hope that the additive can be affordable enough for their ambitious plan to become a reality. Thinkstock