Thursday, May 14, 2015

      Part II - Laundry

I’ve done laundry since I was fourteen: by hand, using a wash board or in the sink; in a wringer washer or automatic machine at home; at someone else's house, when I lived in apartments; in coin laundries (while living in student housing at the University of Michigan and later on when my washer conked out--that time I pulled a wagon with two kids and a ton of laundry half a mile to the laundry place).

I recall, at age fourteen, heating water in a copper boiler, filling it with buckets of cold water from the well the night before laundry was going to be done (this was Sunday night, because Monday was always washing day at Mom's house).

Another long-gone task was putting sheer curtains on curtain stretchers. Does anybody remember those? They were large wooden frames, adjustable, as I recall; the edges of the frame had small sharp nails sticking up--close together--and my mother attached the curtains on the little nails. When the curtain was hooked up all around the frame, it was stretched to its normal size and retained its shape. In a short time the curtain panel was dry enough to take it off the stretcher. Removing the curtains made little pink-pink sounds. (I was saved from multiple punctures and was never allowed to put curtains on the frames; by the time I had curtains to wash, they were synthetic and basically wash-and-wear. How decadent is that?) I recall some stuck fingers (not mine, thank heavens) that left blood on the panels and a fair amount of cussing. Clearly, keeping house was not for the timid.

I used Fels Naphtha soap (a bit harsh on the hands but it did the job) on work clothes, mainly coveralls and what we called work pants. These were heavier twill for long wear during tough jobs; my dad was a carpenter and wore jeans, mostly, but occasionally we had work pants to clean. After pants were washed and wrung dry (by hand or through a wringer on the washer), they were put on pants stretchers. These were thin metal frames, again adjustable, the shape of a pants leg, and were inserted in the legs of washable trousers, then stretched to the size of the pants leg. We hung them up to dry that way, and thus had less pressing to do later, usually just the waistbands and pockets.

Even when I finally had an automatic washer to use at home, there were always hand-wash-only items, like sweaters. They had to be re-shaped and dried flat. The goal was to get them back to the same size they were when dry. Another challenge. And I never had a sweater frame--looked like a big window screen that fit over the sides of the bathtub--so my sweaters lay around on tables and chairs and beds until they dried.

Drying clothes used to be fun—I loved hanging clothes on the line, in the sun and wind. (You can tell I wasn’t a working-away-from-home mom, can’t you?) Yes, sheets were stiff and had to be folded as they came off the line, and sometimes they got away from me when the wind was uber-strong, but the wind and sun made them feel and smell fresh. The electric clothes dryer was a great invention for inclement weather and last-minute needs. (Such as, “Mom, can you wash my jeans tonight? They’re the only ones I have!”)

Because ironing came after washing, “my basket overfloweth” was a familiar theme song, back in the day, especially for a family of six. Wash-and-wear didn’t come too soon for me. Before the kids had dresses and shirts made from synthetics and blends, their dad had dress shirts that were drip-dry. An iron never touched them. I used to regret that my mother never knew the advantages of modern fabrics and the easy-care properties they afforded the housewife. But I wonder--would she have really enjoyed having one of her jobs reduced so drastically? She took pride in a clean house, clean laundry, everything shipshape and in place. What would she have done with herself? (Since she worked away from home, I'm sure she could have used the extra time for something.)

Finally came the clothing revolution of the Sixties. My girls couldn’t be seen in dresses--they'd be laughed at--jeans were the only thing to wear. In many ways, jeans were a godsend to a busy home--wash, dry, wear. Repeat. Before long the jeans were hole-y--even better! Everybody wore jeans with holes.

Looking back (I know, here we go again), it sounds like The Simple Life--taking pleasure in everyday chores, finding joy in a big job completed in one day; but it wasn’t simple work; it was often hard work. And yet--and yet--I had fewer outside commitments to make it necessary for a “schedule,” a need to “prioritize” my tasks. For one thing, if I did all my home tasks, there was no time for much outside stuff. But, that was Back in the Day.

Despite difficulties and challenges, I still love doing laundry. Now that I have a smaller household, I can usually get everything in one load, unless there are sheets, blankets, and rugs. Or guests. (Lest you misunderstand--I don't wash the guests; but they use sheets, blankets, etc. Those I wash.)

I wouldn’t want to scrub on a washboard again, or heat water in a copper boiler and dip it out into the washer and rinse tubs the next day. But I like getting a task finished in one day, having a closet and chest of drawers full of clean things to wear. It’s a small accomplishment, nowadays. But satisfying. Satisfying.



  1. I still love laundry, too, and I still hang my sheets out to dry as long as it's not cold enough to freeze my fingers!

    1. Sometimes I wish I had clotheslines here, but then I look up at the big trees, and watch the birds, whose flight plans always cross my yard, and I reconsider....

  2. And to think I was feeling sorry for myself because I don't have a washer and dryer in my apartment... ;)

    1. Something to look forward to in your next move. :-)