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Washing clothing is something that everyone deals with. Most of us wash our own but there are those who “send it out” or have household help to do it for them. Until I moved out of my childhood home at age twenty I don’t remember being responsible for doing my own laundry. Earlier this summer as my small contribution to the energy crunch and to save a little money, I began hanging laundry on our backyard clothesline. As I set each item in the sun to dry I am taken back to my childhood and to thinking about “washing clothes”.
My mother’s favorite domestic chore is washing the clothing of her family. In one of my earliest memories she is standing at the wringer washing
machine that she loved, feeding the soapy clothes through the tight wringer at the top and into a fresh tub of clean water. After she had allowed them to rinse for a time she would run them back through the ringer, place them in her laundry basket and head outside to the clothesline. The rental home we lived in at that time (the mid 1950’s) had a “high tech” clothesline. Instead of walking along the line to hang the clothes while kicking the basket and sliding the clothespin bag along the line as was the usual way, this house had a wooden platform she stood on to reach the lines which were connected to pulleys. As she stood on that platform reaching up to the line, she would lovingly shake out each item, pin it to the line, slide the line away a bit, hang the next item, and before I knew it the line was full. The first item was way down at the end and my mother had stood in the same place the entire time. To a five year old this was an amazing thing to watch! Mom didn’t hang the clothes haphazardly but sorted as she hung – towels together, wash rags, t-shirts, jeans, socks, sheets, etc. All like items were hung together and by the time she finished the laundry was like a work of art splashing against the background of the sky. I realize now that this was also practical – it made taking things down from the line and folding them much quicker and easier.
Bleach was my mom’s favorite laundry additive. She used it on all of our white clothes; on our towels, no matter what their color; and on the sheets, which were always white in those days. With all that bleach, and then hanging in the hot San Jose, California sun for most of the day, our clothes were bright bright bright! Another product she used often was called "bluing"
. It came in a small round glass bottle with a cork top (if my memory serves), and it was also used to keep clothes bright. It is a whitener that is still available today and is actually much more environmentally friendly than most other laundry products. Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing or MSB was a favorite. Mom moved on to automatic washer and dryers when I was about ten years old. She still hangs her clothes on a round line out on the patio every once in awhile, and adds bleach to just about everything, but I haven’t seen a bottle of “bluing” for a long long time.
My grandmother also had a wringer washer and hung her clothes on the line. A vague early memory is the family story of my mom’s arm getting caught in the wringer when she was a child. My grandmother had a wooden clothes hamper in her bathroom that my grandfather had made. It was counter high, about four feet long and two feet deep. Half of this chest held three deep drawers for towels; the other half had a tilt out clothes hamper where the dirty clothes were gathered. I had hoped to inherit that hamper from my grandmother but my uncle, who was only seven when his father died, had also wanted it, and I’m glad that he has this item which was handmade by his father.
While sorting, washing, and drying the clothes were always done by my mother, folding was another matter. As the oldest child, that job often came to me. I still fold most of my clothes in the same way my mom taught me. T-shirts into quarters, mated socks rolled into balls, towels stacked with the fold out, diapers folded to fit the current size of the baby, and I’m sure many other rules that I do so automatically I don’t even realize it. When my wheelchair bound grandmother moved in with my parents she always wanted to help around the house. Folding clothes was something she could do easily. The dry clothes were easy for her to retrieve from the dryer and roll into the dining room table where she would fold them and make a stack for each member of the family. I realize now in thinking about the way in which she did this, that, just as I learned most of my laundry skills from my mother; my mother, in turn, learned them from her mother.
My daughters have learned about laundry from me as well. But their responsibility for their own clothes began at a much earlier age than mine did. Up until they were about nine or ten their sole responsibility when it came to their laundry was to put away the clothes I had washed, dried and folded. One day after I had carefully completed these tasks I asked them to put their clothes away before dinner. They complied but the next day when I entered their rooms I found that the clothes had been carelessly stuffed into their drawers with half of them hanging out and most becoming wrinkled and unfolded. When they got home from school that day their relationship with laundry began in earnest. I told them I was no longer washing their clothes. I showed them how to sort, how to use the washer and dryer, and how to fold. I also told them that Saturday was their laundry day and they would not be allowed to go outside and play with their friends until this chore was complete. They learned that cooperation would get them outside much more quickly and began to do it together combining their whites and coloreds, and helping each other fold. My own mother was appalled at this development but I think my daughters were much more prepared to be on their own in college and in life because they had developed this skill. They knew at an early age, unlike most of their friends, that “clean clothes” were something that required effort and did not just magically appear in your drawers a few days after you had placed them in the hamper.
And so, as I carefully hang my clothes on the line in this hot Alabama sun, sorting by item and type, smelling the detergent and bleach, I think of my mother and grandmother. I think of how I do this by choice, out of frugality and nostalgia, and how they did it out of necessity. I think of those rainy days when their babies must have needed dry diapers and the towel drawers were empty. I think of how they improvised by using an inside drying rack and hanging things near the furnace, and I appreciate much more their dedication to making sure their families had clean clothes. I also think of my daughters who learned about laundry at an early age but will never know how much effort it required in the past. Then I remember the old glass washboard that decorates my laundry room. When my father gave it to me he said it had belonged to my great grandmother, and I realize suddenly that I too have no clue of how difficult washing clothes really was so long ago.
(Update: 2/27/13, I currently use the above pictured clothesline with all of my laundry. I keep it set up in the guestroom until company comes. It will hold two loads and they usually dry in less than 24 hours. My dryer is used to toss each load on air only setting to get out the machine spun wrinkles before hanging on the line. I can't imagine what my power bill would be without this clothesline!)