W is for Washday Blues

(This post by Virginia Allain was first posted on the Our Echo website)

There is something romantic about a kerosene lamp. Perhaps in our imagination, we picture ourselves conversing in the parlor illumined by its picturesque glow. Many humble household items from the “good old days” are reincarnated as decorative pieces throughout today’s homes. Horse collars reappear framing a mirror and the old oaken bucket might be filled with petunias.

One aspect of times past seems difficult to romanticize. The drudgery of laundry days, “Blue Mondays,” does not lend itself to sentimentality. What woman would give up her automatic washer and dryer for a heavy sad iron, a scrubbing board, and a clothesline? Think about making your own starch, using bluing, or going further back in history, making lye soap. There’s nothing romantic about hanging out laundry on a freezing day.

vintage box starch

Beaham’s Faultless Starch box

Think about making your own starch, using bluing, or going further back in history, making lye soap. There’s nothing romantic about hanging out laundry on a freezing day.

The advent of wringer washers simplified laundry day. It was still an all-day process, but it eliminated the back breaking scrub board. As a child growing up on the West Branch, north of El Dorado, Kansas, I thought it must be fun to feed the clothes into the wringer. Mother cautioned us with a fearsome tale of the time her arm was pulled into the rollers. Her mother quickly reversed it and ran her arm out again. Mother’s cousin, Hila Bolte, warranted a mention in the 1933 Eureka Herald when her hair caught in the wringers. The Teterville column reported that she lost “a handful of her curly locks.”

My youngest sister stirred the clothes in the rinse tub with a cut-down broomstick. She handed dripping items to Mother, who fed them cautiously into the wringer. I was allowed to guide them into the laundry basket as they emerged. Sometimes items might start to wrap around again and my job was to grab the lever and quickly halt the rollers. The kitchen linoleum was scrubbed with the leftover wash water as was the wooden porch floor. The rinse water provided a drink for the flowers and garden.
cat-washday pixabay
I had plenty of sisters to share the “hanging out,” but we dreaded winter laundry days. The Kansas wind would fling the wet clothing in our face as our numb fingers struggled with the clothes pins. The clothing froze into contorted shapes that refused to fit into the laundry basket. Inside the house, the clothes thawed and finished drying draped over chair backs and the stair railing. The heat from the wood stove quickened the drying.

I associate wash days with hearty soups. Meal preparation was minimized to leave time for the myriad tasks associated with cleaning the family’s clothes. A large pot of navy beans soaked overnight and simmered all morning, made a warming lunch with thickly buttered slices of bread. By supper time they were well-cooked and fully flavored by the bits of ham. Accompanied by corn bread, it was a filling yet simple meal.

Take a step back to my grandmother’s generation. The book, Practical Suggestions for Mother and Housewife, describes the laundry area of a well-planned house in 1910. It “should be supplied with two tubs, an ironing table, an ironing board, and a stove for the boiler and the irons. The ironing board should be supported upon two ‘horses’ of the height of the table. The table should be supplied with an iron rest.” Just think of carrying the heavy water buckets, heating the water in the boiler, then scrubbing, hand wringing the clothes and heating and reheating the irons.

The 20th Century Cyclopedia of Practical Information, published in 1901 explained the washing technique for chenille curtains. One needed two ounces of ether sulphate, two ounces borax, two ounces soda, and one cake of ivory soap. “Shave soap and let dissolve in warm water, then add all the ingredients to sufficient warm water to wash curtains in. Do not rub on board, but dash up and down until they are thoroughly clean. Do not wring them, but squeeze out the water and hang lengthwise in a shady place. Take a whisk broom and brush until dry.” It warned, “do not go near the fire, as ether is a dangerous explosive.”

Here is the cyclopedia’s advice for black thread stockings. “Never use soap, but use a suds made of a teacupful of bran inclosed (sic) in a muslin bag, thrown into warm water and well stirred. First, wash the stockings in this preparation. On taking them out of the water, roll them in a towel, pressing strongly, and dry quickly near the fire, not in the air.” It promises that the stockings would retain a fine black color and never grow dingy using this treatment. “If they are neglected and become rusty, the color can be restored by boiling them in one quart of water, into which a few chips of logwood have been thrown.”

Some of the old supplies for stain removal are restricted today. They are considered too dangerous for regular use. A Department of Agriculture bulletin from 1923 recommended carbon tetrachloride, ether, and chloroform for stains. It warned the laundress to use care with gasoline, naphtha, and benzol due to their flammability. It suggested using them in a shady place out of doors and away from all flames. In today’s throwaway society, a stain that resists a quick spray of spot cleaner dooms the garment to the ragbag.

We take for granted that most fabrics are now colorfast. This was not true even fifty years ago. A depression era household hint suggests adding one teaspoonful of Epsom Salts to each gallon of wash water. This would prevent fading or the dye running in colored fabrics, according to “Ceresota Household Hints.” For the opposite effect, one could soak a printed flour or sugar sack in kerosene for 24 hours, add naphtha soap and water, then boil. If this did not remove the color, one could repeat the process.

The 1915 Housekeeper’s Handbook of Cleaning recommended that a good boiler have at least a copper bottom and added that the best boilers are of all copper. Copper was more durable and transmitted the heat better than tin boilers. ironsFor ironing, it suggested 1 eight-pound iron, 2 six-pound irons, 1 three-pound iron, 1 ruffling iron and 1 tiny iron. This assortment cost a total of $1.65 and cut down on wasted time waiting for the iron to heat on the stove. The various weights were needed for bed linens, ordinary garments, lightweight materials and baby dresses.

The handbook further suggested lining your willow clothes basket with white oilcloth. Without a paper or cloth lining, the willow could cause a yellow stain on damp clothes. A list of basic utensils needed to complete the laundry process included: 1 pail, 1 dipper, 1 dish-pan, 1 small bowl, 1 saucepan of about 5 quarts capacity for making starch, 1 teakettle, 1 case knife, 1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon, 1 one-half-pint cup, 1 quart cup, 1 large wooden spoon. In addition one needed a clothes stick for stirring, a washboard, a rest for the iron, a sprinkler of some type and clothes-pins. It advised against the new patent type with metal on the pins which might cause rust spots on the clothes.

My father remembers his grandfather giving his bib overalls a nightly slosh in a bucket of cold water. He had two pairs and would not allow his wife to scrub them on the scrub board for fear of wearing them out. They dripped dry after a night and a day tossed over the clothesline, while he wore the other pair.washday-pixabay
The housewife of 1888 could consult her Farmer’s and Housekeeper’s Cyclopaedia for the proper way to wash a muslin dress, a cambric handkerchief, or prevent calico from fading. To clean a rusty flat-iron, she rubbed the heated iron first with beeswax. She then scoured it with a paper or cloth sprinkled with salt. My grandmother, Ruth McGhee, used waxed bread wrapper for that purpose in later days.

Wouldn’t she have loved an electric iron? A 1914 promotion touted the wonders of the electric iron. The advantages advertised were:
1. It does not interfere with the use of the cookstove.
2. It saves time and energy spent walking to and from the stove to re-heat.
3. It encourages a rapid rate of work since one accelerates to save on “current.”
4. One can work in a cool location, not needing to be by the stove.
5. One can iron at a convenient time, not just when the range is at its best heat.

The five dollar price may have made it beyond the budget of many households of that time. Another obstacle was the lack of electricity. For my grandparents living in rural Greenwood County, electricity was not available until the late 1940s.

In the fifties, automatic washing machines simplified the laundry process further. Powdered detergents claimed to eliminate stains and the need for bleaching or bluing. Electric irons were common. The household hint booklets still offered tips for easing ironing. One explained the steps for ironing a brassiere. “Iron toward the center of each cup, turning the brassiere on the board until each area is smooth and dry. Then iron the flat sections and the straps. Ironing everything, including sheets, was still time-consuming for the housewife.

My great grandmother, whose first home in Kansas was a sod house, would be amazed to see my laundry routine today. In between my other household tasks, I toss an armload of colorfast, permanent press clothing into the washing machine. After setting two dials and adding a cup of detergent, my work is done for awhile. Later I transfer the clean items to the dryer, add a dryer sheet to prevent wrinkling and static, then start the machine. A few minutes spent hanging or folding the clothing will complete the laundry process. What a change from the all day drudgery that my grandmother faced every Monday.

Nostalgic about washboards, sad irons, wash tubs? It’s not surprising that few want to return to that aspect of the “good old days.” Now and then, I admit to missing the fresh smell of line dried sheets and thinking fondly of bean soup with cornbread.

8 thoughts on “W is for Washday Blues

  1. Your post brought back memories of washing day, which was once a week, getting the water in the copper hot seemed to take forever, yes, and the tub full of blue rinsing water and using a hand wringer, the washing seemed to take forever to dry. Like you said the winter months were terrible. I even when to school with my clothes feeling as though they were still damp which they most likely were as there was no clothes dryer, only clothes that had been aired off by hanging them in front of an open fire. Those were the days.
    Yes, memories, the young ones these days wouldn’t be able to stand their lives if they lived like that. We all worked together those days you don’t see much of that now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was so hungry after reading your post I went to the kitchen and made leek and potato soup for lunch. I made crunchy croutons for the top with herbs from the garden and a dash of plain yoghurt. Yum! Thank you for motivating me. Yes I remember those wash days as a child with the wringer that threatened to eat your fingers. Despite living in Australia our winters were cold because we lived up in the highlands. No fancy dryers in those days as it all went on the line. It still does where I live now but the winters are not that cold.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Virginia, I went to New Orleans in the 90’s –my first trip on my own as a young widow. One hot muggy day, I went to the New Orleans Museum of Art and saw a show that is still fresh in my mind:
    In a large white marble room with a glass dome, laundry was hung on lines that were strung across the area. Beautiful lace and eyelet sheets. A few fans created a breeze and speakers played the voices of women talking. Talking about children, husbands, family, cooking and life.
    The view was to walk among the sheets and it was a powerful experience. I was transported back to my grandmothers, aunts and neighbors, my mother -even to my sister breaking her arm swinging on the clothesline. I wish the show were permanent, I can’t even remember the artist -I wish I did, so I could write to tell her that over twenty years later, I still remember.

    Liked by 2 people

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