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.

The Wheel from an Old Hay Rake

(post by Ginger Allain) Growing up in the country, I remember a vintage wheel that served as a trellis in our yard. Mom grew clematis on it. We have few photos from that time, mostly black-and-white ones.

wheel-at-martin-farm

Wheel from an old hay rake (at Clyde and Gail Martin’s home)

In examining the photo, my sister and I decided it wasn’t a wagon wheel or a buggy wheel. It seemed too high and too slender for either of those.

An octogenarian helped us out by identifying it as the wheel of a farm implement called a hay rake.

Here’s Les Paugh’s memory of such things, “I got to thinking when I was 12-years-old we had a rake that set at an angle and windrowed the hay for the baler. I tried to find a picture of one, no luck. Also tried to find a picture of the baler I worked on.

This was in 1945 before the war ended. The baler needed one man on the tractor and two on the baler, one tying the wires and one poking the wires. The owner of the ranch couldn’t get anybody to tie the wires, my dad told him I could tie the wires. He said he would pay me six bits an hour, dad told him “you will pay him one dollar an hour, a man’s wages for a man’s work, or look for two men.” He said OK. I worked all summer. My earnings bought me a horse and saddle.

I checked for a picture of a hay rake and finally found one in a newspaper from 1900.

the-owosso-times-owosso-mich-hay-rake-january-19-1900-chronicling-america-library-of-congress

The Owosso times. Owosso, Michigan, hay rake, January 19, 1900, Chronicling America « Library of Congress

 

Decorate for Christmas the Old-Fashioned Way

Gail Lee Martin first published this article on the eHow website some years ago.

Here’s how to celebrate Christmas just like a prairie family in the 1930s.  If you want a Christmas with an old-fashioned feel, just try the steps below.

 Things You’ll Need:
  • a cedar tree
  • cranberries
  • popcorn
  • thin cardboard
  • silver foil
  • a magazine
THE TREE: The arrival of our Christmas Tree was the beginning of the holiday season for my family. I remember the first time I experienced the thrill of going with Daddy to locate an appropriate tree for Christmas. On a nice sunny Sunday after a heavy snow and shortly before Christmas, Daddy would have us bundle up warmly in four buckle overshoes, hand knitted mittens, stocking caps and long scarves wrapped around our necks. Then we would follow in his footprints as he trekked through the snow-drifted Bluestem grass to a canyon in the fold of the hills almost a mile from our home.
2008-08-20-gail-and-ks-photos-066
Scattered along the rocky sides of the canyon were many cedars of all sizes. We would select a well-rounded tree about my height. After scraping the snow from around the tree, Daddy dug out around the tree roots. The snow kept the ground from being frozen solid, so the digging went well even in the rocky soil. Daddy carefully packed the tree in a container and placed it on our small sled. We would take turns pulling our treasure home. This living tree stayed on our front porch until the day before Christmas.
Clarence McGhee pulling toddlers on a sled. Kansas Flint Hills.

Clarence McGhee pulling toddlers on a sled. Kansas Flint Hills.

CRANBERRY CHAINS: When the Christmas season neared our home on the snow-covered prairies, our house would take on a cheery atmosphere as we began making lustrous long, red garlands using fresh, whole cranberries. We would thread a large darning needle with string from Mother’s string ball. Our mother saved string through the year. Every time Daddy opened the hundred pound cotton sacks of flour or chicken feed, Mother would unravel the string that the sacks were sewn shut with, to add to her ball.

POPCORN STRINGS: Stringing cranberries and popcorn took many long hours to get the strands long enough for a big tree. But the evenings of family togetherness around the living room stove were lots of fun as we enjoyed big bowls of popcorn drizzled with golden home-made butter. Daddy was in charge of popping the corn, that he had grown and as we munched, we would carefully thread unbuttered kernels into white garlands to drape in contrast with the ruby-red cranberries.

SILVER STARS: Then we made bright silver stars. We would go to Mother’s hoarding drawer and get our small supply of foil we’d saved from spearmint chewing gum wrappers. Back then each stick of gum was in a foil and wax paper wrapper and we had to carefully peel them apart. With the resulting thin silver foil we covered cardboard stars cut from the backs of our Big Chief writing tablets. The first one we made was a large star that went on top of the tree each year. We covered smaller stars to hang here and there on the tree. With the darning needle, we would poke a tiny hole in one point of each star to thread a piece of string to hang them with. Each year we were able to make a few new ones.

PAPER CHAINS: Mother showed us girls how to cut magazines ads and turn them into glossy, paper chains. We would cut many rectangles, one-half by five inches long, from the colorful ads. Then we would start by making a loop by lapping the ends and sticking them together with paste, we made from flour and water. Next, we would loop another strip of paper through the first loop, then pasted the ends and so on until the gleaming chain was the length we wanted. Draped in scallops on the tree or across the windows they were eye-catching.

DECORATING: When he brought the tree inside and placed in the living room corner, the day before Christmas, we would transform it into a shimmering dream with all the scallops of red berries and white popcorn and little silver stars. In between, we arranged the glistening paper chains. At the very last, Daddy placed the large star at the top and our plain old Kansas cedar tree was a sight to remember. Best of all, it didn’t cost very much, just the cranberries had to be bought.

AFTER CHRISTMAS: The week after Christmas we removed the stars and stored for another year. Then Daddy moved the tree to the front yard where we could watch the brave winter birds feasting on a banquet of popcorn and berries. Each year Daddy replanted our Christmas trees to make a much-needed windbreak and shelter for the birds.

Here are some comments from when it was posted on eHow:  “This is enchanting! I was there with you, munching the buttery popcorn and sliding the cranberries onto the string . . . I just love the way you recount the simpler times of days gone by. Thank you for sharing. Five well-deserved stars!”

Here’s another comment – “I loved this article. The glimpse of your life in those days was so interesting and wonderful. What a contrast to the commercial holiday of today.”

Susan H on 9/2/2008 – “This article is so precious and wonderful. My brother and I made paper chains every year for our tree. We would put them on the tree and our mantel. I echo JMKnudson when I say, ‘Please keep writing’.”

Another comment on 9/1/2008 –  “What beautiful memories you have. I will be adopting some of your traditions this Christmas season.”

The 7 Memory Challenge

Here’s a short exercise for you. Take a piece of paper and write seven sentences about your childhood. Each sentence must start with “I remember.” You might be surprised what comes to your mind.

Here are mine:

  • I remember how excited we were when our cousins sent over a batch of their outgrown dresses.
  • I remember hanging clothes on the clothesline on freezing winter days. The clothes froze stiff and were hard to carry into the house later.
  • I remember learning to iron, starting with handkerchiefs. Eventually, we worked up to ironing blouses with sleeves and those gathered skirts on shirtwaist dresses.
  • I remember pretending we were ice skating on our frozen creek, even though we didn’t have skates.
  • I remember the horror of seeing our dog, Tippy, hit by a passing car. We were waiting by the highway for the school bus.
  • I remember churning our own butter in the glass Daisy churn.

    Daisy Churn_edited

    I browsed around on eBay and found this picture. It’s exactly what our churn looked like.

  • I remember learning to make muffins back when they were like a bread, not the cake-like kind they make now.

I hope you will give it a try. Date and save your memory page to share with children and grandchildren later.

 

 

4th of July Memories

The boom of fireworks drew me outside. In the distance, through the trees, I glimpsed a burst of light in the sky. Two days before the 4th of July and apparently, people have money to burn.

Long ago, we celebrated the holiday in a modest way on the farm in Kansas. At the fireworks stand, we selected pinwheels, snakes, sparklers, bottle rockets, and ladyfingers. These were considered fairly safe for school-age children. They carried more lethal and more expensive fireworks like cherry bombs, but we never bought those.

We lighted a punk, and used that to set off the small firecrackers called ladyfingers. We were cautioned not to light them while holding the tiny cracker in our fingers. So we placed it on the ground and lit the short fuse with our smoldering punk, then we leaped backwards to wait for the explosion. Later, we gathered the scraps of paper left from the ladyfingers. We marveled at the Chinese characters printed on the small bits remaining.

The snake required a match to start it. The small charcoal-colored button extruded a long dark, curving ash as it burned. That was the “snake.”

Pinwheels required nailing to a post or tree. Once the fuse was lit, it whirled in a circular pattern, spitting fire. It was done in just seconds.

I gathered my memories into a poem.

Kansas 4th of July

Hand-cranked ice cream — taking forever to be ready.

Lemonade, corn on the cob, and hot, hot days.

The sputter of small firecrackers and swish of pinwheels.

Setting the dry grass on fire in our backyard.

Creating fiery circles in the dusk with a sparkler in my hand.

Dad shooting Roman candles across an open field.

I remember long ago July fourths,

The sparkler is as bright as ever.

sparkler

Sparkler for the 4th of July (poem and photo by Virginia Allain)

Grandma’s Telephone

As I waited in the Verizon store for an updated cell phone, I had time to ponder how far we’ve come over the years. Here I was getting a phone that I can carry with me everywhere and can reach anyone. It’s a smart phone and at times is too smart for me, so many of the features go unused.

The person ahead of me was adding his girlfriend on his phone account and selecting the latest cell phone. Together they would pay $200 a month for being accessible 24 hours a day. It made me think of the phone used by my grandparents many years ago.

IMG_1605

Photo by Virginia Allain

It was the old style wooden box on the wall with a hand crank on the right side. You spoke into the center mouthpiece and held the black part (on the left) to your ear to hear. The handy little shelf could hold your phone book or serve as a place to keep paper and pencil for noting numbers and information.

You cranked the handle on the right to connect to the operator who had a switchboard to connect your call to distant places. The phone line was shared with neighbors, and you had to wait for them to finish their call before you could make yours.  When the phone rang, the number of rings indicated if the call was for you or for someone else on the line.

This old-fashioned system seems clunky but was a huge step forward from the previous system. In my grandparents’ childhood days, the early 1900s, you had to walk or ride your horse to the neighbors to give them a message or send a letter to reach more distant friends and family.  Telephones were available but not affordable for all households.

Where my mother grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas in the 1920s and 1930s, not all areas had phone service early on. I know by the time World War II started, they had a phone as she mentions it in her story about her father’s accident. The story is called Why I Love Horses.

As for me, I remember the standard black phone of the 1950s and I can even remember our phone number from that time. It was DAvis1 – 5399, but you only had to dial on the rotary dial DA1-5399. Tell me about your memories of long-ago phones.