Laundry in the Old Days

Images from Smithsonian collection

When she first married in 1946, Mother washed on a rub board. By the time I was born, they’d come up enough in the world to acquire a second wringer-washing machine. It cut her work tremendously. Wash days were so much more pleasant and relaxing. All she had to do was sort the laundry into whites, colors, towels, and work clothes.

She  manually filled the machine with hot water from a connection on the back porch as well as several pans of water boiled on the stove for her whites. Adding plenty of Clorox and laundry soap, she turned on the agitator and loaded her whites. The machine agitated the wash vigorously till she turned it off. When she was satisfied the whites were clean, the water was was usually still steaming hot. She’d turn the agitator off. While the clothes were washing, she’d fill two big galvanized tubs with rinse water, using the hose

After  switching the wringer on, she’d fish the whites out of the scalding water with a stick and carefully run them through the wringer, allowing the wash water to drain back into the washing machine tank. The flattened clothes fed from the wringer into the first rinse tub. She worked them up and down with a plunger to rinse, then swiveled the wringer into position between the galvanized tubs, to wring the wash before the second rinse, plunging and wringing again and winding into a basket for the line.

Water had to be added to the the washer and tubs after each load, since a great deal of water remained in the clothes and ended up on the floor. Between loading, agitating, and rinsing, the laundry not requiring starch had to go on the line. The washer had to be manually switched into drain. Since the washer was on wheels many times the drain hose ended up on the floor, instead of the drain, ensuring plenty of excitement and extra mop up.

Now the good part, starching. Using powdered starch, Mother cooked up a thick batch of starch on the stove. Refilling the washing machine with hot water, she mixed the cooked starch in, making sure to stir till the mixture was absolutely smooth Our good cotton dresses, pants, shirts, and Daddy’s work clothes went back in to agitate, then were run through the wringer, into the laundry basket for the line. Of course, they were very hot. As the family got bigger, Mother had to starch two or three loads.

The floors were a dirty, sloppy mess by the end of laundry day, necessitating a thorough scrubbing. The greatest hazard was getting caught in the wringer, hence the phrase, putting you through the wringer.”

Tuesday was ironing day, another treat.

52 thoughts on “Laundry in the Old Days

  1. Mother had her washer outdoors and she’d move it around because when she was done, she’d drop the hose into the flower beds nearest the house and my did her flowers thrive in that water. She never had issues with bugs either. I guess they didn’t like our dirty water.


  2. When my parents divorced my father thought it was neat to get himself a wringer washer. Credit to him, he did his own laundry and I did mine. It didn’t bother me. It was kind of neat to see the clothes come so clean.


  3. As a young boy, I carried buckets of water from the well for laundry. From there to the copper boiler to be heated. In winter, clothes were hung in the basement, where there was a wood stove, and it was nice and warm.

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  4. I don’t think my mother liked starch. My dad probably didn’t so she didn’t use it. Mom did her wash in our big basement. There was room to hang it there also. We lived near where coal-burning trains went by so it kept cleaner in the basement. I had a toy washboard but my mother no longer used one. She had a washer with two tubs and a wringer. 🙂 — Suzanne


  5. Mum had one of those washboards. I can remember even using it, thinking this sucks! I can remember her also hanging out sheets to dry in the middle of winter when it was below freezing, and bringing them in stiff as a board. But dry. That cold was so cold it sucked them dry !

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  6. My mum had an electric wringer like you mention. There was only cold water in the laundry so behind the laundry was a copper. A large pot over a small fireplace and each washing day mum would light the fire boil up the water and then bucket it into the washing machine. The worst thing that happened was the day she had her fingers caught in the rollers of the wringer. We take so much for granted now don’t we with automatic washing machines. And we don’t starch, do we?


  7. As a young woman I used one of the ringer type washers and hung the clothes out on the line outside to dry. Got a taste of what those women went through in the day. When it was wet or cold, I’d take the whole lot to the laundromat. Either way it used to take me the better part of a day to do my wash. I’m very spoiled now to have a washer and dryer right in my own home. But I notice the laundry still piles up…


    • It just won’t do itself, will it. If it rained too many days, or the washer was broken, Mother took hers to the laundromat. She always brought it home to dry on lines strung across the back porch in wet winter weather. She had to hang my brother’s jeans and Daddy’s heavy work clothes on chairs in front of space heaters, turning them frequently. Those clothes steamed like crazy. My brother was hard on clothes and he almost never had more than two pair of jeans. She washed the pair he wasn’t wearing everyday, lots of times by hand if there was no more wash. She got them drying the minute they were washed, but I remember sometimes she’d have to try to iron the seams and pockets dry. Poor thing would be hopping around, “They’re hot!” Then complain the seams were still damp once they cooled. In winter she’d tell him to keep his coat on till they dried and he’d be fine. Easy for her to say. She’d save up and get a third pair, but by that time, he’d usually blown out another pair. I remember a time or to, he’d get down to one pair and he’d have to squeeze himself into a too small, ragged pair, shorts, or pajamas so she could wash them early in an effort to get them dry by the next morning. Summer must have been easier.


    • We always had to change clothes as soon as we got in from school. We probably looked like “The Little Rascals in our play clothes. Everyday when we got in Mother met us at the door. “Take off your school clothes and hang them up and come back and get a biscuit.” Boy, did I get in trouble a time or two when I threw my school clothes on the floor!


  8. I remember those machines well.

    We had eleven children and two parents in the household which meant a lot of laundry. We also had a list tapped up to the refrigerator door that had two columns. One listed tasks and that never changed and the other listed who was assigned to the tasks, which rotated regardless of gender and only mildly accommodating for age.

    So everyone got to do everything.

    I spent a lot of time feeding clothes into that ringer.


    • We had that list, too. When it first went up, I had to dust the living room, help make my bed, and share doing supper dishes. My sister and I always had a pretty good fight before getting down to it, swapping a lick or two till Mother put a stop to it. I was so sloppy. Mother always sent me back to “do it right.” I had to dust six times one day before she finally cut me loose. You know that was a lot more trouble than doing it herself. She got tired and never buckled down on my baby sisters, just did it herself. I am an excellent housekeeper today. So are they. Go figure.


        • I had a relative who I never saw wash a dish or pick up a dust rag. She did cook till her eldest daughter could stand on a box and reach the stove. Her house was spotless till that girl left home. She never bothered pushing her three youngest, but they learned they’d have to cook if they wanted to eat. About once a week she’d pitch a real fit and they’d wash dishes half a day.


  9. I reckon I’m going to have to resort to old school laundry methods. I have a top of the range washing machine, brand new 4 years ago, which broke down because – according to the repairers – I’d been washing blankets in it. They said I mustn’t wash anything fleecy in it – no blankets, bath mats etc. I asked them how I was supposed to wash these items, and they told me to wash them by hand. I’m still wondering if it was a wind-up. I mean, what’s the point of having a top of the range modern washing machine that won’t wash blankets?

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  10. I often think how much harder life was for women in the 40s and 50s. My mother also had a wringer washer, although hers did hook up to the faucets so she didn’t need to boil water. But it was still quite a feat to wash clothes for a family of 5 and then hang those clothes outside to dry (or in the attic if it was winter). I never really understood why, when the old wringer washer died, my mom refused to buy one of the new automatic machines and made the appliance store special order another wringer washer.


    • She was probably really proud of her wash. Mother liked those because there was no timer. Cycles ran till you stopped them. Also, the agitation was extreme. Mother poured boiling water in her to get whites cleaner. She bleached the wash and put bluing in rinse. Her clothes looked great.

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