Laundry in the Old Days Part 2


Image courtesy of Pixabay

Once all that mountain of wash was done, the heavy, wet wash had to be lugged out to the clothes line, no small feat. Mother had three lines stretched between T-shaped supports. Shaking each piece in shape after its trip through the wringer, the towels and diapers gave a nice, sharp pop! She propped the heavy lines up with clothes line poles so the wash could dance in the breeze. Woe be it to the foolish kid who’d run off with her clothes lines poles. I’ve been known to do it!

She usually sent us out several times to check to see if the laundry was dry. There is no smell fresher than line-dried laundry. I just loved sliding into bed between sheets fresh off the line. The mountain of laundry was likely to be piled on a bed till it could be folded.

Starched clothes came off the line still slightly damp, if she caught them at just the right time. Rolled into tight balls and stuffed into a pillow case, they’d be stuffed into the freezer till ironed. If they got completely dry, she’d have to sprinkle them before stuffing them in the pillowcase, by dipping her hand in water and flipping droplets on the clothes. One Christmas, I gave her a sprinkler cap that fit in a coke bottle. She said it was the most useful gift she ever got, making her sprinkling so much easier.

When Mother had to wash in rainy or wet weather, laundry was hung lines on the back porch, and on chair backs. Once in a while, after a string of rainy day, she’d get desperate and have to take laundry to the Washateria to dry, but that was a huge hassle and unnecessary expense, not to mention, we only had one car. That meant she had to take Daddy to work and pick him up, with small children in tow.

As soon as we were old enough, we were pressed into service on clothes line duty and folding and putting away the laundry that didn’t have to be ironed. Naturally, I thought that was awful, having to do “Mother’s work.” I did have enough sense to keep my opinions to myself after a couple of complaints, though.

Mother kept an eye out for sudden rain, flying to the line to get her laundry. If it wasn’t quite dry, it went on the back porch to finish. Laundry had to be in as early as possible, for fear of sudden showers. God forbid, from time to time, birds left a surprise on the drying clothes.

At the end of this relaxing day, Mother usually set us down to a slow-simmered supper(not dinner) of beans or soup and cornbread since she’d been working on laundry all day.

It was the life!

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.

Musings on My Father, on His Birthday (Part 2)

Five kids

Back left, Linda Swain Bethea, holding Connie Swain Miller’s hands, Middle Back Billy Swain, Back Right Phyllis Swain Barrington holding Marilyn Swain Grisham.  Picture made about 1961

parents wedding pic

Bill Swain and Kathleen Holdaway Swain, June 29, 1945

When I reflect on my father’s life, it is odd to think I am several years older now than he was when he died at fifty-seven.  He had retired, all five of his children were grown and on their own, and his life was no longer a struggle.  He had realized his dream and had large herds of cattle on two farms.  He had mellowed out and life was good.  He died only three weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in December, 1981.

When puzzling out his behavior, I now realize Daddy’s moods were bipolar.  He was extremely quick to anger, irritable, easily offended.  The worst thing his children could do was to embarrass him.  Quick to reach for a belt or switch like so many parents of his era, he considered himself strict, though he would be classed abusive now.  Many times, we wore stripes for days after a whipping.  His goal was to raise children who were law-abiding, respectful, and hard-working.  Though his methods were beyond strict we might have rebelled had we not had our mother’s softening, comforting influence.  She had as little control over her life as we did ours.

The whole family’s life got harder after we moved to the farm.  Land had to be cleared, brush piled and burned, barns and fences built.  It was more work than any one man could do in a lifetime.  Daddy must have been overwhelmed by all the work to be done.  We were all pressed into service.  My brother and I worked right along with Daddy, along with occasional help Daddy could afford to hire.  When the day’s work started, Daddy always said, “Time to the friendship to end and the work to begin.”  He was difficult to work with, not taking time to explain how to do a job, lashing out when we didn’t read his mind.  I learned to hate summer and school holidays, knowing farm work was waiting.  My poor brother, being three years younger than I, caught the brunt of the work, laboring on that farm almost every day he wasn’t in school from the time he was eleven till he left home.  Thankfully, I was fourteen when the heavy work started and only sentenced to four years hard labor.  All that farm work certainly motivated me to get an education.  I had no intention of ever being subservient to anyone again.  From the time I was ten or eleven, I had a miserable relationship with Daddy and avoided him whenever possible, which wasn’t often, since I had to help so much.  Though I was definitely not grateful at the time, I did learn valuable skills that have helped me throughout my life.  I am very strong, have good problem solving skills, and am not intimidated by difficult tasks.  There was also the added benefit of developing a thick skin.  I yet had to work for anyone as critical as Daddy.

With the arrival of grandchildren, he demonstrated the kindness and caring we never enjoyed.  He was everything a grandfather should be.  I admired a lot of things about Daddy and think we would have grown close had he lived longer.