This story is not about something I did, but about something I watched with interest as a young child. It involves one of the ways in which women exerted great labor to keep a home running in those days. There is much here that could infuriate a modern reader. I can only say that in those days the average man did not have it easy, either. I believe that both men and women faced an overwhelming amount of work to be done. My purpose here is not to second-guess how they chose to divide it. It is to remember and honor the women for the hard work and cheerfulness with which they responded to their duty as they saw it.
In the 1930s, we knew nothing of permanent press fabrics or of things like Scotchgard to keep away the stains. Cottons and linens would wrinkle badly after a short wearing time, and they quickly got dirty from the omnipresent soot and coal dust in the Ohio Valley. In a family of seven, it was easy to see how the weekly laundry became mountainous, and why, even with three women working at it, there were two full laundry days each week. The women and the child certainly contributed their share of dirty clothes, but the major share came from the three men, who always wore white shirts. The two working men needed a clean shirt every day of the week, including weekends. This included my uncle even when he was on the road. Each week he mailed home the dirty laundry, and it was mailed back to him clean and pressed. My grandfather, who no longer worked, still sat around in white shirts minus their detachable collars and cuffs. His shirts could last through two or three days of wear before needing a wash.
The first act on Monday morning was to start heating water in a large oblong copper kettle that straddled both burners of a little gas heater in the basement. This kettle was rated at about 23 gallons. It took at least two fillings by hose, and two emptyings by pan and bucket, to handle one day’s wash. We had a modern electric washer, a tub with agitator, and above it a wringer consisting of two motor-driven rubber-clad rollers under tremendous pressure against each other. The washer contained hot soapy water. There were no plumbing connections; it was filled by hand, and emptied into buckets through a drain cock at the bottom. Alongside the washer, each Monday morning three wooden stands were set up to complete a square. Large laundry tubs, one an old wooden one and two of galvanized steel, were put on these stands. One contained hot rinse water, one cold rinse water, and the third bluing in cold water for the white goods. Off to one side was a smaller tub of hot water with a scrubbing board, a stiff brush, and a bar of brown laundry soap for really tough items such as shirt cuffs and collars. Also off to one side was a small tub containing starch, which was used on shirts and, in summer, a great many items of cotton clothing. All these tubs were filled and emptied by hand.
At the end of a wash, feeding clothes between the rollers of the wringer would squeeze most of the water out of them, as with today’s spin-dry cycle. The wringer was also used during each transfer of clothing from one tub to another; it could be swung out to all the positions of the square array of tubs. Wringers were known hazards to women’s hands and, indeed, their forearms as well. Any part that was caught and drawn into the wringer tended to have the skin stripped off from the muscles and bones. There was a lever for quick release of roller pressure, but in the panic of the moment it was often used too late. So the watchword was extreme caution. Fortunately, the women of my family were cautious and never suffered that particular accident.
By early Monday afternoon it was time to string up the clothesline for drying the laundry. In summer it was outdoors, in winter, in the basement. (We never called it the basement. The rear part, where all the washing took place, was called the laundry. The forward part, with a coal bin and many shelves full of preserves in canning jars, was known as the cellar.) Once the clothes were dry, it was time to fold and stack them, take down the clothesline, and start preparing supper.
Tuesday was ironing day. First, each white shirt, all dry and stiff with starch, was sprinkled with water and folded up into a neat package where the dampness could permeate the entire shirt and facilitate a form of steam ironing. We had just acquired a modern electric iron (without built-in steaming), but several of the old ones of solid cast iron were still around. Several had been needed so that some could be heating over the gas flame while one was in use and cooling off rapidly.
For large towels and bedding, my grandmother was the fortunate owner and sole operator of what she called the “mangle.” It had a cloth-padded roller, about 6 inches in diameter and about 20 inches long, that was driven by an electric motor to rotate against a shiny curved hot plate. The items fed into it came out pressed as neatly as by hand ironing. By some magic manipulation, folding and refolding large bed sheets, she could iron all parts of them and they would come out not only pressed but also neatly folded. (Again, without permanent press, bed sheets would have been terribly wrinkled if not ironed.)
Ironing was an all-day job for two of the three women; the third took care of preparing lunch and dinner. I never heard any complaints about the work of these two days per week. Instead, the days were filled with cheerful conversations.
After a winter of smog, soot, and coal dust permeating the entire community, “spring cleaning” was laundry day with a vengeance, lasting at least a week. Bedspreads, curtains, doilies, and in fact all exposed items of fabric were added to the pile of things to be washed. Rugs and carpets were taken outdoors, hung on a clothesline, and beaten. The bare wood floors were vacuumed to get black dust out of the crevices. The beating was a unique effort where the help of the men – and the child – was actually put to use. Spring cleaning was strenuous enough and lasted long enough that conversations became less cheerful than on regular laundry days.
Long before my birth, my grandmother was seriously ill and it seemed that she might die on a Sunday night. Her two sisters-in-law, maiden ladies who lived together, were discussing the situation. One said, “Well, if she doesn’t die tonight, we’ll do laundry in the morning.”
This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)