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Wednesday, 22 September 2010


By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times


Once, many years ago, a women’s group of whom I was a part chose “laundry” as the topic for our discussion. To our surprise, it engendered one of the liveliest exchanges we'd ever had, so much so that we repeated it sometime later.

It seems that women have strong feelings about and diverse memories of a chore that has been, historically, considered “women’s work.” It is, possibly, along with cooking, the most powerful vehicle for the transmission of maternal wisdom from mother to daughter.

The women in my group remembered well how their mothers had felt about laundry and how they, themselves, had been programmed by their mothers’ teachings. My 80-year-old neighbor peppers her conversations with “as my mother always said...,” and “my mother always told me....” (I would think, by her age, that she would have acquired her own canon of wisdom.)

Most of us play those tapes in our heads, rather than at high volume in the apartment hallway, but, nevertheless, play them we do.

Lyn with Sister

The first laundry process I remember was at my grandmother’s farm in the summertime, when a washboard and pail and an “Improved Whirl” wooden washing machine were set up outdoors near the rain barrel. My sister remembers it as having a hand-turned rocking gadget that simulated the action of a washboard against the inside walls of the machine.

She and I reveled in a cooling dip in it - a 1930’s version of a kiddy pool. In the winter, in our apartment, we bathed in the big galvanized washtubs that were moved into the kitchen on washday.

Our nearest neighbor, Mrs. Lambert, would start at daybreak to do her “warshing,” as it was called in southern Illinois. She kept a huge, water-filled iron pot (like a witch’s cauldron) hanging on a hook on a tripod in the barnyard. She would build a roaring wood fire under it, then stir and lift the clothes out of the scalding hot water into rinse tubs with a forked wooden stick. Our mother’s similar laundry stick was softened and whitened by years of immersion in hot water.

By the time I was old enough to help with the laundry, we had an electric washer, an ABC Spinner, with a spinning compartment and separate rinse tubs. Since it was an all-day job, Monday’s meals were catch-as-catch-can: often leftovers or cold food.

In the winter, the clotheslines were strung across the kitchen and enclosed porch. I, along with my sister, first learned to do laundry when our mother had surgery, when I was eleven and June was fourteen. I then honed my laundry and other homemaking skills a few years later, when I came home the summer before I was married, to take care of her after another surgery.

As I cleaned, cooked and washed clothes for my parents and myself, I pretended it was for my husband-to-be. He did benefit from that experience: I barely knew how to cook until that summer when I learned under my parents’ tutelage. Both were available - from the bedroom and the garden - to answer my questions and guide me.

For more than a year after I married, I did laundry in the bathtub - sheets, towels, summer Air Force uniforms and all. Because of the oppressive heat in Mississippi, I would get up at 5AM to iron that day’s uniform, then go back to bed.

One morning, I was so groggy that when I came to the end of the ironing board, I just kept going over the edge, spilling near-boiling water from the steam iron on my knee. I prayed for fall to come, when my husband would switch to dress blues - then only his shirts had to be ironed.

In that southern heat, the first clothes to get pinned on the line would almost dry by the time the last ones were hung. The summer before we left, the mosquitoes were so thick that my legs and arms would be black with them by the time I started to hang the wash.

After we moved north, it took me awhile to realize that other women weren’t hanging their clothes outside in the winter, so I appropriated an attic room, where the clothes dried stiff as a board. At that time, we owned an old wringer washer that had supplanted the bathtub for laundry while we were still in the South.

Each of my children’s impending arrivals served as impetus for modernization of my laundry methods: with Laurel, in 1954, the wringer washer; with Lisa, in 1958, an automatic washer; and with Alan, in 1964, finally, a dryer.

I loved the aroma of line-dried sheets and towels, so I continued for years to enjoy hanging some of the clothes outdoors until the realtor who was listing my house told me not to - that it detracted from the elegance of the house!

Ever since, I have lived in apartments where I didn’t have that option, so I wish I had ignored her and, for a little longer, delighted in smelling the freshness of a sunny day.

Lyn on Rocker

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Lyn - Nice review of 20th century laundry technology!

But, forever frozen in my mind is the sight of your arms and legs covered with mosquitoes. I am scratching myself just thinking about it. - Sandy

Your laundry experiences sound like a torture chamber of horrors. I thought I had it bad when,at the age of 12, my sister and I had to wash our baby brother's diapers on a wash board in a galvanized tub. When I was married I had to use a wringer washer with three rinse tubs and hang everything on the line.

I bless automatic washers and dryers and don't miss the smell of fresh air on my clothes at all. I guess I am not as nostalgic as you are.


The best day of my life was the day the new washing machine was delivered in 1953.

Until my new automatic washer came, I was using an Easy Spin Dry. It had a large tub and a small rinse spinner.

You put all the white clothing or sheets in first and when they were washed you transferred them to the spinner and rinse water would pour over and rinse and spin dry your clothes. Next came colored stuff in the same water,then dark play clothes.

You had to be there every minute to do all this transferring and rinsing. It took half a day to "Warsh" as my neighbor also pronounced it. Now that I think of that neighbor, she also said that the smoke from her fire went up the "Chimley"

You brought up some good memories of days I am glad are in the past...

Five years ago my neighbor, Miss Margaret Lalor, died at the age of 94 on the farm where she was born in 1911. Her grandfather had settled there in 1847 and the family worked the farm continuously from that date forward. When Margaret died the house and buildings were closed, unoccupied. This last Monday her estate was auctioned off, and it included laundry equipment dating back to 1847. The family had already laid claim to the modern appliances, but the range of wooden tubs and galvanized gear, plungers and mangles and laundry sticks was amazing. I had no clue about most of it, although I do remember baths in my grandmother's washtub when I was a little boy.

I'm really grateful that I never had to do laundry before the 1960s.

Thank you all so much for sharing your memories with me and our readers. It's really amazing how memory is like a muscle--the more you use it, the stronger it becomes and the more you remember. And the fact that we all use the computer proves that we are not stuck in the past--just enjoying the richness of it, along with the riches available to us now.

I loved your laundry story, Lyn, and you are right, the more our friends share their memories the more our own memories bubble up.

I too loved your laundry story and it brought up many memories. ..of my mother initially washing clothes in a deep tub in the kitchen, my later role as big sister, hanging out my brother's diapers and still later, bringing the family laundry to the laundromat along with my brother in his stroller. I do love to hang clothes outdoors when possible and when we moved to Poughkeepsie to a garden apartment in 1959 there were shared clothes lines and since everyone had babies and small children I often hung my laundry at night to make sure I got a line. Our first house was a true thrill in many ways, but one of the biggest for me was looking out the window at the newly strung clothes line and knowing that it was MINE and only mine.

How can anyone even discuss laundry without the words Maytag and Fels Naptha? We had a Maytag washing machine with an electric wringer. Us kids always fantasized about getting our arm caught in the wringer and having it come out between the rubber drums as flat as a sheet of paper, just like it would in a cartoon.

I wrote a song about my parent's marriage for their 60th Anniversary, going back to the year they were married and what was going on in the world back then. This is the first verse

Back when Lindy first flew the Atlantic alone
And young Steamboat Willie first sailed the high seas
And the sweet smell of Fels Naptha filled every home

and darned if I can remember the last line....

It was a while ago.

As long as I started it, this is the complete verse.

Back when Lindy first flew the Atlantic alone
And Jolson first sang on the great silver screen
When the sweet smell of Fels Naptha filled every home
And young Steamboat Willie first sailed the high seas.

Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, released the year my parents were married.

Fond, fond memories of laundry day when I was growing up. Of course, I was not doing it! I would eye the suspicious bottle of Mrs. Wrights Bluing mystified by it's magic while my Nana every Monday like clock work would start the long process of washing, wringing, rinsing, wringing and hanging our to dry our family's wash. The rest of the week she would work on the ironing until it all started up again the following Monday.

Thanks for the memories, Lyn.

You should get yourself a laundry drying rack and air dry some of your clothes on your deck or near an open window. It is not quite the same as a clothesline but it is pretty darn close and you can save a lot of money.

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