My grandmother once told me that my generation had no idea what real housework consisted of, especially when it came to wash day.
She was always appalled when young people had the nerve to complain about how much laundry they had to do, saying, “If they had to work at it like we did, they would know a thing or two about how easy it really is these days.”
For most of us, wash day is a matter of measuring out a bit of laundry detergent, pushing a couple of buttons or twisting a knob.
For my grandmother, who once said that Kleenex was one of the best inventions of her lifetime, wash day was a much larger undertaking.
My grandmother was one of 14 children. It doesn’t take much pondering to realize why wash day was a major job, and why handkerchief laundering was among her least favorite things to recall.
Laundry soap was prepared on the night prior to wash day, and involved the tedious shredding of bar soap. Often this was homemade brown soap, shredded with a cabbage slicer, then placed in a bit of water on the back of the warm kitchen stove overnight.
Many times, my grandmother told me, they would make use of the constant heat of the cook stove on wash day to cook beans. It was one meal that could be untended for the entire day while everyone was busy. Navy beans with a ham bone thrown in was quite often the fare of the day, with dumplings added to the pot as dinner time rolled around.
“We were all tired on wash day,” I remember my grandmother saying with a sigh. Just talking about the work seemed tiresome.
She was stunned by such things as disposable diapers and baby wipes, saying that was a remarkable invention. She worried, though, about where all those diapers would go long before anyone else seemed to give it much consideration.
She described how, back in her childhood, each member of the family had very few articles of clothing. “You didn’t wear something for a couple of hours and then throw it on the wash pile. You wore clothes ’til they got dirty!”
On wash day, the wash water was brought to a boil, placed in a heavy, round wash tub, the soap then added. All clothes were washed in this same big tub of hot water. White clothes and bed linens were washed first, then towels, then dresses and blouses, and then work clothes.
The process involved a lot of pushing, pulling, and what Grandma called “elbow grease” before clothes were lifted out of the steaming water, placed through a wringer, placed in a tub of cool rinse water, wrung out again, and carried out to the clothes line to dry.
Everyone who was available pitched in to help.
Women might not admit it, but they scrutinized the clothes lines of others. Grandma mentioned that one woman never got her clothes out to the line until “high noon” which meant, apparently, that she tended to sleep late. It was fine to take pride in crisp, clean linens placed taut on the line.
It is easy to forget that even on wash day, all other chores still needed doing: The eggs still needed gathered, the cows needed milked, babies needed fed and changed, the farm crops and the garden still had to be tended.
Mildred Armstrong Kalish writes, “At the end of wash day we had to drain and clean the big washing machine and move it back to its proper place. But if it was summer, we emptied the wash water into buckets and took them out to the outhouse where we used the dirty but soap-laden water to scrub down the oak seats and the floor. Remember: Waste not; want not.”