“Though Monday was the official wash day throughout the farm community, preparations usually started Sunday night, when all the dirty clothes were collected, sorted, and given scrutiny. The boys were expected to empty their overall pockets. Mama would turn the pants and shirt pockets inside out and brush away the chaff, dirt, alfalfa seeds and barley beards. All the clothes were then put to soak in a large galvanized tub of cool water, the copper boiler brought up from the cellar, and cistern water pumped and carried to fill the boiler and reservoir attached to the kitchen range.”
— Mildred Kalish, writing of her 1930-era childhood, “Little Heathens”
While chatting with my mother this morning over coffee, she spoke of laundry over the course of her lifetime. “I think I had forgotten just how much work it really was!” she said after discussing it for a bit.
Some time in her childhood, a bathtub was installed in the family bathroom, though it would be a number of years before plumbing from a cistern made it an easy fixture to put to use. Still, it was a welcome addition.
“We would carry buckets of water to that new bathtub, filling it to about 3 or 4 inches; then my mother would shoo us all out” so that she could safely plug in what was called a heating donut, and carefully place it in the tub.
“It would warm the water up, but it took a good 3 or 4 hours. We weren’t even allowed in the bathroom until one of my parents unplugged and removed the donut,” my mom recalls.
“It wasn’t ever really hot. I don’t think I took a hot, leisurely bath until I was all grown up,” she said, “but still it was a wonderful improvement over a quick bath in an aluminum washtub,” she said with a laugh. “We were grateful for it,” she recalls.
Just a few weeks shy of her 89th birthday, my mother holds vibrant memories of her first home in the 1930s. Her mother was also happy to have this big, new bathtub to soak “everything white” prior to wash day, which was a long, complicated task over a couple of days.
Mom spoke of the burners on the stove to boil water on laundry day requiring extra wood in the burner box. “Young people probably don’t realize that the word ‘burner’ on the stovetop wasn’t something controlled by a knob, but by the amount of wood placed in the box.”
Her mother or father would carry hot water from the stove to the tub, adding bleach to soak “everything white” overnight, the surest way to sanitize socks, underwear and handkerchiefs, as well as diapers when there was a baby in the family.
She recalls her mother stirring the laundry with an unpainted mop stick to agitate it as an electric washing machine would later do. “It still amazes me all that our electric appliances do for us!” she said.
The next morning, a drawing pump would move that water into the wringer washer and the “push and pull” would begin, providing the labor of moving laundry through the cleaning process.
“I remember one sheet set and one pillowcase was about all it could manage at a time, and after those came out, we would pull them taut to dry on the clothesline in the backyard. Overalls were the last to be run, after socks, underwear and all of our shirts and dresses. A sunny, windy day made laundry day much easier, and we could begin ironing before daylight turned to dusk.”
She remembers that the lawn from the house to the clothesline in the backyard had a worn trail from the repetition of running laundry outside to be placed precisely with clothespins to dry, then hauling it back in to be ironed.
Mom so clearly recalls enjoying the crisp sheets on a bed at the end of laundry day as a feeling like no other.
“I thought the smell of fresh air and sunshine on my sheets and pillowcase was better than just about anything, but no one stayed awake at the end of one of those busy days to enjoy it for long!”
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