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Wash Day Blues

Laundry today or naked tomorrow....

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s, Sherilyn’s Gal Friday

Sherilyn has a scene in Innocence Lost where she wants gossip shared, and asked if I had any ideas. (What was she implying?!)

The best place for gossip in most neighborhoods is over the clothesline on Mondays. I couldn’t believe it when she said that Washday Mondays aren’t a thing anymore where she lives. What a card, she’s always pulling my leg about something.

So I offered to write down a few things about Washday Mondays so she can use it in her book.

My mother, her mother, and her mother before that… heck, the chain probably extends all the way back to the first cavewomen sitting by the stream. As far as I know, Mondays are always washday. I remember my mother and her neighbors in fierce competition to see who would get the sheets on the line first.

I’m sure that it’s the same in your household as well?

Washday Monday sets the tone for the rest of the week: Tuesday, ironing; Wednesday, mending (repairing seams and tears as well as patching and darning); Thursday, upstairs cleaning (The washed, ironed and mended clothing was taken up, put away, and the upstairs cleaned and mattresses turned.); Friday, baking; Saturday, cleaning (downstairs); Sunday, church. Downstairs cleaning is done on Saturday because Sunday afternoon is visiting day.

And now you know where the phrase, “A woman’s work is never done” comes from!

Mondays: A Long Day of Backbreaking Labor

Wash Day Monday actually starts Sunday night when the housewife shaves a cake of Borax, lye, or naphtha soap into a pan of water and puts it on the back of the wood stove overnight. Before she goes to bed she’ll also fill a large copper or metal washer boiler with water and put it on the back of the stove to start warming, so that everything will be ready for the next morning.


In the morning after breakfast, the galvanized metal washtubs are set up in the porch and a bit of the now jelled soap from the back of the stove is added to the hot water for the first tub, which is the scrub tub.

Attached to the side of the tub is a wooden wringer or ‘mangler’.

If the tension on the mangler is too tight, there be a lot of broken buttons on shirts and blouses to repair on Wednesday. (Or in my case, sequins off all those pretty party frocks I have to wear to cover the Society Pages at the Inquirer.) The manglers are also a real danger to fingers, hair, and you never wear dresses with long ties, scarves, or ribbons at the neck on laundry day.

Whites are boiled and then scrubbed. For the whites (shirts, tablecloths, etc.) there might be another rinse with bluing to help make the whites look whiter. Clothes are lifted from the hot sudsy water with a broom handle or pole and squeezed dry through the mangler, then rinsed again in cool water without soap.

It takes a couple of rinses to get the harsh soap out, then mangled again, and hung out to dry on the line.

And after that, a dip in starch to be sure that the piece would iron out crisply. To make starch, stir flour in cool water to smooth, then thin down with boiling water.

Take white things, rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard, and boil, then rub colored don’t boil just wrench and starch. Take things out of kettle with broom stick handle, then wrench, and starch. Hang old rags on fence. Spread tea towels on grass. Pore wrench water in flower bed. Scrub porch with hot soapy water. Turn tubs upside down. Go put on clean dress, smooth hair with hair combs. Brew cup of tea, sit and rock a spell and count your blessings. –advice from a 1920s housewife

The same water serves as many loads as there are, getting colder and dirtier until by the time the men’s work clothes are washed last, it isn’t as efficient as it was for the whites.

When the last load is on the line there is still hard work left. The rinsing tubs are emptied; a pail full at a time, then the washer, and the equipment are stored for another week.

On a cold winter day, the clothes are frozen stiff before the last ones are pinned to the line. In the summer a light breeze and sunshine dried them quickly.

Can you imagine the condition of women’s hands: blue, frozen fingers, raw and chapped?


If you are lucky, you will have a laundress that will come in and do your laundry on Monday, but for most working-class women, it is a long day of backbreaking labor hauling buckets of water, washing and squeezing the water out, and then hauling the clothes outside to dry.

How to reduce the workload

Obviously, one washing per week means that clothes are not washed after one wearing. The general rule is one clean outfit of underwear and stockings per week, and usually one outfit of “everyday” clothes. There might be two or three aprons, which protect the housedress.
Even one outfit per week makes a big washday if there are several children.

I can’t even imagine the mountain of clothes my Aunt Shirley goes through every week with eleven children! Thanks, but a simple basket of clothes on Washday Monday is one of the many benefits of the single life that I enjoy.

 

Ironing on Tuesday


Tuesday is ironing day. The clothes that had been washed, dipped in starch, and
dried on an outdoor clothesline are brought inside, sprinkled with water, folded up tightly in a sheet or pillowcase to get slightly damp through and through so as to iron smoothly.

The clothes are taken out a piece at a time to be ironed and hung up or ironed and folded. This is at least one other long day of exhausting work.

If there is any justice for working women, someone will invent wrinkle-free fabric and I can have my Tuesday nights free.

The ‘Modern’ Washing Machine

Of course, now that it’s the Twenties, there is a huge push to modernize. A few years ago, they came out with mechanical washers consisting of a round tub with legs under it and a revolving contraption fastened to the inside of the lid which reminds me of a milking stool [the legs being agitators down in the water]. This milking stool rotates back and forth by operating a lever on top of the lid when it’s closed. Sometimes its hooked up to a pedal on the floor and that was always my youngest brother’s job, to push the pedal up and down while my mother looked after the rest of the wash.

Eventually, gears have now been added, a belt has been put on a pulley, and the washer is powered by a small gasoline engine. As an added convenience on some models, a small gasoline engine is built right into the bottom of the washer, with the exhaust pipe let out through a window.

This last part about the exhaust pipe is really important, otherwise, Washdays Blues takes on a whole other meaning!

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