Washing Line Culture

August 21, 2013

More thoughts on laundry.

Woodcut illustration from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian

Woodcut illustration from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian

Another woodcut illustration from The Four Seasons of mary Azarian

Another woodcut illustration from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian

“There are certain rules regarding washing-line culture and the laundry. . . The washing always went out early in the day.  Only a disreputable woman would hang out washing later than nine o’clock. . . . And there was a code of practice determining the correct order of hanging.  Socks, underpants, vests went on the innermost lines, then the children’s clothes, followed by the men’s shirts and trousers. . . . The code also covered pegs.  Only a dysfunctional household left pegs on the line.  A sloppy housewife did this, a woman with no scruples, who never bothered to sort whites from coloreds and who even unhygienically washed the tea towels in with the underwear.”
— Debra Adelaide, The Household Guide to Dying

“Finally, you never used dryers.  These were for lazy and wasteful people, or those unfortunates who had to live in apartments.  In the suburbs, where the sun was generous and a fresh breeze was free, it was a crime not to hand your washing out.  Everyone knew sunshine and fresh air killed germs and acted as a natural bleach.”
— Debra Adelaide, The Household Guide to Dying

Laundry strung above Post Alley, Seattle

Laundry strung above Post Alley, Seattle

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What a surprise to stumble upon this scene in Post Alley, just one “street” up from the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  It immediately brought to mind the narrow streets of Europe’s old towns and the tenements of New York City, olden days when it would have been completely normal to see the family’s laundry strung on clotheslines that criss-crossed the street, out the apartment windows, high over the dank ground below.

The laundry was the background for Jacob Riis's famous photo, "Bandits' Roost, Lower East Side, NYC, 1888" (collection Museum of the City of New York)

The laundry was the background for Jacob Riis’s famous photo, “Bandits’ Roost, Lower East Side, NYC, 1888” (collection Museum of the City of New York)

I loved seeing the pegged clothes, all white for some reason, on high above one of the most heavily touristed Seattle areas.  I think this idea should spread.

Ink and watercolor sketch of hanging laundry

Ink and watercolor sketch of hanging laundry

The old Maytag wringer washing machine

The old Maytag wringer washing machine

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Beware the dangers of nostalgia!  I realize that it is a slanted truth to look at memories of childhood through rose-colored glasses.  I don’t want to make too much of these memories, but I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to line-dried laundry.  I have written several posts about this in the past.  (You can revisit them here and here and here and here.)

In reality, my childhood was filled with a lot of hard work.  I came to view housework — which in my childhood was unfairly (I thought) delegated to the girls in my family — as dull, repetitive, and unrewarding.  I have since evolved to appreciating the pleasures and intrinsic value of all this labor.  But it is also true that laundry and housework held the seeds to my budding feminism.  Which is why the following poem by Madge Piercy delights me:

The Good Old Days at Home Sweet Home
by Madge Piercy, from Colors Passing Through Us

On Monday my mother washed.
It was the way of the world,
all those lines of sheets flapping
in the narrow yards of the neighborhood,
the pulleys stretching out second
and third floor windows.

Down in the dank steamy basement,
wash tubs vast and grey, the wringer
sliding between the washer
and each tub. At least every
year she or I caught
a hand in it.

Tuesday my mother ironed.
One iron was the mangle.
She sat at it feeding in towels,
sheets, pillow cases.
The hand ironing began
with my father’s underwear.

She ironed his shorts.
She ironed his socks.
She ironed his undershirts.
Then came the shirts,
a half hour to each, the starch
boiling on the stove.

I forgot bluing. I forgot
the props that held up the line
clattering down. I forgot
chasing the pigeons that shat
on her billowing housedresses.
I forgot clothespins in the teeth.

Tuesday my mother ironed my
father’s underwear. Wednesday
she mended, darned socks on
a wooden egg. Shined shoes.
Thursday she scrubbed floors.
Put down newspapers to keep

them clean. Friday she
vacuumed, dusted, polished,
scraped, waxed, pummeled.
How did you become a feminist
interviewers always ask,
as if to say, when did this

rare virus attack your brain?
It could have been Sunday
when she washed the windows,
Thursday when she burned
the trash, bought groceries
hauling the heavy bags home.

It could have been any day
she did again and again what
time and dust obliterated
at once until stroke broke
her open. I think it was Tuesday
when she ironed my father’s shorts.

Line-drying the laundry

Line-drying the laundry

Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, described line-dried laundry as “folded sunshine.”  Isn’t that an apt metaphor!  My Dad still does his weekly Monday laundry the old-fashioned way.  He uses the old wringer Maytag in the dank basement.  Then hangs his wash out on a line to dry in the summer sun and breeze.  Folded sunshine indeed!

Maytag in the basement

Maytag in the basement

My dad hanging out the clothes

My dad hanging out the clothes

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

We didn’t call it “laundry” back in the day; we called it “the wash.”  The following poem could have been written by a ghostly twin, so true are the images to my memories of wash days:

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed “Diogenes,
Diogenes,” while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother.  My job was stirring
the rinse.  The troll hummed.  Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue–

socks, aprons, Daddy’s shirts, my brother’s
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer

at the lake.  Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around.  The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag.  It grabbed Mother
once–rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new.  This was a story
from Before.  Still, I seemed to see it–
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye’s.  I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one.  Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets.  Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
“This way out!”  There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up.  Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who’s that trit-

trotting…) and watch.  Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams.  Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row.  Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek.  Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging

line up high, to catch the wind.  We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque.  Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white.  Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd.  For a week

now, each day, we’d put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness.  At night, best of all,
I’d see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.

 

Final Days

May 29, 2013

Square by the Abbey in Old Nice, France

Square by the Abbey in Old Nice, France

The final days of my vacation were rather anti-climactic after the exhilaration of seeing Iceland for the first time, spending nearly two weeks travelling with my sister, and realizing my dream of hiking the Goldsworthy trail in France.  Still, it was nice not to have to rush back without a couple of unscheduled days to make the transition to my regular life.  I spent one night in Nice, France and another in Amsterdam before catching the long flight home to Seattle.

I love the soft color palette of the Mediterranean.  The buildings in Nice, especially in the Old City, were lovely pastel yellows, apricot, peach, blues and greens.  Very picturesque.

Narrow street in Old Nice

Narrow street in Old Nice

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The Cours Saleya

The Cours Saleya

Line-drying laundry

Line-drying laundry

Cafe on the Cours Saleya

Cafe on the Cours Saleya

Peonies in the Marches aux Fleurs

Peonies in the Marches aux Fleurs

Street entertainment

Street entertainment

The Mediterranean Sea, Nice

The Mediterranean Sea, Nice

Balcony, Old Nice

Balcony, Old Nice

Over Iceland on the flight home

Over Iceland on the flight home

Laundry hung from temporary clotheslines in my side yard

It’s quite rainy in Seattle in Spring, but when it’s not, Nature’s mellow temperature calls me to hang my laundry outside.  There’s nothing like the fresh smell of line-dried clothes!

I was recently reading Into the Garden with Charles: A Memoir by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger, and I came across these wonderful passages about laundry:

“Line drying has always been one of my special pleasures. . . . I loved those laundry days, the old-fashionedness of it, the idea we were doing something the way it had been done for hundreds of years.”

“I cherished my laundry mornings, any day bright enough for drying.  I loved the feel of damp fabric as I clipped it into place, the differing textures of terry cloth and cotton and linen, the fresh-washed wet smell, the glaring brightness of morning sun on white T-shirts and the shadow-puppet patterns of my hands clothespinning shirt shoulders into place.  I loved the sound of the smart flaps of shirts in the wind, the trapeze artist postures that long-sleeved shirts froze into in winter, the hot sun-baked smell when the laundry was collected.”

“I savored the difference between the smell of winter-dried laundry, almost sunburnt, and summer-dried, fragrant from the garden.  Carrying in laundry on a blustery March day was like bringing sunshine into the house.”

It doesn’t even seem like work when doing laundry feeds your senses like this!

The laundry in my side yard

Socks pinned to the line

Watercolor sketch of Laundry Day

Inspiration for my watercolor sketch, a painting by John Singer Sargent, “La Biancheria,” 1910

“Even wash day in Normandy is achingly chic.” — Vivian Swift, laundry day pages from the book, Le Road Trip

The old wringer washing machine stands in our farmhouse basement.

My Dad still uses the old Maytag wringer machine for his Monday laundry.

This post is a followup to yesterday’s post about housework.  When I was growing up, all housework fell in the realm of girl chores.  We even had to make our brothers’ beds!  (It’s no wonder I’ve become a feminist!)

My Dad is now a widower and lives alone, so he has had to take on a full share of “women’s work.”  He has to shop for his groceries, prepare his meals, wash up his dishes, do the laundry, and yes, even make his own bed.  He does very well indeed, but I notice that whenever I come home, he is more than happy to make us breakfast and then leave the rest of the meal planning and cooking to me.  It gives him a welcomed break.

Dad still uses the old wringer Maytag washing machine for his Monday laundry.  My mother refused to upgrade to an automatic machine (she thought they wasted water), and my Dad carries on in the same way.  I suppose the wringer machine will finally get to rest when Dad can no longer cope with the basement stairs.  I hope that’s a long time yet.

Watercolor sketch of the wringer washing machine

Mom’s Clothespins

August 5, 2010

Well used wooden clothespins

Plastic ice cream bucket full of wooden clothespins

I see my Mom in the ordinary things she handled, day in and day out.  Laundry was a twice-a-week affair, and these clothespins got a hard workout.  She’d hold a couple of clothespins between her lips as her hands were occupied with the wet, freshly laundered clothes ready to be pegged to the line to dry.  Some of the clothespins were so stretched out from years of use, that they were good only for holding up the heaviest denim jeans or rag rugs.

Watercolor sketches of clothespins

The Clothes Pin
by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

Fresh Laundry

March 2, 2010

Basket of folded, fresh laundry

“We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.”
     — E. B. White

“After enlightenment, the laundry.”
     — Zen proverb

I love the fresh smell and feel of newly washed clothes.  I have fond memories of the Monday and Friday laundry days at the farm, the kitchen table covered with multiple stacks of folded socks and underwear — a separate pile for each of nine children.  I remember Mom sprinkling line-dried shirts with water, getting them ready for ironing.  My hands hold memories of pegging clothes to the lines with wooden clothes pins.  I should be taking advantage of this early spring to hang our laundry outside!

Wooden clothes pins

A row of weathered, wooden clothes pins

Drying cloth, Vietnam, 1970

I love this photo by Don Hong Oai, which I saw published in Woman: A Celebration, edited by Peter Fetterman.

Joy in Laundry

June 24, 2009

Clothesline and pins

Clothesline and pins

I love summery days with clean laundry hanging to dry in the wind and sunshine.

“There is joy in clean laundry.
All is forgiveness in water, sun
and air.  We offer our day’s deeds
to the blue-eyed sky, with soap and prayer,
our arms up, then lowered in supplication.”

     — Ruth Moose, “Laundry”

My daughter "playing house"

My daughter "playing house" with makeshift clothesline

This is the way we hang the clothes . . .

This is the way we hang the clothes . . .