Sitting at my computer I can hear my automatic washer working away down the hall. Now and then I go move clothes from washer to dryer or dryer to laundry basket, and later on I’ll fold tee shirts and towels while watching television. Laundry is an annoying interruption in my week day, but if I save it all till Saturday I can’t do something else I’d rather do outside the house.
My grandmother Mimi did laundry outside the house, come to think of it… her wringer washer was housed in a shed attached to the smokehouse, a long extension cord running from the back porch to supply power.
I liked to help her with the wash, especially sheets. First she’d pump enough water to fill the round tub using the hand pump in the middle of the back yard. Having the washer on wheels helped; Mimi could roll it to the pump for filling. Then she’d add detergent, wind the sheets loosely around the dasher, close the top and plug the machine in.
The washer tended to dance around the yard, the movement of the dasher turning the whole machine if the wheels weren’t chocked. That was funny, watching the washer do the hula in Mimi’s back yard.
After they were washed the sheets were run through the wringer. That was the part I liked, until the day my fingers got tangled up in a sheet and pulled right into the rollers! I yelled like crazy and Mimi came running. She hit the release bar, the rollers separated and my wet, achy fingers were freed. Thankfully the thickness of the sheet had kept them from getting mashed too bad.
Shaking the feeling back into my hand I begged Mimi to let me continue, and after gently bending my fingers back and forth a few times, she did. This time I was careful to fold up a corner of the sheet and feed just the edge into the rollers. No more flat fingers.
The wrung-out sheets fell in nice swirls into a galvanized tub full of clean rinse water. I had to keep an eagle eye on those sheets — if one missed the tub it would fall into the dirt and have to be re-washed. I made sure they didn’t miss their target. Then I’d punch the sheets down with a broom handle, swirl them around to rinse out the soap and get them ready for the wringer again.
After re-rinsing and re-wringing, the machine was unplugged and the gray water drained into a low spot in the yard. Mud puddles for later play! The washer was rolled back to the shed and it was time to hang out the sheets. A sack full of clothes pins hung from one end of the clothesline.
I thought wash day was a lot of fun myself. Mimi thought it was a lot of work — but not nearly as much work as when she was a young girl, she said, when she had to boil all the dirty clothes plus make the soap to wash them with. Make your own soap? How neat, I thought, but I wasn’t really interested in the rest of the story back then.
Tim’s mother Ora Lee had vivid memories of wash day as a child. It was a day-long weekly event. A long shelf attached to their smokehouse held several galvanized wash tubs and a black cast-iron wash pot sat over in the yard, surrounded by firewood ready to be lit. And of course, clean clothes required soap — homemade lye soap.
Several times a year they made the lye soap. Fat trimmed from meat, meat skins and “leavings” were saved until there was enough for the job. On soap-making day the fat was poured into the wash pot and a healthy helping of Red Devil lye added.
The wood was lit under the pot, the mixture stirred as it heated, the lye melted the fat and eventually the glop became soap. After cooling overnight the lye soap was cut into blocks and stored in the smokehouse.
Each wash day, the same cast-iron pot was filled with water drawn from the well, a fire lit underneath and the dirty clothes brought from the house. Lights were separated from darks and a washboard used with lye soap and water to scrub out any stains.
Light colored clothes went into the boiling pot first. A good dash of lye was added for extra cleaning power and the clothes punched down with an axe handle, over and over. When clean enough to rinse they were hauled out and dumped into the first tub of clean water, then the next batch went into the wash pot. After several dumping-dunking steps in the rinse tubs, each batch was wrung out by hand.
Clothing was dipped into a flour-water starch bath, then everything hung on the clothesline to dry. Of course, the dry laundry still had to be taken down, folded up and/or ironed.
Ora Lee recalls having to stand on a chair to reach the tabletop that served as her ironing board. Her iron was hollow, filled and re-filled with corn-cob coals from the fireplace every hour or so. During tobacco season she’d take the iron to the tobacco barn and fill it with coals from there.
The next time I gripe about having to do laundry again, maybe I ought to be grateful I don’t have to make the soap and boil the dirty clothes, or even have a wringer washer doing the hula in my back yard!