"Clothespin," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2014

“Clothespin,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2014

My great-grandmother washed clothes every Monday, and she almost always wrote about it in her journal.

Monday, May 6, 1912 – “Another stormy Monday. Clothes washed and on the line. Pa sitting by the fire.” – Lydia Jane Hall

On Tuesdays she ironed.

Tuesday, May 7, 1912 – “Partly cleared. Clothes drying between the showers so they can be ironed.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Winter complicated the process.

Monday, January 29, 1912 – “Cold. Snowed all day. Washed, put out clothes, but didn’t dry. Brought them in frozen stiff, and dried them in the house.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Spring and summer brought better days.

Monday, April 1, 1912 – “Nice day. The best yet for washing. Clothes look nice. The birds are singing. Some are building their nests.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Monday, August 11, 1913 – “Nice cool day. Washing done at eleven o’clock – looks very nice and white.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Fall started the weather-related difficulties again.

Monday, October 13, 1913 – “Cooler – look for a frost tonight. Cloudy at night. Clothes dry in the house.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Monday, December 1, 1913 – “Dark dreary day – clothes still hanging on the line – not dry at bed-time. Hope it will be pleasant tomorrow.” – Lydia Jane Hall

I hardly think about doing the laundry. When clothes and linens have made a big enough pile I dump them in the washing machine and push the button. When we first came to Alaska in 1969 I had to go to a commercial laundromat once a week, and I thought that was a hardship.

But in 1912 providing clean laundry for the family must have been incredibly time-consuming. I heard somewhere that washing was done on Mondays because that was the day burning was prohibited. Clothes could be hung on the line without getting covered with black soot.

With a big family and no helpful machines, my great-grandmother and grandmother often needed help for their Monday and Tuesday routines.

Monday, June 8, 1914 – “Agnes done the washing. Two weeks washing. Mary [the help] failed to come, she had a lame back and the clothes were put a soak yesterday so had to wash them. They look very nice.” – Lydia Jane Hall

The clothesline on the farm ran from the back door to the woodshed barn in the back yard. The person hanging the wash stood on the stone steps, took clothespins from the bag hanging at the end of the line, hung the wash piece by piece, and pulled the line using a pulley so that the clothes were suspended out over the back yard.

"Washing," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2014

“Washing,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2014

By the late 1940’s, when I was a child, my grandmother had a “washing machine.” On Mondays she wheeled it from the back pantry, hooked the hose up to the kitchen sink faucet, filled the tub with clothes and soap and water, and turned it on. It wiggled and jiggled and made all kinds of noises while it agitated. This is what I begged to stay at home from school to watch. After she emptied the tub, my grandmother put the clothes through the wringer attached to the top of the tub, then hung them on the clothesline in the back yard where they billowed and flapped in the fickle Whirlwind Hill breezes.

I especially loved to watch my grandmother put the sheets and towels and clothes through the ironing mangle. This big heated and padded roller ironed linens in much less time than a regular iron. And my grandmother could sit down while using it.

As far as I know, there never was a clothes dryer on the farm. My grandmother continued to put the clothes out on the line or on a drying rack in the kitchen until she died. I think my town grandmother did the same thing. My own parents had no dryer until I was out of college. My mother hung the clothes on a circular clothesline in the back yard year round. Even when my family and I went back east during the summers to visit, and there was a dryer in a closet on the back porch, we hung our t-shirts and socks out in the sunshine. The smell of clothes dried outdoors is irresistible, and the line-dried towels had a roughness and absorbability that’s hard to find these days. Fluffy towels are one of my least favorite inventions. And don’t even get me started about “dryer sheets.”

"Clothesline," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1986

“Clothesline,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1986

On Wednesday:  Money and Apples

15 thoughts on “Washday

  1. Janet Alexander

    Something about that fresh air smell in the pillowcases makes one sleep better, too, I swear.

    Western NY must not have had a burning ban – we washed any day. I do remember the arrival of spring clothespins which for some reason I found easier to handle than the peg style while trying to keep sheets from dragging on the ground while I tried to help hang clothes. Usually it also required hanging them near the pole under the long line my father strung between the barn and the house or, worse, hanging the sheet and holding up the ends while struggling to balance the long, notched wooden pole with the other hand to move it closer. Tough for a little kid, but possible. Most times, anyway.

    I do remember being fascinated by the wash tub wringer and being horrified at the story of when my brother caught his arm in it. It was one of the few times I was relieved to be so much younger than my siblings and not being around yet for that one.

    Great stories, Carol. Thanks!

    1. Carol Post author

      Sheets could be such awkward things to hang, especially for a small child, and made worse when the wind was blowing. Thank you for your great description of your washday memories. I don’t think it would have been at all pleasant to get an arm caught in the wringer or in the mangle!

  2. Michael Foster

    You are so right about that fresh, outdoors smell – there is nothing like it. I always wondered why Mondays were wash days. I wonder which came first, the burning ban or the wash day tradition? As a kid, I never appreciated all the work that went into keeping us clean and presentable ( within reason). I now understand why my mother just looked and shook her head sometimes when we came in covered with mud and hay, or had grass stains ground into the knees of our pants. She probably didn’t dare open her mouth to make a comment.

    1. Carol Post author

      I think our mothers also used large quantities of bleach. And my mother always said that the sunshine helped get the stains out. My one bad memory of hanging clothes on the line was of putting on clothes after they came into the house and finding Japanese Beetles clinging to the inside.

      1. Michael Foster

        We had so many Japanese beetles on the raspberries that my parents paid us a penny for every ten – and it was worth it to us to do it!

  3. Netzy

    Hi Carol, your stories are always so interesting and you really know what the day to day events were with your family. Your painting of the yard and wash is so cheerful -even though the hardships of taking care of two week’s worth of laundry must have been daunting for your grandmother. We have a line in the house and hang up the clothes by the wood stove / lit or not. Happy week.

  4. Katy Gilmore

    (I wonder what’s wrong with fluffy towels?)
    Great washday stories – I always wondered about that Monday is washing day tradition – now that washing is so all over the place. Such vivid colors in your “Washing” picture – and this image brings up the question of whether to use one pin, and pin the edges of two pieces of clothing – or not. This will be the most complete historical record you have made, no descendant will have to wonder about the daily details of Crumps and Halls!

    1. Carol Post author

      I guess there’s nothing really “wrong” with fluffy towels. I just love the invigorating feel of the thinner, scratchier ones. The fluffy ones are certainly prettier.
      I think my grandmother was of the school of clothespin conservation. One pin for two items. Which works well if you want to take everything off the line at once. But it always seemed as though there wouldn’t be enough clothespins to go around unless you did it this way.

  5. Margaret Norton Campion

    Oh, me, too! Me, too!! Can’t stand fluffy towels (the rougher the better! ha!) and OMG … those dryer sheets?!?! Gag. (sorry. I’m sure this is insulting to many) but I cannot stand those things.
    The loooong arms of the ancestors.
    I, too, hang all laundry (exactly as you described, Carol) and — guess what?! My sweet husband has bought me a mangle!!! You know you’re a laundry nerd when you are excited about having a mangle. (so far the engine does not work, but … minor impediment for Edmund Campion, who fits RIGHT into the Hall-Crump-Norton fellowship.)
    Love this post. When I first read our Great grandmother’s journals it was those descriptions of the laundry … hanging out for days at a time … that struck me most. Your tie-bit about Mondays being non-burn days is interesting! Makes sense.
    Thank you once again!!!!

    1. Carol Post author

      I was wondering how that mangle was working out. If anyone can fix it, Ed can. Let me know what happens.
      We have probably inherited this laundry gene from Ellen and from great-grandmother Lydia. My own grandmother, Agnes, would, I’m sure, have welcomed any modern device or product. Fluffy towels, dryer sheets, a gas dryer – she would have used them all.

  6. Anne Foster

    When my mother visited, she adapted herself to country ways, including hanging out her corset to dry on the line. What she discovered was that on cold days the laundry froze. One day we looked out to see the frozen corset blowing across the field, much to the amusement of the children. “Oh for pity’s sake,” said Grandma Case, ” now I know why it’s called Whirlwind Hill.”

    1. Carol Post author

      This is a great story, Anne. And a very funny comment by your mother. I would love to have seen that corset flying over the fields – a very amusing picture comes into my mind when I think about it.

  7. Karen Dederick Kowalski

    Whenever possible and allowed, I always hung out the laundry. I agree about the towels, as much as I do actually appreciate a soft towel, they don’t absorb as well and “buff” the body. At the lake, for many years, we had a wringer washer and many long lines for clothes and all the towels. Loved it!

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