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Laundry made for a tought workday before 1950s
Liberty lore
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Sometimes when I walk around our farm and notice the many iron wash pots; scrub boards; heavy, black irons; galvanized wash tubs; clothes pins; and old, antique ironing boards, my mind goes back to when I was a child helping my mama wash clothes. With 10 people in the family living on a farm, this was a very hard day of work and it was done each Thursday. How blessed we are to have automatic washers and dryers today.
Let me describe a typical washday at our house in the country. It makes me tired to think of it!
Having clean clothes to wear involved a lot of hard work and time. Four large washtubs of water had to be drawn from the well or pumped by hand. The large iron wash pot also had to be filled. A fire was started under the pot to boil the water. The largest tub had the soap suds in it and two others were filled with rinse water. The smallest tub had starch water in it.
Mama used Clo-white bleach, Super Suds and Octagon Soap to get our clothes clean. Daddy’s overalls and some of the other dirtiest clothing were put in the wash pot and stirred with a battling stick or an old ax handle until mama thought they were clean enough to put in the tub of soapy water.
The wooden wash bench was next to the smoke house wall by the well and wash pot. The smoke house provided some protection from the cold winter winds. The water oak provided shade in the summer. The strong wire clothes line stretched across the yard and was propped up by a wooden pole with a notch in the end or a nail driven into it to hook the wire. The wire could be lowered while hanging the wet clothes on it and then raised to keep them from dragging on the ground. It was a nice sight to see the line of clean clothes blowing in the breeze on a sunny day.
The dirty clothes were separated into piles according to color and weight. All the colored clothes were washed first before bleach was added to the water. A galvanized scrub board was placed in the tub and each piece of clothing had to be dampened and scrubbed up and down until clean. This was excellent exercise for one’s knuckles, especially on a cold day. I enjoyed rubbing the small pieces such as daddy’s red handkerchiefs and pillow cases over the scrub board. But larger items such as his overalls were another story. Wringing the clothes out from one tub to the other was tiring work.
Some items were put in the starch water and some were not. The clothes were put in a basket after the final rinse, picked up and shaken straight before they were hung on the clothes line with two wooden clothes pins. Each item had a particular way that it needed to be hung. When the clothes line was full and more room was needed, mama draped clothes over the wire fence.
If the day was very hot, the first load to be hung out would already by dry before the last load was finished.
One time, the clothes line snapped and all the wet, clean clothes fell in the dirt and had to be rinsed again. It was heartbreaking, but I wasn’t completely innocent. Mama had finished the week’s wash at about 2 p.m. and was taking a nap because she had a headache. I was in the yard playing by myself. We had a garden hoe with an iron handle and a crook on the end of the handle. I discovered that by hanging the crook over the clothes line, I could sit on the hoe and swing back and forth. I had done this many times when mama wasn’t looking and it was so much fun.
On that fateful day, I was swinging when I suddenly landed in the dirt. The little iron hook had snapped the clothes line and all the wet clothes tumbled down into the dirt.
Mama surely had good ears because I hadn’t even hit the ground before she started hollering out the window at me. That hollering must have been bad for her headache! She was glad my little “swing” could swing no more.
Several years after we got electricity in our home in 1951, daddy bought an electric wringer washing machine. This was a miraculous timesaver. The first few months that mama owned it, she still put a fire under the wash pot and “cooked” daddy’s overalls in it. She did not think the new machine could clean the dirty overalls thoroughly enough. She soon began to trust it, though.
The new machine’s wringer consisted of two rollers that squeezed water out of the clothes. One day as mama was hanging a load of wash on the line, she heard my older sister Susie scream. She’d gotten too close and the suction pulled her hand in between the rollers. Mama hit the emergency release latch, but Susie had to be carried to the doctor with a badly bruised, sore hand. Mama disassembled the wringer and seldom used it again.
My younger sisters, Lois, 4 years old, and Helen, 2 years old, used the washing machine for something different. One evening Lois told mama she wanted chicken and rice for supper. Mama told her she did not have any chicken. Lois and Helen told her there was one in the washing machine on the back porch. We all went to see. Sure enough, there was the old red hen that had been moping around the farm for years.
Lois explained what happened like this, “Helen cotched her and I knocked her.”
They had shelled an ear of corn and held the old hen while she ate all she could. Then Helen held her and Lois knocked her in the head with a stick until she was dead. They carried her to the washing machine and wanted Mama to butcher her and cook chicken and rice for supper. I had to take her to the cornfield and bury her. We still laugh about that today.
Since Thursday was washday, it was natural that Friday was ironing day for the huge mound of clean clothes. I recall seeing the heavy black irons sitting in the fireplace getting hot while mama ironed with another iron until it got too cold to remove wrinkles. The irons had to be constantly reheated and cleaned to remove the buildup of starch on the bottoms.
When I was very small, I begged Mama to let me iron the pocket handkerchiefs and pillow cases, which she did. I enjoyed ironing little starched dresses and seeing them crisp and pretty, hanging on hangers. But I hated trying to get all the wrinkles out of large shirts and overalls.
Today, when an older person speaks fondly of the “good old days,” I’ll bet she isn’t willing to give up her automatic washer and dryer inside her comfortable home in exchange for the wash tubs, scrub board and wash pots outside in the cold or heat. Thank goodness I am able to look at these old items around my home and remember when they were essential — but I do not have to use them today.

Love is a history buff and writes Liberty lore periodically for the Courier.
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