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April 21, 2018

Growing Up In Louisa  ...Wash day!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 Several years ago I wrote about some of my early experiences relating to washing our clothes. I know you will remember the grade school song that echoed in the hallways and classrooms of that old brick school at the base of Town Hill. “This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes...” Well the other day I sang that in hopes of getting some of my little grandchildren to join me in the little ditty. The problem was that they not only did not know the song, but I was moving my hands up and down as if it were on a washboard. You got it! These kids had no idea what I was doing. They’d never seen a washboard so it was totally foreign to them. It would be as bad as handing me a smartphone. The folks of my generation would know about those old implements, but very few that came after that ever saw anyone wash clothes that old-fashioned way.  When I thought about it, Washing clothes at creek Washing clothes at creek that method wasn’t far from beating wet garments on rocks on the side of the creek like in the movie “Old brother, where art thou.” By the time I was in grade school washboards were already slowly disappearing except for with country décor that displayed them to get that throwback ‘look.’

I remember when I was a young child that my mom would often set up a big galvanized washtub on the back porch. The tub was filled with hot, steamy and soapy water that had been heated on the kitchen stove and poured by bucketsful to use in the wash. I watched as she put her favorite wooden washboard down into the soapy water. I think it had a copper corrugated surface that she’d use to scrub the wet and soapy clothes up and down. I washboard washboard remember she had a second one that had a porcelain scrubbing surface, but for some reason I don’t think it was a favorite. All washboards I have seen have a place at the top to keep a bar of lye soap to be used to rub out stains or dirty areas. I remember with a bit of hurt that her hands were red from the hot water and all the abrasion from scrubbing the clothes up and down. Even in the winter this practice took its toll on her. I felt so sorry for her, but I continued to dirty up my clothing. It is what boys do, after all. This practice served as an example to teach me that all things in life do not come easily. Our moms did a lot of things for us for which I am grateful.

Some places we lived the laundry was done in the kitchen or in an outside laundry room instead or on the porch. I’m sure that was because the source of water was there. Those wash tubs and wringer washers had the propensity to get water everywhere. Dryers are a relatively new invention that many folks could neither afford to purchase or afford the electricity to run. It was a decade or two later when they finally came out.

ringer washer ringer washer  When we moved from the Louisa Inn to Granny’s house at 301 Clay Street, we soon had a brand, new ringer-washer. The tub was filled by a hose that was connected to the cold and hot water spigots. Once the water, soap, and clothes were added mom plugged in the electric cord in and moved the stick-handle that put it in gear. It was rather like shifting gears in a car.  Then the built in agitator began its work of swishing the clothes back and forth. I remember that the water darkened, or greyed, I assume because of the freed up dirt. Finally mom hooked the drain hose over the sink. A built-in pump sucked out all that dirty water into the hose so it could go down the drain. I remember seeing someone out in the county who didn’t have a sink, so they just allowed the water to run on the ground, outside. Because their house wasn’t plumbed, they had to fill the washers by bringing heated water from the kitchen range. Once a cycle was done, Mom had to wring out the water by putting the clothes through the attached wringer. It was a device that was swung into position over another washtub that was filled with some clean, but cold, rinse water. The laundry would fall into the rinse water, be swooshed around by hand and then wrung out again before they were put back through the ringer.  After that, mom would shake out the clothes and take the wet garments out back to hang on the line.

using ringer using ringer  I remember my Aunt once getting her hand stuck in the ringer. While she was screaming in pain, the rest of us ran around trying to figure out what to do. The machine pulled her whole hand in and started up her arm, but a safety feature finally popped the two roller-cylinders apart. She was badly bruised and sore for several days. I learned to respect machinery from that event. Oh, and I finally figured out that unplugging it might have helped…whoops!

As I grew taller I helped hang the clothes on the clothesline. I remember we had two kinds of wooden clothespins. One was a single piece of wood that looked like a little man with a head and long legs. I remember using them to make Christmas tree decorations back when our kids were young. The other kind was made with two pieces of wood and held together with a steel spring. This one could be opened to clamp the wet clothing on the clothesline. Both worked very well. Mom showed me how to overlap the various pieces of wet clothing so to minimize the number of pins needed and to save space on the clothes pin clothes pin clothesline. Some garments, like pants were hung by their cuffs, upside-down, so to dry better. Since the water would go to the lowest level, you could feel the waistband to see when they had dried enough to fold and bring in.

In the winter we’d still hang out the wash, but everything would soon freeze hard. I remember playing outside and running into some frozen pants once. They spun around on the line and hit me again from the backside. The clothespins kept them from falling. It stung my poor, cold ear so I made sure to avoid hitting them again. I seem to have a thing with clotheslines. One winter’s day my mom asked me to go out and bring in the wash. I looked up from reading my comic book and told her I was sure it was frozen solid. It made sense to me that if it was frozen then water was still present in the fabric so when the clothes warmed up they’d still be wet from the thawing ice. She brushed that off and made me go out anyway, so I did as instructed. I was right that it was stiff, but when it thawed to my amazement it was perfectly dry. I still don’t see the logic of how that works, because when ice melts it turns back into water, but not in this case. Where did it go? Freeze dried, I recon.

Would you believe that today, some neighborhoods will not even allow you to have a clothesline? These fancy homeowner’s associations have nothing to do but take away our freedoms. We must have this kind of roofing, a certain kind of siding, and this kind of windows! We cannot have junk out, can’t fly a flag, or park a vehicle with business markings on the street. They have their own Gestapo out every day looking for violations. I mean, whoever heard of not hanging out your clothes? Many newer homes have the laundry room near to the bedrooms instead of the kitchen or back porch. This allows laundry to be washed and dried near its point of use. Cuts down on having to carry baskets up and down stairs, I guess.

When I was growing up I don’t remember who put in the first laundromat in town, but I do remember the celebrations of opening day. Town officials were on hand as was nearly every lady in town. There were a few men, but that was a different time. The new laundromat was located near the tracks midway down Jefferson Street south of Pocahontas. I remember there had been a good bit of advertising posted around town on telephone poles, the windows of various businesses, and ads in the weekly newspaper. It was a new thing for our little town so folks had marked the day on their calendars and were getting excited. Each of the ladies and sometimes the bigger kids had big baskets of dirty laundry to test out the new equipment. They had been promised that this would save tons of work. Management had put up signs on the walls explaining all the ‘rules.’ To be fair with others, to reduce risks and liability you needed to know what customers could, or could not do.

 detergentdetergent As I remember the new cinder block building had a double row of washing machines that went down the middle of the room. The driers were lined against the outside walls. The building was painted a bright white inside and out, which made it look clean. I remember they had some tables that were meant to be used to fold the laundry once it came out of the drier. It seemed as if the owner had thought of everything. There were even dispensing machines to provide soap and bleach. I was told to stay away from that because bleach mishandled could ruin everything. I remembered a few of the commercials about detergents, but really that just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

There was a line of people waiting to use the machines, but they were patient to take their turn. They just used the spare time to visit and catch up on the local news (and gossip). I listened as the dimes and quarters clanked when they were dropped into the machines. In spite of having the machines that dispensed soap, many brought their own boxes of Tide, Oxiclean, Borax, or Fab Laundry Detergent. I was excited at the sight of the lids being lifted. Powdered soap was being spilled into the washers while the first group of customers were busy folding or bringing in another load.

Being a curious boy, I went outside and inspected the vents where air was coming out. It was hot, and humid, and contained small amounts of lint and fluff. Hmmmm. I supposed those cinder block walls would not ignite from the heat and the wind would likely carry away the lint. The operation passed my expert fire protection exam. My Great Aunt Shirley Chapman spent some money there over the next couple of days, but when the excitement wore off, she figured out that it took serious work to haul the dirty laundry over there, she’d have to wait to use the machines, and it would cost her money. Money in any denomination was scarce in those days. We went back to doing our laundry at home. I don’t know if that building is still in use, or if it’s still a laundromat. I guess I should have driven down that way when I was in town to see if it was still there.  I think that Andy York, at some time or another, maybe closed his store and changed it into a laundromat. I would have been good for the lower end of town if he did. I’m sure someone will remember that and remind me.

Washing machines have changed a lot over the years. Back then they were top loading, but the one I have now in my home is front loading. Newer ones have a number of settings and other features that are designed to handle different fabrics, and to even diagnose the problem if something is wrong. One of the joys for me was when they were spinning they would sometimes get out of balance and make a racket. I’ve seen them jump so badly I wondered if they might break through the floor or take out a wall.

While dryers are now very common, it wasn’t so in the 40’s and 50’s. The dryers today can ‘feel’ when the load is dry, but they have timers, too, and a few automatic settings. They send out signals like a microwave so you know it’s time to take the load out. They also keep the laundry wrinkle-free by tumbling it regularly for a spell, to give you time to get back and put the clothes on hangers, or in case you forgot you had a load working.

 Some of the major changes involve the newer fabrics as much as the washing machines. I remember when some things were good to wash, but others had to be dry cleaned or they would shrink. The way I was growing I didn’t need anything to shrink. Ironing was another step that the newer textiles have made unnecessary. I don’t miss that. I remember having to iron my suit for the prom with a flat-iron and a pair of pliers. We had lost the wooden handles, so the pliers made it possible to maneuver the flatiron. The electric iron wouldn’t work because we had a power outage just in time for the dance. Grrrrr!   

Today we consider an electric washer and dryer as complete necessities. We live lives that are far more hectic and faster-paced than our ancestors.  We tell ourselves that we just don’t have the time to hang out laundry and then later take it in. Maybe this kind of work was more rewarding than we realized. The quiet time while hanging out laundry gave us some fresh air, some vitamin D from the sunshine, gave us time to think, and also gave us a feeling of accomplishing something. We were blessed in many ways in those days, and blessed again as America made progress. We still had ironing to do until finally ‘wash and wear’ became the norm. Today we don’t starch, don’t iron, and barely deal with our dirty clothes. That may be fighting words to some who still spend a lot of time with the laundry, and young single folks who have to go to a laundromat. When I hear folks complain about having to wash our clothes, I think of mom’s red hands and her scrub board. Those who complain don’t know the half of it

My wife has a recipe for making your own powdered soap. She told me that wants to sell her two old washboards should you find that you want one. I think she feels threatened that I may want her to use them… As we sign off dear readers, sing with me now, “This is the way we wash our clothes…”

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Comments  

0 #1 Bernard Nelson 2018-04-23 14:20
Another good article Mike, yep I remember the first washing machine my mom got. We lived at Barboursville, WV., with 6 kids, doing laundry was a full days work. Mom got a Maytag and it set on the back porch. I too remember the first Laundry-Mat on Jefferson St. Was a big business at that time, but the novelty soon wore off as folks were getting their own home washing machine. I also remember Andy York changing his store from groceries to Andy's Laundro-Mat on Lock Ave & Sycamore St.
"This is the way we wash our clothes", and thanks for the memories. Til next time keep them coming and God Bless.
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