Saturday was washday at our four-story apartment on Hough Avenue. Mom worked during the week, so she hurried down to the basement on Saturday mornings to make sure she was first at the old agitator washer with the wringer attached.
I came along and amused myself on the very strange drying contraptions. Five long metal doors ran the length of one wall, which, when each door was pulled open 6 feet, revealed sets of metal rods. There were eight round metal rods running parallel from each hollow cabinet. The bottom rod was waist high and the topmost rod almost touched the ceiling.
Drying - Apartment Style
While Mom washed and rinsed and wrung, I played mountain climber on the metal rods, climbing up to the top, swinging from one set to the next set. It was my own jungle gym, and what fun!
On the other side of the basement, the coal furnace belched and burped and the heat from the furnace dried the clothes within hours. We pushed the doors closed to wait for another washday tenant.
Quite a luxury, to have a heated drying room-too bad all that heat never made it up to our fourth floor.
Washing, Home Style
Then we moved to a real house, with our very own basement and a back yard to boot. Great Grandma rubbed her hands together, she was that pleased with the set-up.
Soon we had our own agitator washer and wringer, and two sets of soaking tubs. Boy, were we grand!
The one half of the little basement was rigged with clotheslines, and Great-grandma and Grandpa took over the washday chores for the winter. Great Grandma swore by Fels-Naptha soap, that brown rectangle of hardness with the eye-opening smell.
The night before, she took a paring knife and an old dish and pared off brown curls of Fels-Naptha soap and put them in the dish with a little warm water. In the morning the gooey mixture was tipped into "bilin'" hot water in the agitator washer, the "whites" washed first, then work clothes and heavy things later.
After a proper amount of time, the agitator was turned off, and Great Grandma reached for a stout stick of about 2 feet in length. This she dipped into the hot water to fish out a leg or an arm of some clothing.
She pushed the wringer mechanism attached to the washer around so that the other tub with clean rinse water was on the other side of the washer. Then with a press of the button, the wringer began to roll.
The two rolling-pin sized parts revolved inward, taking the proffered garment between its rubber-cased rollers and squeezing and pulling the garment into and through the wringer to the other side, where, squeezed of the suds, it fell into clean rinse water to soak while waiting for the arrival of companion duds.
The Pants Fisher
Our wringer had a safety feature. It could run backwards and forwards, and if the panic bar on the top were pushed, the wringer would stop and the rollers separate. This was to prevent unwanted fingers and hands from getting caught.
Great-grandma finally let me do the wringing after much cajoling.
But first, she regaled me with tales of her days as a laundress and also as a factory worker in Akron, in the rubber tire factory. It seems that both industries have similar dangerous machines meant to trip up the careless worker. Both industries utilized wringers and pressers and flatteners of all kinds; machines that could catch your hair or tie or your sleeve and before you knew it, you were flat as a pancake.
Thus warned by this cautionary tale of hers, I tentatively edged my stick into the vat, pulling up a steaming leg of Grandpa's work pants. The wringer whirred away, and grabbing one cuff-ooch, ooch! it was hot!-- I deftly pushed the end between the wringer's two rollers, while at the same time whipping the stick out of the way, lest it be trapped in the clothes and be pulled into the roller's relentless maw.
Success! Up and away went first the leg, then the whole trouser, yanked from the steaming vat up into the revolving bars. No whale ever breached so grandly as the pair of trousers I yanked from the deep and cast into the cooling rinse tub waters of tranquility.
A brief sojourn in the rinse tub and again the garments were wrung out into a wicker basket setting on the floor. In winter, we used the clothelines in the basement for the laundry to hang. With the cozy coal furnace rumbling away and the coals glowing red through the grillwork of the door, it was no time until the clothes were dry.
The Coal Man Comes
Clean white underwear and a coal furnace roaring side by side however, was a calamity waiting to happen. And happen it did one day when the coal delivery man came one day earlier than usual. He tapped open the basement window and positioned the chute from the back of the truck into the window and down into the coal bin-- a large, high-walled wooden area in the street corner of the basement
Too late for Grandpa to stop him, the coal man raised the lever on the back door
of the truck and down came the coal, scraping and banging against the metal chute and clunking into the coal bin.
he coal dust started to rise, and Grandpa hurriedly closed the door to the basement, lest the dust come upstairs as well. It also kept Great Grandma from seeing the devastation to her nicely done laundry, turned tattle-tale grey.
Out on the Line
But clothes were hung in the basement only when the worst weather came. When the first robin chirped and the spring winds blew, the clothesline was strung in the back yard and Mom took over hanging the clothes.
Out in the tiny backyard our laundry went, first the brown workpants and shirts of Grandpa, his white shirt for dress, his funny big boxer shorts, Great-grandma's wash dresses and camisoles and cotton lisle stockings, Mom's flowered skirts and slips, my pedal-pushers, blouses and hair ribbons.
Everyone knew some of your most intimate apparel secrets when they hung on the clothesline, and you could guess the occupants of each house on the street just by looking at the clothes they hung out.
The solid line of white shirts across the street told us that our neighbor was a salesman. The blue bib-and-overalls next door pointed to someone who worked on the railroad. The green and white uniform dress belonged to a waitress.
What an interesting neighborhood it was-- all our lives were exposed for one another to see! We knew who had the new baby when row after row of diapers appeared on the clothesline down the street.
No need for the street telegraph of news to tell us, we knew who had died because their clothing failed to appear on Monday's clothesline.
Swing and Sway
The clothes went out in early morning. The wicker basket was loaded with wooden clothespins and wet laundry. Sometimes it took two of us to get the basket up the stairs in one trip from the basement.
Out in the yard I held the long sheets up from touching the ground while Mom pinned them securely to the line. Then she raised the clothespole, catching the line within the metal bracket, and hoisted the sheets into the wind.
What a joyous sound that flapping made. Shrunk, Shrunk, Shrunk, they said as their white sails reached to follow the boisterous breezes. The wind was a wonderful dryer, and free as…well-free as the air!
Together we hung the rest of the laundry, pairing the socks with one clothespin, shaking the towels into symmetry, and lining the whole back yard with the story of our lives.
Throughout the day I would watch the pants dancing, and the shirtsleeves clapping time to the weather. Sometimes the wind would tug at the sheets, and billow out the pants so it looked as though some ghostly wind-person were in them.
Then the clothespole centered across the middle of the clothesline would flip over from one leaning position to the other side and lean that way for a while, like the boom of a sailing ship.
Where the Wind Has Been
After a day's worth of drying-sometimes more, sometimes less-we took the clothes down. Where the clammy, heavy bed sheet had been put up, a sun-dried delight was ready to take down. Mom took off the clothespins and gathered it into her arms, smiling and inhaling at the same time.
"Look, dear, the wind has brought all the smells of the world right to our back yard and left it on our sheets. You can smell the heather on the hills, where Grandma was born. You can smell the salty Atlantic Ocean, You can smell New York and Madagascar and Tahiti"
I put my face into the sheet, too, and inhaled deeply. I felt like a world traveler already.
Sometimes the weather was "iffy" and we had to keep an eye on those clouds. If the skies darkened we held our breaths, ready to rush out and tear down everything and bring it inside. But if only a little cloud passed over, Great-grandma would proclaim it not worth doing.
"Only a few drops, we'll wait" She was seldom wrong. Great-grandma was a great meteorologist. Great grandma also claimed she could tell without going out which clothes were dry, just by how they moved in the breeze. I believed her.
Whatever the weather would be, the scent and warmth of freshly dried sheets out on the line couldn't be beat. I loved washday because I knew I would fall asleep smelling heather on my pillow.
The thing about memories is that we sometimes romanticize the past and forget all the inconveniences. I hated to put on half-dried socks and undies when the summer shower ruined washday. Towels were rough and scratchy, even after flapping all day on the line.
Things had a way of feeling stiff and wrinkly, too. So much of what was taken down also had to be ironed, another chore which only the few, like my iron-loving Mom, enjoyed.
Automatic washers, dryers with a variety of settings, A supermarket aisle full of cleaning products, fabrics with built-in "memories"-all these modern miracles we use have compressed a day's worth of work into a few hours-most of it away from the machine which does our bidding.
A Step Back?
But there are days when I look at the large maple near the house, and measure the distance with my eyes from it to the back of the garage. They have these neat retractable clothelines now; they look like a tape measure on a reel.
I could get Himself to put it right where I could pull it out to the tree. Maybe he could make me a clothespole, too.
And the local hardware store sells clothespins. I could take that load of sheets right out the back door, have them on the line in a jiffy.
They could hang all day in the sun, throwing themselves from one side to the other, waving to planes, flapping at birds, and swaying a melodic dance to the wind.
I could gather them up, sun-dried and warm, hug them to myself and run inside to spread them across the bed, smoothing their clean, crisp edges with a practiced hand, tucking their corners down and under, folding a neat triangle down at bedtime, and falling asleep on world-traveled sheets that smell of the salty Atlantic, New York Madagascar and Tahiti. And on pillows like a hill full of heather.
Top of Page
Back to Memories