Sunday, May 18, 2008


Some of us recall a time when Monday was commonly referred to as “washday.” Farm wives and, I suppose, many others began as soon as possible after breakfast to pump their wash water and lug it in to be heated in a large wash boiler on the wood-fired kitchen range. Then they would gather up the week’s accumulation of soiled clothing, bedding, linens, etc. These were sorted into piles on the kitchen floor.

When the water was hot enough, it was “bucketed” from the boiler to the washtub, and there, starting with a white, or light colored pile, all of the laundry was rubbed and scrubbed on a washboard. In those pre-detergent days, the soap used was often a homemade concoction containing much animal-fat and some lye. After each item was washed, it was wrung out, as dry as possible, by hand.

After washing, each piece of laundry was carefully rinsed out in clean water, and once more wrung out carefully by hand. If the weather cooperated, the clean wash was then hung out to dry on outdoor clotheslines. If rain threatened, it had to be dried on lines strung across a porch, or on lines and clothes racks inside the house.

Outdoor clotheslines usually had to be wiped clean before they were used. Then the clean, wet wash was hung on the lines and held in place with clothespins. If everything went well, the wash would be dry and ready to take back into the house long before evening. But many things could go wrong. An unexpected rain could come along, and make it necessary to take everything back in and dry it in the house. Worse yet, a strong wind could come up and blow some of the items off the line and down on the ground, getting them dirty, and making it necessary to go through the whole process again.

Occasionally dogs would find flapping white bed sheets interesting. Something to play with, often leaving many muddy paw-prints, before losing interest. Cattle and hogs were known to get out occasionally and run under lines full of drying clothes, knocking them to the ground and trampling them into the dirt. On rare occasions, even small children were attracted by the clean clothing, managing to soil it before anyone noticed what was going on. And in dry weather, there was always a chance that something would stir up a lot of dust that would readily stick to the damp laundry. Even a township road grader smoothing the gravel road could stir up quite a cloud.

If nothing went wrong, the clean, sweet-smelling wash was collected and brought in when dry. A good job well done. But with the tedious job of ironing still to be taken care of.


The farm housewife readies
Her old galvanized washtub,
Rippled copper washboard,
And homemade soap laced with lye,

She checks out the water
Heating in the wash boiler,
Stokes the fire as she hums
A tune from days long gone by.

She puts on a sweater,
Hurries out to the roadside,
Checks the mailbox for the
Newspaper and today’s mail.

Then, back in the kitchen,
Decides the water’s ready,
Transfers it to the tub
With a small, old five-quart pail.

Then she rubs and she scrubs
Her husband’s dirty work clothes
To free and release them
From a week’s grease, dirt, and grime.

Then she goes out and pumps
And lugs in some fresh water
To rinse clean her wash, then
Wrings out each piece one more time.

She puts on her sweater,
And goes out to the clothesline,
Wipes the number-nine wires
Clean of bird droppings and rust.

Next she hangs out the clothes
To dry in the fresh spring breeze.
The road grader had best
Not come by, stirring up dust.

By mid-afternoon, she
Checks to see how well they’ve dried,
Collects all the clean clothes
Then folds and puts them away.

Then she starts to gather
Up the evening meal’s “makings.”
Such chores are all part of
A farmwife’s long, hard workday.

‘Though not well reimbursed,
At least not in cash money,
She still feels quite well-paid
In life’s blessings, goodness knows,

Nothing in this whole world
Can rival the sweet smell of
The sun and fresh air in
Newly hand-washed, line-dried clothes.