My Turn

Story published: 10-23-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Laundering clothing was an all day affair in days past

By: Virginia R. Manuel

Freelance Writer

When I was growing up our days went something like this Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Mend on Wednesday, Clean on Thursday, Churn on Friday, Bake on Saturday, and Go to Church on Sunday.

Washing the family’s clothes was often done on Mondays, and it took the entire day.  Before we got electricity we did our wash out next to the creek bank using the old iron pot for heating wash water and two galvanized washtubs and a washstand with an old wringer in the middle for rinsing.  Clothes were boiled in the iron pot and stirred with a long stick until they were determined to be ready for the washboard.  A washboard and lye soap were used to scrub the clothes clean. The clothes went through the rinse water three times and into the dishpan to be hung on the clothesline to dry.

Our first and only electric washing machine  was a used one that my grandfather paid $10 for at J.C. Muse Hardware Store in Mountain City. It sat in a corner of the back porch next to the kitchen door. During the week it was used as a holding place for the dirty clothes.  The only time it was plugged in was when we were using it.

On Monday morning or “Wash Day” we would carry water from the creek and put it in the old copper boiler on the cook stove to heat. The wash tubs were brought from the wall of the smokehouse  and set  on a bench next to the washing machine. We would then carry water from the creek to fill the washtubs.

The hot water would be dumped into the washing machine. Lye Soap shavings were added to the hot water and stirred with a stick until it melted before the clothes were added to the machine.  The white clothes were always washed first. Bluing was added to the water to keep the clothes white. The bed sheets and  colored clothes, towels, and then overalls and rags last. By this time the water was really dirty.  Once in awhile we would have enough money to buy a box of soap powders, usually Duz, Rinso Blue or Fab.  There was always either a towel, washcloth or drinking glass inside.  

Doilies and things that were to be starched were added to the dishpan full of starch water and starched before they were hung to dry.  We would boil the starch water on the stove, put the clothes in and with a big spoon pull it out and let it drip until you could squeeze it to get out the excess. Then hang it out to dry.  

We had just one clothesline and by the time it was full the first clothes were usually dry. We could take them down and hang others in their place. After the washing was done the dirty water was carried out to the back and dumped under the house. I never knew why they did that except it was close. The cleanest dirty water was then used to scrub the back porch. The boards of the floor weren’t real close together so the water would seep down through the cracks and disappear.

After the clothes were dry and brought into the house they were either folded and put away or wet down so they could be ironed. There was no permanent press in those days.  Ironing was a different story.  It was hard work.

Ironing was done pretty much in the same manner as the washing --  doilies, sheets and pillowcases first, handkerchiefs and white clothes, colored clothes and jeans.

Almost everything was ironed but before the ironing started the clothes were sprinkled with water, rolled up very tight and stuffed into a pillowcase to keep them damp until it was time to iron. Even the sheets and pillowcases were ironed. My grandma took great pride in her handmade doilies.  She wanted them starched and ironed just right with all those little points standing straight up.  

We had an old homemade wooden ironing board that folded up and was kept on the back porch. We used two flat irons to iron with. The irons were cleaned with beeswax to prevent streaking. In the summer we ironed in the kitchen next to the wood cookstove. In the winter we ironed in the front room next to the big old heating stove. There had to be quite a hot fire in the stove to keep the irons hot.

Now you didn’t want to get the irons too hot because they would scorch the fabric and you would end up with a big brown spot right in the middle of your garment. If the iron was too cold your garment was wrinkled. The longer the iron was off the heat the cooler it got. Once you started the ironing you didn’t quit until it was done. You kept exchanging the irons as they got cooler so you were ironing continuously. To tell if the iron was hot enough to iron my grandma would wet the end of her finger and touch it to the iron.

If you hadn’t sprinkled your clothes well enough or if you missed spots where they were too dry you kept a pop bottle full of water with a silver stopper with three holes in it on the end of the ironing board.  You shook it over the clothes to add a little extra dampness to what ever you were ironing. If you had your clothes too wet sometimes you would end up with black streaks from the iron on your clothes.  If they were too dry the garment was resprinkled and put back in the bag.

This was a hard job and took most all day. After we got electricity and an old electric iron it made the job a little easier but it was still tedious. It was a huge chore but one that had to be done each week.

Well, the washin’ and the ironing’s done, it is time to set back and rest a spell.