I was thinking today about laundry. We like to imagine that we are so modern and “times have changed”, but laundry still entails the same basic process- drag a pile of dirty clothes to the washing machine, try to remember which items need spot treatment, add the right amount of soap, set the water temperature and cycle, and wait, wait, wait. Then throw everything in the dryer, with the right fabric softener sheet, set the cycle, and wait, wait, wait. Then fold or hang everything and put it back where it belongs. In fact, the process has become even more stressful than ever because now we expect our whites to be “whiter” and our colors “brighter” and our soft things “softer”. I remember when I would have settled for clean and dry.
My mother taught me to wash clothes in a wringer washer. It was one of my first experiences with pain and panic. Of course you can’t learn to operate one of the darn contraptions without getting your clothing, hair, or hands caught in it. Two out of three isn’t bad; I can’t remember ever getting my long hair caught. My fingers, however, weren’t that lucky. And the one time I got my sleeve caught…well my life flashed before me in a hurry. After all I was only about ten!
When I was younger laundry had to be sorted. The whites had to be bleached and rinsed twice. The dark clothing had to be kept away from everything else so the colors wouldn’t “run”. Jeans had to be washed separately with extra stain remover because they were always worn for work, and that mean grease, grass stains, and mud. Delicates had to be washed alone and wrung dry by hand so that straps and laces didn’t tear in the wringer.
No matter what the salesman says, washing machines are washing machines. It’s the dryer that has changed our lives. Hanging clothes on the line was an endless process. First you had to shake out the worst wrinkles, then clip the clothes to the line, being careful of course not to drop them. Then you had to keep a watchful eye out for dogs, birds, and little brothers. Then go back out and gather the clothes and lug them into the house. And if it happened to rain or snow before they dried, you had to be quick and get them back into the house. I once let a line full of diapers freeze because it was just too cold to go get them. When we lived in Iowa we didn’t have a dryer and we lived out in the country. I dried clothes over the floor vents in the winter.
My grandmother dried jeans on strange metal frames that fit inside the legs. I’m not even sure what they were called. I never saw anyone else use them. When the jeans dried they were stiff and had creases in them. She hung them on hooks on the back porch. She also hung my aunt’s huge petticoats on the back porch. I’m not sure if it was because they were delicate, or because she didn’t want everyone to see them.
My grandmother taught me to iron. She let me practice on Granddad’s white handkerchiefs. I couldn’t begin to guess how many she had to replace because of scorch marks, but I eventually got the hang of it. Funny, I can’t remember getting any serious burns myself. Perhaps I was more cautious around the hot iron than I was around the washing machine. My grandmother also taught me how to use starch. She loved starched linens!
We once had a neighbor who ironed everything, I mean EVERYTHING, that could be ironed. She grew up in a concentration camp and was extremely “germ phobic”. The first time I walked into the living room and saw her ironing socks I thought they were just damp and she was trying to dry them faster! However, she quickly explained that she ironed socks and underwear and sheets and pillow cases and kitchen towels so the germs wouldn’t make her children sick. I went running home to ask Mom if we were going to get sick! She reminded me that our neighbor also washed her walls once a week, and we talked about her hard times at the camp. Mom could always explain things in a way that made other people’s phobias seem like just another way of living.
Mom had one quirk of her own when it came to ironing. First she used a little spray bottle to dampen everything she planned to iron. Then she tucked each item into a plastic bag and put them into the freezer! She swore that it made them iron faster and smoothed the wrinkles out faster. I think it just kept the clothes damp if she didn’t finish the ironing in one day!
The annoying thing about laundry is that it always needs to be done. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or busy or poor. At some point in time you just have to get clean! We lived for a while in a house without hot water. We heated water on the woodstove and poured it into the washing machine. My mother carried bucket after bucket of hot water without complaining. She just wanted us to be clean and look nice. I also remember washing clothes in a washtub, and even the bathtub.
I’ve spent countless hours at a public Laundromat, alternately watching my laundry and the bratty children who are always allowed to run loose in them. The Laundromat has its own rules. At least one of the washing machines you put money into will be broken. The dryer you put towels into will be set on the lowest possible heat setting and it will require three times as many quarters as any other dryer in the room, while the dryer you put your best shirt into will be set on HIGH and will burn the buttons right off of it! You will run out of quarters just as the change machine breaks. There will always be two fewer laundry carts than there are customers.
I suppose what has remained the most constant about laundry is that it is still primarily “woman’s work”. I taught my children how to operate the washing machine when they were little and their own laundry became their responsibility when they turned twelve. My husband does a load of towels now and then. He can also wash anything that doesn’t look too delicate or come with a warning label. However, the responsibility of doing laundry, the decision-making about machines and cycles and soaps and softeners and starches and how serious the “dry clean only” label is, falls squarely on the feminine shoulders. We’re the only ones who care. I’m not sure why sometimes, but we do. Lets’ face it- if a guy is left alone he can survive on one pair of underwear, two stained t-shirts, and a pair of faded jeans for a week! What laundry?