Clothesline Culture: memories of a lost treasure
If I speak about the culture of the clothesline, most every woman reading this will know what I am referring to. Even if there is no clothesline in your backyard these days, somewhere in your DNA, there were mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, along with assorted aunts and older cousins who referred you to clotheslines and their iconic place in the culture of women.
Now, I know today there is a real struggle going on for women of all ages to be seen as something more than a “household drudge,” a “live-in housemaid” and that is okay and I certainly don’t want to contribute to that image. But that being said, there was something very satisfying about a Monday wash day with clean clothes flapping in the breeze. It spoke of a job well-done and when you brought them in to be folded and/or ironed, the fresh smell from the outdoors was something no Febreeze spray can replicate and no bleach bottle can whiten t-shirts like a few hours in the sun.
In 1889, at 13 years of age, after my grandmother was confirmed, her father told her she now had to earn her own living, ‘make her own way’ as it was called. So she went to La Crosse, Wisc., and there was a house maid for a number of years. Her four daughters later heard the stories of how all the maids in the big houses hurried on wash day to see who could get their clothes out on the line first. Now you couldn’t just hang the clothes any old way. No, there was a system and I learned the system from my mother who had learned it from her mother. The clothes were always separated by color because then the dyes were always unstable and you didn’t want pink underwear which was the result of washing white clothing with a red towel or shirt. When my mother was learning “the system” you heated water on the cook stove to boiling and then scrubbed clothes on a wash board. By the time I came along, mom had a washing machine on the back porch that was pulled into the kitchen. It was filled by connecting a hose from the faucet on the sink to the machine. As the clothes were finished they were run through a wringer (better than ringing them with your hands as mom had to do in the early days), you gave them a good shake, dropped them in the basket, took the clothes pins and headed out to the line.
Once you got to the line you hung the underwear a particular way, the shirts went upside down fastened to the line with clothespins by the side seams, sleeves pulled out on the right side, pillow cases, towels and other items were often hung up sharing a clothespin with the item next to it. Sheets were folded in half lengthwise and pinned to the line. You could tell the history of the neighbor’s week by the clothing on the line — was someone sick, did you have company? The week was there. Mrs. Smith must be doing her spring or fall housecleaning when you saw her rugs and bedspreads and winter clothes airing on the line to get rid of the musty smell in the fresh air.
Following the drying began another process — getting the clothes ready to be ironed and that was a lesson girls were taught and later young men as well. Then came ironing day. You don’t just plop the iron down. You had to be sure of the temperature of the iron so you didn’t scorch the material, and then there was a system to ironing as well. My mother and her mother used irons which were heavy (now you see them as doorstops, sometimes) and heated on the coal or wood stove, but that is another story, including the pop bottle with the sprinkler on top or women who just flicked water onto the clothing before ironing. And you ironed shirts a certain way, pillow cases, etc.
But, getting back to the clothes line. My aunts who lived in the country had a perpetual wind to dry their clothes. At one ranch, the clothesline was up on a little rise above the house. The sheets and pillowcases and towels flapped wildly in the wind and dried in record time. Bringing them in they were rough to the touch, but when you crawled into bed at night with clean, sun-dried sheets nothing smelled better!
After sharing these thoughts with a few older family members they added some memories. My eldest cousin remembered how the clothes would freeze on the line. (I had forgotten that!) He said you brought them in stiff as a board, then threw them over furniture around the house. As they thawed they gave off a fresh smell that filled the house. An aunt said wash day actually began the night before when you got all the dirty clothes out and sorted them into piles of like items. My aunt’s father was a miner in the Black Hills so she remembered some really awesome dirt. The Homestake Gold Mining company controlled the use of water in some of the smaller communities in the Hills so you had to know when water was available to get your wash done. Clothes that were especially dirty were soaked in something called ‘bluing’ which was a kind of bleach. Between that and the sun the clothes were clean and ready to wear again.
Mothers worked very hard to see their family’s clothes were clean and pressed. Moms took pride in a well-turned out family. The clothes might have had patches or been hand-me-downs, but there was no excuse not to be clean. The old expression “cleanliness is next to godliness” came out of that same culture. We still live in that culture to some degree. In most homes the washing machines run constantly. The ease of throwing a load in the machine and the dryer is taken for granted. With no-press fabric and clothes that hold their dye, washing is easier. But I still will say, the clothesline is a lost treasure and I wish I had mine back.
Avis Anderson is a retired pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Glendive. Her online blog can be found at www.prairienewdays.com.