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You've Come a Long Way, Baby

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Early laundry processes defined by grueling labor

This doesn't have much to do with Rusty Iron, but it's been a while since I've written anything for my faithful lady readers.

I have a 1920 book called Farm Economy, a Cyclopedia of Agriculture for the Practical Farmer and His Family, with a section titled "A Special Department on Labor Saving Methods for the Housewife." The section starts by pointing out that many improved implements and methods were routinely used by the farmer to ease his labor, but that his home, "which exceeds the field in importance," had not received as much attention.

In 1925 in Ohio, for example, just one in five farms had electricity, and 70 percent of those had their own light plants. Only one in seven Ohio farm homes had running water, while one in nine had a washing machine and a few more had an electric iron. One in three had a gasoline engine, but it's not recorded how many of those were available to the farm wife.

Along with many kitchen and cooking suggestions in the book are laundry hints that will sound strange to modern women raised on automatic washers and dryers, and may bring back not-sofond memories for ladies of a "certain age."

The book recommends a separate room for the laundry, if possible, with running water and all necessary supplies. The author notes that small gasoline engines work well for running the washing machine, pumping water, churning, or turning the cream separator, and says every farm woman should have the use of one.

Power washing machines with a wringer attached are described as being very satisfactory. "With such a washer, clothes may be washed, rinsed and wrung by the machine. It's only necessary to starch and hang up clothes by hand. If it's impossible to have a power washer, at least have a hand washing machine, as they are far ahead of the wash board."

Another hint: "A square clothes stick is more satisfactory than a round one, as the clothes can't turn on it." To wash fine laces, the housewife was told to " … first baste them to a piece of flannel. Soak for 10 hours in soapy water, then squeeze suds through lace. Rinse several times and squeeze dry. Tack flannel to a board to dry. When dry, remove basting threads."

Women were advised to "Hang colored clothing on the line wrong side out to prevent the sun from fading them" and, "Before hanging out clothes in the winter, rub the hands well with flour or cornstarch and the hands won't get cold as soon."

It was suggested that ironing would be much easier if the clothes were dampened and tightly rolled and allowed to stand overnight, although care had to be taken in summer as dampened clothes mildewed quickly in hot weather. A clothes sprinkler could be made from a milk bottle by placing a large cork in the neck and inserting a garden sprinkler head into the cork.

The author recommended the old flat irons "that have been used for years (are) the best kind, and should not be too heavy. It's best to have irons of various weights; a very heavy one for pressing, lighter ones for ordinary ironing, and a narrow pointed one for sleeves and fine work." If a tin pan was placed over the flat irons on the stove, they would heat much sooner. And, "Your iron won't stick if you add one tablespoon of salt to one-half gallon of starch, or if you put one tablespoon of kerosene into the cold starch. These give a pretty gloss."

As most farms didn't have electricity, irons that burned denatured alcohol or gasoline were said to make ironing much easier, " … especially during hot weather, when ironing is a task."

Also, during the hot months women were advised to "do as little ironing as possible. Hand, dish and bath towels, underwear, stockings and washcloths may be straightened and folded without ironing. Change the bed sheets on wash day and put the sheets back on the bed without ironing."

A few other interesting tips:

"To remove spots on carpets, spread dry buckwheat flour on the carpet and allow to stand for a day before sweeping up.

"White or light-colored felt hats can be cleaned by rubbing with sandpaper.

"To clean feathers, place in one-half pint of gasoline mixed with 4 tablespoons of flour and let stand for 10 minutes. Rinse in clear gasoline and leave stand outside until all fumes are gone. Hold over stove a few minutes to add life to the feather. Curl over the edge of a silver knife."

Doing laundry wasn't much fun for our mothers and grandmothers. There was water to pump, heat and carry, and then empty when done. Baskets of heavy, wet clothes had to be lugged outside and hung on the line, an especially miserable job in the winter. One woman wrote, in 1916, of "(standing) ankle deep in slush and (trying) to pin a sock onto a bobbing clothesline, while the icy wind shrieked at (her) back and a dripping sheet slapped (her) in the face." A farm paper editor of long ago advised his readers: "If you love your wife you will shovel a path for her thru the snow beneath the clothesline." Reminds me of the fellow who bought his wife a light ax so she wouldn't get so tired from chopping wood … and then wondered why she wasn't grateful!

Well, are any of you ladies ready to go back to the "Good Old Days?"

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@copper.net