Wash Day on Muddy Creek

Doing the laundry on wash day was a weekly chore

Detail from an advertisement for a Mallory Crystal Electric Washer and Wringer

Detail from an advertisement for a Mallory Crystal Electric Washer and Wringer from the Ladies Home Journal, April 1920.

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The old saying that "A man does work from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done" aptly fits the life of a 1920-era family. Not only did the woman's work never end, but each day had its own obligations, and many were weekly routines to be done over and over and over. 

Monday was wash day. It seems that all over the country, Monday was reserved for doing the wash, or "The Laundry," as it was known in high society. The wash was the dirty (I use that term loosely) or soiled clothing, as well as rags – dish rags, wash rags, scouring rags, strainer rags, and rags that would be torn into long strips and woven into rugs. Nothing was thrown away Often times one could see patches on patches, and most woolen clothing ended up as a rag rug.

Clothing consisted of bib overalls, with weeks' worth of accumulations of caked-on axle grease, impregnated with cockle burrs and stick tights; heavy woolen skirts and an occasional long John (these became soiled enough to stand alone). Then there were BVDs, and long cotton stockings that had to be dried on wooden stretchers, and cotton gloves. In the fall, during corn shucking days, these were used and re-used until both thumbs were worn through, then they were patched and worn out again. Husking gloves had an extra thumb on top so that they could be worn on either hand, to wear out both sides. Then there were the ladies' unmentionables: The knee-length bloomers, petticoats and camisoles usually hung demurely inside a pillow case on the line.

On wash day, the clothes were rounded up and sorted, the colors in one pile, the "fadeables" in another, and the white goods that had to be boiled were put aside in another stack. Long before breakfast on wash day, Dad would have fired up the small "laundry" stove in the wash house, a.k.a. the smoke house. Corn cobs were the fuel of choice, for they burned with a hot and near smokeless flame. Then too, cobs were always available in abundant supply in the horse barn and the hog lot. A dash of coal oil from the wood-covered can, the one with the potato on the spout, would give the fire a good start, and then the copper wash boiler was put on the stove and filled with 'soft' water from the rain barrel or the cistern to heat while the chores were being done.

Dad always said "Never send a boy to do a man's job," so a chunk of strong, homemade lye soap was shaved into the heating water. It took a strong soap to dissolve farm dirt of that era, and the mere mention of it sends waves of that pungent, nose-rasping smell through my memory.

Just before breakfast, the hot water was poured into the big wooden (or galvanized) wash tubs and the dirty clothes put to soak. For a long time, many women (including my mother) depended entirely on the wash board and bare knuckles to get their clothes clean. Pioneer and primitive women, like Old Josie the Pawnee Indian woman who squatted with her man Clarence on Muddy Creek for several years, used a flat rock or heavy board and pounded the dirt from the clothes with a club. Me and Lewie would go down to the grove and marvel at how clean her gingham dresses would come by just pounding them on that old end gate.

Mama's wash board was one of the newer ones. It had a ribbed copper plate in a frame on which the wet clothes were rubbed by hand. The wash tub was set on a waist-high stool and the washboard inserted into the mass of soaking soapy clothes. A dirty shirt was pulled out of the water and rubbed on the board, dipped into the water and rubbed again; dip, rub, turn, dip, rub, turn, until the entire shirt had been rubbed clean. Years later, Dad was able to buy her a patented rocker-type washing machine from Sears and Sawbuck that took much of the drudgery from wash day, but even then, cuffs and collars had to be specially rubbed. One of the commercial soaps warned people of the "Ring around the Collar" and claimed that folks were noticing it, and I guess many did, for sales of that product skyrocketed.

The rubbed-clean shirts were then wrung out by hand, or if the farmwife was lucky enough to have one of the new double wringers that Hodge Brothers were touting in the Beacon, she could wring them through that into a tub of clean water. After a thorough dousing in the rinse water to get out all of the lye soap, the shirts were again wrung semi-dry and placed into the wicker wash basket.

Not the white goods, however. While many women boiled the white clothes to get them white, some – like Mama – used a second rinse that contained bluing, a blue chalk product that made the yellowish-white a bright bluish-white. In either case, the shirt collars and cuffs were dipped into a starch solution to make them nice and stiff when they were dry. Finally, the clothes were wrung out again, and all carried out to the back yard clothesline.

The better clothes lines were two lengths of galvanized wire cable about an eighth of an inch thick between two "T" posts. But why pay $2 for a roll of cable when twice as much number nine wire could be had for the same money, and "you never know when you will be needing a piece of heavy wire around the farm"? Mama's clothes lines (and there were several for her family's needs) ran from the smoke house overhead out to a hedge post by the walnut tree, and then over to the sycamore by the north well, probably 150 feet in all. She had Dad cut her several straight hickory clothes props to hold up the heavy load. A damp rag had to be used each wash day to wipe rust and dirt from the wire before it could be used.

Shirts were hung by the tails with three clothes pins ... oh, excuse me, I forgot you modern day folks are not familiar with clothes pins. In those long-ago days, the only pins available were of wood. They were much like a six-inch piece of chair rung that had been split two-thirds of its length. The cloth was laid over the line and the pin slid down over it to lock it firmly on the line. It would take a mighty healthy March wind to blow most clothes off the line. The housewife carried the pins in a special apron tied around her waist. Here she would stash any odd coins that fell from the trouser pockets (and, I might say, during the Depression, the picking was slim).

If the housewife was lucky, and no rain squall sprang up, the wind and the sun would dry the clothes in a few hours. In the winter, the clothes would freeze up (perhaps the idea for "freeze-dried" food came from some astute observer of this phenomenon). The sight of a line of frozen long Johns has inspired many an artist to record that scene.

After drying came the taking down, sorting, folding and carrying into the house where the next day's duties were already laid out: Ironing Day! If you have never slept on a sheet dried in the sun, you have a real treat comin' to you. That is, if you can find a clothes line these days. FC 

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.