Drying Clothes on the Line: Clothesline Gave Insight Into Family’s Life

article image
The art of clothesline reading: An astute observer could learn much by studying a family's clothesline.

Few recognize the significance of the old-time clothesline.

This sentinel of the prairie, standing upright and proud (or maybe crude and unsteady) stood year after year in resolute service to its owner. Each Monday morning, weather permitting, the family wash was sorted, boiled, scrubbed, rinsed and wrung, then carried to the clothesline in baskets and hung out to dry. The number of persons in the family at any residence could be quickly determined by noting the number of wires in the line’s construction.

After a quick swipe with a wet rag to clean rust and dust from the line, heavier articles were hung close to the ends and lighter items near the center to help prevent sag. A few hours later, depending on humidity, breeze and temperature, the family’s clothing was once again clean and sun-freshened, ready for re-use.

Such information is old hat to all who recall using clotheslines. Now, let’s get down to the real significance and psychology of this utilitarian device. First, the construction and condition of the clothesline offers clues to the pride of the owner and especially the powers of the “little woman” within the family. A well-constructed clothesline usually meant the wife had great persuasive qualities with her husband.

Second, by viewing the placement of the clothes, one could deduct the discipline exercised on the washday chore. A prop stick in the middle of the line revealed the woman was short in stature and needed a boost to raise the line after hanging clothes. Doubled-up hangings might mean a shortage of clothespins. A small, lower line to the side meant the small children were meant to hang up socks.

Third, the number, age and gender of family members could be determined merely by counting the hanging garments. A door-to-door salesman knew to call on Monday when the family would definitely be home. Before knocking on the door, he could learn valuable information about potential customers merely through careful study of the clothesline.

Basics in the facts of life were often revealed clinging to the clothesline. Questions by inquisitive youngsters and budding romantics could be answered merely by close examination of the odd-shaped garments waving in the breeze (when no one was looking, of course).

A full line contained many clues as to the owner’s occupation. Heavy, coarse work clothes and long handles indicated a farmer, mechanic or mill worker in residence. Cowboy shirts, bandannas and Levi’s pointed to a rancher’s abode. White shirts, dress pants and undershirts suggested a banker, shopkeeper or clerk made his home within.

Last and most important, the family’s financial wellbeing could be determined through close scrutiny of the personal display. Light-colored, silky underclothes with elastic waists meant the family was enjoying prosperity. Homemade drawers of rough fabric with string ties meant the fortunes of the family could be better. The ultimate indicator of financial status was determined by counting patches. The more patches, the harder the times.

I was too young to pay attention to early-day Trew clotheslines, but I have no doubt there were a lot of patched, flour- and feed-sack drawers flapping in the Texas Panhandle breeze. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment