Farm Collector

Wash Day Blues: How to Wash Clothes by Hand

As sure as death and taxes, every Monday was wash day.

Like the Ten Commandments, the event was carved in stone and postponed only by funerals or bad weather. Though family wash day routines varied, Mondays on the Trew farm were always devoted to this never-ending chore.

The ritual began when a black cast iron pot was set upright on bricks, warmed by a fire underneath. We aligned wooden benches to hold four galvanized washtubs, and attached a hand-cranked wringer to the first tub along with a regular rub board. We then filled the pot and three tubs with fresh water.

Next, we fetched from the back porch a laundry basket containing a poke stick, a bottle of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing, a box of Faultless starch, a starch pan, a bag of clothes pins and several cakes of lye soap. While the water heated, we added bluing to the fourth tub and wiped the clothes line wire with a damp cloth.

With the water hot, we dipped a portion into the first tub and more into the starch pan. Then we spread lye soap slivers into the hot water with a pocketknife, making a mild lye-and-water mixture in the tub and a strong mixture in the pot.

Next, we sorted the dirty laundry; soft colors were thrown into the pot and whites into the tub. Work clothes and rags were left until last to boil in the pot. Light whites were scrubbed on the rub board before they were wrung and rinsed. Clothes in the pot were stirred and poked until clean. Eventually, everything was stirred, poked, wrung and rinsed before they were hung on the line. Some items were rinsed in the bluing tub, and others were dipped in the starch pan.

After all the wash was done, we poured the rinse water on the flowers and shrubs, and the pot and lye water tubs were emptied on the weeds in the driveway. Once dried by the sun and breeze, our family gathered the clothes and sorted them on the dining room table. Work clothes were shaken out and hung on nails. Bedding went back on the beds since most families including ours – didn’t own more than one set. Few homes were built with closets that housed a family’s clothing behind bedroom doors, either.

Hold on – the arduous chore wasn’t over yet. Clothes to be ironed were dumped on a bed with an ironing board, sprinkled with a water bottle and made into a tight ball with all the ends tucked in tight. With all items watered down and packed into the laundry basket, a damp towel was placed over the top to prevent evaporation until the next day when they could be ironed.

Just as Monday was designated as wash day, Tuesday was ironing day. I’ve never heard any practical reasons why these days were chosen, but the routine never varied for the weekly wash blues. 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:

  • Published on Apr 1, 2004
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