Wash Day on Muddy Creek

Doing the laundry on wash day was a weekly chore


| June 2000



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.

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.