Singing Those Old Washday Blues

Letters sent in to Pennsylvania Farmer magazine in 1927 tell how electric washers eliminated much of the labor of washday for housewives.

| August 2018

  • “Wash Day – A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn," 1886.
    Painting by William Merritt Chase
  • “Wash Day, or, A Captive Audience,” 1876.
    Painting by Louis Capdevielle
  • A woman outside her back porch doing her wash on a washboard. At least she has a hand-cranked wringer to take some of the work out of the task.
    Photo courtesy of Farm Collector Magazine archives
  • The Eureka hand-powered washing machine stood ready to do double duty, Dec. 14, 1899.
    Photo from Farm Implement News
  • The Conqueror Wringer allows these well-coiffed ladies, in their pretty frocks and stylish shoes, to do the weekly wash with ease, while equally well-dressed children play in the now unused wooden washtub.
    Photo courtesy of Farm Collector Magazine archives
  • This 1920 Maytag ad points out how a farm wife could have a washing machine even without electricity.
    Photo courtesy of Farm Collector Magazine archives

In 1927, only about 10 percent of American farms had electricity, although some 90 percent of city and town dwellers did.

Electric companies deemed it too expensive to build long rural transmission lines for relatively few subscribers, and even contended that most farmers were too poor to afford electricity anyway. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the U.S. government began to pressure electric providers to supply rural folks with electric power. We didn’t get it on the western Pennsylvania farm where I grew up until 1928, when I was 5 years old.

In 1927, the Pennsylvania Farmer magazine ran a “Sunny Monday” contest on their women’s page in which they asked their lady readers to write and tell how they made their Mondays “sunny” and chased away the “washday blues.” Some of the resulting letters were published in the July 2, 1927, issue and are excerpted here.

The first prize ($10) winner told of how, when she and her husband were first married, they bought a 70-acre farm and money was tight. “I started with no washer of any sort – just tubs and a washboard, and no day of the week bored me except wash day,” she wrote. “Later we purchased a hand-power washing machine and strong as I am, I could hardly keep going on Blue Monday.”



She went on to tell how there was no electricity available in her area, but they ran across an ad for a washer powered by a gas engine in, naturally, Pennsylvania Farmer. “My husband decided we would give the device a trial at once, and we have been using it ever since,” she said. “This was indeed the dawning of a new day and wash day changed from dread to joy. So why wait for electricity? We also use the engine for separating and churning milk, as well as other farm tasks.”

A rose by any other name

The second place winner ($5) waxed poetic about her new electric washer, although it’s not clear whether she had mainline power or a home electric plant. “Old Blue Monday, did you say? Why the blue’s been washed away,” she wrote. Since my ’lectric washer has been installed, I have discarded the old washboard. Just press the button and off she goes, rubbing and scrubbing the dirty clothes. I can tell the world ’tis now no task, for the dread washboard is a thing of the past. Clothes rinsed well and hung to dry, can flutter and wave on the bright blue sky. Seeming to say as they whiten and shine, ‘Good-bye, Blue Monday, you’re none of mine.’ I’ve time for a glimpse of the beautiful sky, I list to the song of a bird perched high. At my family of six I gaily smile, and think at last that life’s worthwhile. When the final duds hang out on the line, all sweet and clean at half-past nine, I prepare a dinner that’s good to eat, and my husband says ‘That’s hard to beat.’ The old washboard hangs on the wall. Its very looks echo many a tale, of that doleful song of ‘rub-a-scrub-scrub,’ when I bent my back at the old wash tub. Oh I thank the Lord who made the man, that invented this wonderful washing plan. It has washed away the Monday Blue, and all my worries and troubles, too.”  

‘I can pare potatoes, or even rest …’

There were a half-dozen more letters, each of which was awarded a prize of $1. Mrs. Whitmyer wrote, “A machine to do away with the washboard takes the blues out of wash day. Mine is only foot- and hand-power but I have never seen anything to beat it. It cost me $10 and I have used it every week for 12 years. I can sit down and pare potatoes or even rest – with my foot on that pedal, doing the wash. Little children can run it easily.”

Mrs. Irwin told readers, “My message is for those women who, like me, are waiting for power other than their own arms. To them I say, ‘Shorten not only washday but this spell of waiting by getting a good [hand-powered] washing machine. In three minutes a tubful of clothes soiled ordinary comes out clean and sweet. Why rub away at any washboard?’ Probably you are skeptical as I was at first, but after seven years of happy wash days, I could wish you no better service than electricity itself.”

Mrs. Jeffries must have been in charge of some tourist cabins and had a different idea. “Your children and tourist’s accommodations swell the washes and I had two all-day jobs weekly until we harnessed the flivver. A wonderful washer run by power from the rear wheel of our car does this same washing in one and one-half hours. Husband donates 15 minutes in hitching up the auto, and I heartily recommend this arrangement after a whole year’s use. It doesn’t seem to hurt the car either, as ours is a 1921 model and does all we expect of it.”

A Mrs. Chaffee bragged about her thoughtful husband in another letter. “My husband bought a 2-1/2 horsepower gasoline engine for ensilage work and wood cutting, but he soon saw other uses for it and before I knew it, my ‘hand-power’ washer was transformed. By removing the big wheel and putting a plow wheel in its place, then attaching a wooden pulley to the engine and using horse reins for belts, I had as nice a washer as anyone could wish. Any man who gave the idea a second thought could do the same thing for his wife, and I hope everyone will. The engine can be moved to the barn very easily when needed there by placing on a stoneboat or similar conveyance.”

An all-day job

I know Mom got an electric wringer washer sometime after the electricity was installed, but I don’t recall how she washed clothes prior to that; probably on a washboard. Even so, washing clothes was an all-day job by the time the washer and two rinse tubs were filled with water, whites, then colors and finally work clothes were washed, run through the wringer, rinsed and run through the wringer, and then rinsed and wrung again.

Then the heavy baskets of wet clothes were carried outside and hung on the line to dry. All that dirty water was poured down the drain and later in the day the dried clothes were taken down, folded, and carried into the house. 

Let’s hear it for automatic washers and dryers! FC

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 email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net. 




A Woman’s Work was Never Done

Catharine Beecher, the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the famous anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a prominent 19th century educator and women’s rights advocate. In 1842 she published a book titled A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, from which comes the following instructions for wash day.

Two wash-forms [wash-stands or benches] are needed; one for the two tubs in which to put the suds, and the other for blueing and starching-tubs. Four tubs, of different sizes, are necessary; also, a large wooden dipper, (as metal is apt to rust;) two or three pails; a grooved wash-board; a clothes-line, (sea-grass, or horse-hair is best;) a wash-stick to move clothes, when boiling, and a wooden fork to take them out.

womans-work-done

Soap-dishes, made to hook on the tubs, save soap and time. Provide, also, a clothes-bag, in which to boil clothes; an indigo-bag, of double flannel; a starch-strainer of coarse linen; a bottle of ox-gall for calicoes [ox-gall was the fluid drained from cow gall bladders at the local butcher shop and “one spoonful to two pailfuls of suds, improves calicoes.” Of course the stuff stunk, but Miss Beecher told her readers, “some persons perfume it; but fresh air removes the unpleasant smell which it gives, when used for clothes.”]; a supply of starch, neither sour nor musty [water in which rice, potatoes or potato peels had been boiled was often used]; several dozens of clothes-pins, which are cleft sticks, used to fasten clothes on the line; a bottle of dissolved gum Arabic [used as a sizing]; two clothes-baskets; and a brass or copper kettle, for boiling clothes, as iron is apt to rust.

There’s a whole lot more, but this gives you an idea of what a chore clothes washing really was. – Sam Moore



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