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.”  


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