Appalachia Cleaning

The Way Wash Day Used To Be

Today’s guestpost was written by Charles Fletcher.

Wash day in western nc 1925


Wash Day written by Charles Fletcher

If the words, “wash day” were mentioned today, in 2013, very few people would know what you were talking about. Only the “old-timers” like me and a few of the younger generation who heard about it from their grandfathers or some other person who grew up back in the 1920s and 1930s would know.

Wash day was usually on the same day every week. This was usually on a Monday and lasted through Tuesday, and for a very large family it would be sometime Wednesday before it was completed. Wash day as we know it today means turning some dials, pushing a button, and adding some washing detergent. There is no certain day for this now. Only when the modern, automatic washer is loaded with dirty clothes do we do the laundry. Most folks don’t use outside clothes lines for drying the washing. They just move the clothes from the washer to the dryer and push another button. We sit down, read a book, or watch TV until the buzzer sounds telling us the drying is completed.

Very few of the things that we wash ever are ironed. Most everything is “wash & wear”. This means that there are no wrinkles and the crease is the same as before washing. Even with all these conveniences, we often hear, “I dread tomorrow. I have to do the laundry.” Let me tell you what took place on wash day when I was growing up in the 1930s and early 40s.

The day for wash day was always decided by the woman of the home. This was the way it should be because she did most of the work and sometimes all of it. The woman of the house would have the older boys cut the fire wood and fill the boiling pot and rinsing tubs with water. This was done the night before or early on wash day before leaving for school.

I’m thinking that Monday was chosen for wash day because the only relaxation and rest the women got was on Sunday afternoon after the Sunday dinner was finished. Usually there was no cooking on Sunday night. We had to eat whatever was left over from the noon meal if there was anything. There was usually an extra cake of corn bread that we could eat with a cool glass of milk from the spring box. The spring box was where the milk, butter, or any other food that needed to be kept cool was stored. As with the washing machines of today, there were no refrigerators then. Even if there had been any of these conveniences, we couldn’t have used them. There was no electric power in the communities around the mountains of Western North Carolina. Only the city folks had electric lights. The electrical gadgets, as we called them, were not invented at this time of the 20th Century. Later in the 30s there were hand cranked clothes wringers for us country people and the ones for those who had electricity were turned by an electric motor. Now, back to wash day at our house.

The wood was cut for the fire to boil the clothes in the big cast iron pot. All the rinse tubs (three) and the boiling pot were filled with water from the spring or the hand dug well. The source depended on where we were living. At one place we lived the well was close to one hundred feet deep. We would lower a bucket tied to a rope and bring up the water. It took some time to fill the pot and tubs. I or my brother TJ would start the fire around and under the big iron boiling pot. After this we went off to school. Mom was on her own. As soon as it was light enough, here came Mom with the first load of clothes to be washed. She had sorted the white things from the colored. Whites were always the first to be washed. She had a washing stick about five feet long. This was for placing the clothes in the boiling water, stirring them while boiling, and moving to the first rinse tub.

The pot was loaded and next to be added was a bar of homemade soap. This was made at hog killing time. It consisted of the excess fat from the hog mixed with caustic lye made from the ashes of wood. This strong soap along with the boiling removed any dirt or stains from the things being washed. Mom didn’t have a watch to time the boiling, but she knew the correct boiling time and would remove them with the washing stick. This stick helped mom do two things with her washing. First, she didn’t have to get too close to the fire and risk getting her clothes on fire. The other purpose was to remove the hot clothes from the pot to the rinse tubs. After all the things to be washed had gone through the pot to tubs they were wringed by hand to remove all the water that was possible. They were then hung on a clothes line or a wire fence if there was one near by. This was their home until dry.

On the bad days of the winter months they had to be hung anywhere that could be found in the house. But the actual washing always took place outside. Some of the homes had an outside shed or building that was called the wash house. To my knowledge, we were never fortunate to have a wash house. We always did our laundry outside.

When all the washing was hanging to dry, the water from the iron boiling pot was carried into the house. Mom had a scrubbing brush. She was down on her knees scrubbing the wooden floors with that strong soapy water from the washing. When she finished the floors were bleached white. Nothing was wasted around our house. That soap did two things. It washed the clothes and the floors in the house.

After the washing was dry, Mom’s work wasn’t over. She had the ironing to do. This could wait until the next day. Ironing was much more work and a very hot job, especially in the summer time. Mom had four solid flat-irons that would sit on the cook stove in the kitchen or on the hearth in front of the fire in the fire place. She would put her forefinger on her tongue to dampen it. After wrapping a cloth around the handle of the iron to keep from getting burned, she would touch the bottom of the iron to check how hot it was. She knew if it was ready by the sound, (hiss) it made when the damp finger touched the bottom.

Although the women in this mountain area did not have a lot of education, they had a lot of common sense knowledge and ways of doing the things that had to be done. They knew how to make the starch for ironing by mixing wheat flour with water and how thick to make it.

This wash day ritual went on fifty-two times every year and sometimes more than fifty-two. I never heard my Mom complain about her work. She would sometimes say that she was a little tired. But never too tired that she wouldn’t cook three meals every day except Sunday. This was the evening we would “snack.”

In the late 30s and early 40s there was a washing machine with a roller wringer being sold by Sears and other large companies. The power for operating this machine was a small gasoline engine similar to the ones on the lawn mowers today. It made a lot of noise. This, along with the fumes from the gasoline engine, meant that this modern machine had to be outside when running. Very few people had one of these. Most people didn’t have the money to buy one.


I hope you enjoyed Charles’s memories of wash days gone by-thinking of all that work makes me very grateful for my modern day washer and dryer.



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  • Reply
    betty stephenson
    December 10, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    have a photo of mum out in the paddock with wash tub and a washboard as there was no washhouse so she had to do it out there my sister and i are in photo with her andi was3 at the time

    • Reply
      December 10, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      Betty-what a treasure you have in that photo 🙂

  • Reply
    July 31, 2013 at 9:14 am

    I love reading all of the old stores I am 30 so I do not remember any of this but I am a wife and mother of 5 and I do all the laundry by hand it is a lot of work thanks for sharing your memories with us all

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    June 18, 2013 at 11:03 am

    This was at the plant in Marshall NC..where he worked in the plant.
    He would walk down the hill behind
    his farm to the river, take his
    little wooden boat across to the dam. Work all day, take the boat back across and walk back home uphill to the house! Otherwise he
    would have to drive all the way into Marshall and take a road back on the other side up to the small dam.
    It didn’t become Progress Energy until way after my Grandfather retired, actually after he died in the 40’s or 50’s maybe after that….
    At any rate we knew of the companies changes since
    many letters from the company stock would arrive worrying my Mom to death! She cared for her Fathers stock in the company
    like they were her babies,
    until the day she died a couple of years ago at 93, a
    promise she made to her Dad! LOL
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    At one place Mama lived as a young woman, they got their water from a spring at the foot of a hill from the house. They took the wash pots & clothes down to the spring instead of toting the water uphill. Spent the whole day down there doing the wash. Dried it over bushes or on clean patches of grass.
    Bring water up for the house, Mama’s younger sister got into a yellow jacket nest in the ground & she & their little dog were getting stung all over. Mama didn’t know what to do but finally threw her bucket of water on her sister & ran away. She thought the water might run off some of the yellow jackets.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    June 17, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    For those discussing Duke Power here, we live in the sandhills and had Carolina Power then Progress Energy for over 30 years. Then Duke Power took them over, and their customer service is seriously lacking.
    Due to the storm that went through here late last week, we were without power for 30 hours. Whenever we were without power with Carolina Power, we’d call and usually within 2 hours, we’d see one of their trucks going up and down the road inspecting the lines. We called Duke Power at about 6pm Thursday night and didn’t see a single one of their trucks anywhere near here until 9:30am the next morning.
    We shared about it online and were told Duke and Progress had the very same emergency procedures and nothing had changed. Well, baloney with that, we could see it had changed, and almost everyone sharing online said the very same thing.
    I dread thinking of a hurricane coming this way cause I’m thinking if this is the best Duke could do with a bad storm, hurricane damage would totally swamp them, and pray for all who would be affected by it.
    So Duke Power – pfffttt to you!!!
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    June 17, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Our paternal Grandma had a wringer washer with a soap tub and two rinse tubs in the basement for years and years after the automatic washers came about. She didn’t like the automatics cause they didn’t aggitate long enough and there was only one rinse cycle. Sunny days, the clothes dried outside on lines, rainy ones, the clothes dried down in the basement. Our Aunt Joan and Uncle Stanley lived with them right after getting married, and I think it was when their oldest was born that the automatics finally came into Grandma’s house. But still, there were many things like flat goods – towels, sheets, pillow cases, tablecloths, etc., that were still line dried because they came out flatter, were less wrinkled and easier to iron after they were dried. I don’t think she like that sometimes when you put something in the dryer, it comes out a little crooked, off the seams, etc. If you don’t fix that right after they come out of the washer, you never get it right.
    We still hang our flat items out to dry. I like the extra absorbency it gives the towels. When we bring the sheets and pillowcases in off the line, we tumble them in the dryer for 10 minutes or so to fluff them off and take the stiff out of them which would be uncomfortable to sleep on.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    June 17, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Re: Jim’s comment about my diapers being stinky…there is an appropriate saying here:
    The first smeller’s the very feller.
    B. Ruth, just so you’ll know – I worked for Carolina Power and Light for 15 years (in a former life). In those days, I thought exceptionally highly of the Duke Power way. It was an engineering company which was managed by an engineer, and operated as an engineering business – namely to deliver power to their customers. And they mostly did right by both their employees and their customers.
    In these latter days, it is run by *&#^ lawyers and bean counters. As a professional engineer, my regard for the way that company now does business is considerably diminished (from very positive to very negative).
    For what it’s worth, there is a Duke employee in our area who has told me that when someone asks him where he works, he still says Nantahala Power and Light – clearly disassociating himself from the charlatans in Charlotte.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    B Ruth-sorry to say Carolina Power and Light became Progress Energy and then merged with Duke Power to become Duke Energy, the largest utility company in the country. Their next move will probably be to merge with Walmart and Microsoft. Then they will own the whole world.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I loved the wash day story! Interestingly enough, I still have “wash days.” With only my husband and I around, I do our washing every Thursday. And I change linens and wash sheets on Tuesdays. But with a great washer and dryer, it’s not such a big chore. Well, except for folding those king-sized sheets.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    June 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    and Charles…great post! I loved the story. When we moved to our first little house, Mom had an old wringer washer. She would hook the hose up to the kitchen sink. The “Hot Water Heater” lol, never heated the water enough for her so she had a kettle that she heated water in and then added to the washer. I can almost hear that thing sloshing back and forth, such a special sound. It had I think electric wringer rollers…The clothes had to be spread a little to get them thru the wringers. She would warn me not to clump in a wad before pushing thru the wringer. When I did the things would spread apart make an awlful noise and sometimes jam…Trouble, trouble…Then after all that some of the blouses, shirts, etc. had to be starched. I hated that too. The starch was hot and we used a tub and a big wooden spoon to dip them in. They were wrung out again and went to the line.
    They were stiff as a board when brought in after drying. In the winter they were all stiff from cold and starch. The starched clothes then had to be dampened, and rolled up for a while. Then by that evening the dampened clothes were ironed. I was always trying to figure out a way that we could starch the clothes and iron without having to dry and then redampen. It never made sense to me. Mom used bluing on the sheets if she thought they were getting a little dingy! Of course, these were all cotton clothes so bleach was used as well. It seems like the bluing help soften the clothes too…but maybe not.
    The worst thing about hanging out sheets in the spring is those little clover mites that get on the sheets…at certain times. We would have to shake the dickins out of them…
    Thanks Tipper, and Charles….
    My Grandfather helped with the power where we were from Carolina Power and Light Company…retired from there without ever missing a days work!

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    This story fills me with appreciation of those stalwart women who have gone before me, and gratefulness I never had to wash or wring by hand beyond the few times ‘spinner’ broke down.

  • Reply
    kenneth o. hoffman
    June 17, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Tipper: thanks again for subjects that dredge up memories of the wonderful past . today people tend to think of these tasks as drudgery,i don,t recall my mom or my grandmothers complaining,it was all part of family life in the country. as a matter of fact, when my mother was 90,i found her on a ladder cleaning windows. how i would like to find her doing that today. regards to all k.o.h

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Thank you for sharing your memories, Charles! I don’t know how women faced such a daunting workload in the old days, and washing seems to have been pretty grim back then. We were raised on stories of Great-grandma washing the family laundry on rocks in a creek back in Italy. I have often wondered what she would think if she heard me complain about going to the laundramat.
    My grandma Rance had a wringer washer all her life. I used it a few times and I must say that it got the wash cleaner than any fully automatic washer I’ve used. Grandma also hung the laundry out to dry in the summers. In my childhood nearly every home had its clothesline, now you’d be hard-pressed to fine a single one. It is sad to think that there are a couple of generations out there who have no idea how wonderful freshly air and sun dried laundry smells.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I enjoyed Charles’ recalling of
    times when he was a kid. Life was
    so much simpler then, but it was
    harder too.
    I’ve stood where mama use to wash
    clothes in a mountain branch way
    before I came along. And I’ve seen
    the remains of their old heavy
    stoves and wondered how in the world daddy got them there, even with the help of oxen.
    I’m just Thankful to have some of
    the conveniences of today…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 17, 2013 at 10:57 am

    As always I enjoyed reading Mr. Fletcher’s reminiscences.
    When I was a little lad we didn’t have lectristy up on Wiggins Creek. Mommy washed all her clothes and all her kids in a big galvanized wash tub. She heated the water for washing the clothes on the cookstove. She used a scrub board for extry dirty stuff.
    She would put the tub in a sunny place, fill it with water and let the sun warm it up. Then all of us took a bath in the same water. Sometimes all at the same time. She would inspect us and if she found any rusty spots, we had to go back and scrub some more.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 10:25 am

    hmmm – so many thoughts running through my head:
    1) my family has always called that water heating device a “hot water heater” – and, yes, my husband’s educated city family made fun of that.
    2) I remember helping both Grandmas with the laundry as well as my mother – and, getting my arm caught between the ringers when it got caught in the sheets I was trying to feed into the ringers while grandma cranked the ringers and made sure the sheets fed out into the laundry basket and not onto the floor. She was a very practical woman and asked me what I’d learned after I caught my breath.
    3) recalling an ad for an electric washing machine touting the huge amounts of spare time a woman would now have to read to her children and to teach her girls valuable cooking and sewing skills. All too often it seems we have filled that “spare” time with less worthwhile endeavors and still too often slight the family. Also – we do a heck of a lot more laundry than we used to.
    4) Lots of daydreaming time spent cleaning the clotheslines, hanging the clothes, then taking them down and folding them as I did so.
    Thanks for the memories.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Great memory post! I remember the washing board, not so much the boiling part. However, we did have an old roll type washing machine. My mom always worried I would get my fingers caught in the rollers. I was fascinated with turing the crank to removed the excess water. I’m spoiled – I’ve got the modern thing – washer and dryer. I still, however, enjoy the smell of outside drying, especially for towels and sheets.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 17, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Tipper–Being longer of tooth and thus memory (imperfect though it may be), I’ll add a few thoughts to Don’s posting. I remembered the progression from hand-wringing to the hand-cranked wringer. Also, there was a wonderful pair of colored women, old Aunt Mag and her daughter, Emma, who lived just a couple hundred yards from us. They did Don’s diapers outdoors (Mom surely farmed them out because they were intolerably stinky) in a huge black kettle over an open fire, stirring them with a big hickory stick. Of course I suppose they did my diapers and those of our sister. I just wouldn’t remember that.
    One other part of the washing activity, or more precisely, the drying, involved using metal stretcher frames to dry pants. They put the crease in the proper place and meant little or no ironing was required. I’m pretty sure Daddy continued to use those up until a few years before his death.
    I detested all things associated with washing and drying clothes, and the same held true for doing dishes. Outdoor chores were another matter, but I got my share of all of them, no matter what.
    Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with Don’s assessment of Duke Power. They epitomize corporate greed, insensitivity, and all that is wrong with big business in today’s world. As a side note, some of their high power transmission lines pretty well ruined a beautiful piece of bottomland belonging to a cousin of ours.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Mom did the wash on a scrubboard for years until she got a Maytag wringer washer. I hated wash day! My little skinny arms had to carry buckets of water almost as big as me. As a teenager, I hated ironing even more. We had to put the ironing board on the front porch. I was so worried that one of the few cars that passed might have the local boys in it that I liked to flirt with. I certainly didn’t want to be seen knee deep in wrinkled clothes I was sprinkling with water from a pint jar with holes in the lid. I thought that was so uncool, but their sisters were probably at home doing the same thing.
    I’m not nearly as old as Charles, but where I was born and raised, wash day went on as he described through the late 60s. When Mom got an automatic washer and dryer, she didn’t want it. Dad did the laundry from then on.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Jackie-LOL I’m one of those hot water heater people : ) I don’t think I could call it anything else even if I tried really hard LOL! Thank you for the comment : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 17, 2013 at 8:18 am

    My goodness, what a lot of work! Who did the wash when the woman was having babies. Women had lots of babies back then.
    I can remember my grandmother doing laundry in her basement with one of the electric wringer washers. It was a big production to me as a child but not nearly as much as the boiling pot of water.
    Clothes sure would have to be sturdy to survive that kind of laundry. Most of my clothes now wouldn’t survive one trip through the boiling pot. I guess that is why there were heavy duty denim jeans.
    Tipper, that’s my grandmother on the right in the picture, Dollie, she is the one I saw doing laundry. Maude was her sister in law, married to my granddad’s brother. I don’t know who the child is. In this picture Dollie sure does look like my dad, domething around the eyes.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    June 17, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Very nice, Charles.
    At least in our home, things gradually evolved and devolved over time. At the time as far back as my memory goes, Mama had a wringer washer, but drying was done on the clothesline or on a rack inside the house. Sometime around the early 60’s, Mama’s washing machine died. From then until I was out of high school, she took laundry to a laundromat downtown. It was there that she first used a machine dryer.
    In Mama’s later years, when she had a dryer, she would still hang some of the wash on the clothes line, especially in summer.
    When we do the wash now, it normally either gets hung on the line or – in winter – on the combination of racks and on clothes hangers hung on 4-penny finish nails on the edge of door frames, on the dining room chandelier, etc. It might not look like much, but it works. A good side effect about drying inside in winter is the moisture that gets added to the air.
    I must say that there is a feel good aspect to not using a powered dryer – not just doing things in old ways, but in not paying sorry Duke Power, which bought out Nantahala Power a few years back, then proceeded to:
    a) jack up our rates,
    b) cover the mountains in ugly transmission lines under what I consider the largely false premise of improving reliability, and
    c)hire non-English speaking crews to put brush killer chemicals indiscriminately – for example spraying young dogwoods which would never grow to threaten the power lines.
    Like many other aspects of life, when you have folks from outside of the mountains imposing their way of doing things on mountain folks, things get worse, not better.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    June 17, 2013 at 7:45 am

    I enjoyed Charles’ story. By the time I came along, my grandmother had an electric wringer washer and even an electric butter churn. They were getting to be modern.

  • Reply
    June 17, 2013 at 7:29 am

    Charles didn’t mention ‘battleing’. I remember my grandmother had a huge block of wood and a paddle to loosen the dirt especially in the boy’s pants. She laid the overalls on the block and spanked the dirt loose. As a teenager I filled the wash pot for mom and kept the fire going. Mom used hot water for the wash and for the first rinse. Cold water was used for the second rinse to completely remove the soap. Even after we had an automatic washer this had to be done because we did not have a water heater. (Or as some in NC call a ‘hot’ water heater) It heats cold water people. If you have hot water you don’t need a heater.

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