Today’s guestpost was written by Charles Fletcher.
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.