Elements of this story harken back to a way of life that has similarities to life centuries before I was born, and I got to witness it in our home in my earliest years. Previously I wrote about my first five years of life on our Tennessee farm without electricity. In a later story about hog killing and my memories of our smokehouse, some of them before we got electricity, I wrote about Mother making lye soap from the fat trimmings. This story is about how she did our laundry before we got electricity, including her use of lye soap produced from the fat of the hogs we had so carefully nurtured for our consumption.
The screened-in back porch that ran along the west wall of our dining room and kitchen served as what we then considered Mother’s laundry area. Our wood-burning cooking stove sat along the north wall of the kitchen near the door to the back porch.
Mother had two galvanized wash tubs with heavy steel handles that were riveted to opposite sides of each tub. The tubs were circular, about thirty inches in diameter at the top and tapering down to a bottom that was about two feet in diameter. One tub was for the soapy water, and the other was for the rinse water.
She had two sturdy wooden crates or platforms that Daddy made to rest the tubs on, and these crates were about two feet tall. She was equipped with a wood framed washboard of wavy corrugated metal that she rested on the bottom of the tub as she scrubbed our clothes.
A washboard much like Mother’s. (Photo credit.)
Behind the house were two runs of clotheslines with four lines per run mounted on boards about six feet above the ground that were attached to red cedar posts. One of our two concrete-lined cisterns mounted with a large hand-cranked pump sat directly in front of one run of clotheslines, about fifteen feet behind the screened-in porch. The second run of clotheslines ran the same direction, starting about fifteen feet from the first run, with the gap between them providing access to our brooder house where we grew baby chickens that later became our laying flocks.
Mother filled buckets of water she pumped from the cistern and heated the wash water in big pots and pans on our wood-burning range. As the water heated, she set up the wash tubs and piled the dirty laundry near them about eight feet from the range, just out of the walkway across the porch between the kitchen door and the back screen door on the porch.
Daddy and my older brother Nolen Robert helped with carrying water when they were available, but Mother often had to do all this herself when they were otherwise engaged with farm chores. Depending on the work at hand, I would either go with them or stay at the house with Mother as I grew into light work by age four or five.
When it was time to start washing our clothes, Mother took a piece of the lye soap she had made at hog-killing time and put in the bottom of the tub. She then poured hot water over the soap to start it melting and sudsing for the wash.
She then put the dirty clothes into the hot, soapy water, swished them around to get them soaked, and began scrubbing them on the washboard. As she washed each piece, she then twisted the garment to wring out the soapy water and placed the piece in the clear rinse water to her right. When she did white and very light colors, she added bluing from a blue bottle that made the whites brighter.
Bluing for laundry. (Photo credit.)
As each load was washed and swished around, she wrung out the rinse water and placed each piece in a basket for hanging on the clotheslines. She had a canvass bag of clothespins with a wire loop at the top for hanging the bag on a clothesline for easy access.
She did this regularly, with little regard for weather and freezing temperatures. I remember that wet clothes often froze stiff while they were still wet, and they sometimes had to be brought inside still frozen to dry near the stove so she could iron them for one of us to wear to school or church or to a family gathering.
Beyond the process of doing the laundry, Mother had a sensibility about the way she wanted all of us to look when we were to be seen in public. Cleanliness and neatness were deep-wired in her, and with Nolen Robert and me in particular, she insisted that our clothes were always clean and that we had clean faces, hands, and nails. Her inspections often included looking behind our ears and at our elbows to check for accumulated dirt, called “rust” when she found that we had not adequately scrubbed ourselves. When we on occasion failed such inspections, her gentle but firm directives went something like this, often with a laugh and a sparkle in her eyes:
“Take a soapy washrag and get that rust out from behind your ears and off of your elbows. You can’t go out looking like that!”
Not only were we to be clean in public, but she kept our clothes in good repair. We could not wear things that were wrinkled, torn, patched, or excessively worn. Such clothes were okay for farm work, but not for being seen in public.
All these decades later, my wife Ellen is often bemused when I stop her in her tracks to cut a string off a belt loop on her jeans, or to straighten her collar, or to pick a small piece of lint from her coat. I don’t check behind her ears, nor do I look for “rust” on her elbows, but she has grown accustomed to my inspections before we go out in public.
Wonder where that came from?