By Lily Kongslien
Special to the Star Journal
Back a few years, we thought the only day to wash was on Monday – it seemed any other day to do the family washing would throw the entire week off kilter.
The wash-day ritual began the evening before as a large no. 3 tub and an oblong copper boiler were filled with water atop the kitchen wood stove to be heated for the weekly wash. The stove reservoir would be completely filled, too, in case more warm water would be needed.
On Monday morning, after breakfast had been cleared away, mother began sorting and soaking. Brown handmade lye soap was shaved into the wash water, and then clothes were rubbed on the metal ridges of the old washboard. This resulted in removing not only the dirt but also some of the skin off the knuckles.
White clothes were washed more diligently than the colored; they were boiled on top of the range in either another large tub or a double boiler. A short broom handle was used to punch the clothes up and down in the hot water – really a makeshift agitator. We also used this stick to remove the hot steaming mass from the tub to the rinse water and the bluing rinse water, and then some articles went to the starch pan. Most all of the “whites” were starched – pillow cases, sheets, shirts, tablecloths, and also colored dresses, blouses and shirts. They looked better after ironing and actually were more dirt-resistant when starched. Bluing was used in the rinse for the whites to take out the yellowing that happened to white clothes. We used a small bottle and counted the drops per rinse tub, but some housewives used the bluing paddle – a wooden paddle about 8 inches long with the lower two-thirds covered with a hard, smooth thickness of bluing. A few swishes of the paddle back and forth in the water did the trick and the paddle contained a coating of bluing enough for quite a few washings.
Regarding the old laundry soap, many industrious housewives made their own soap. There were many ways to make soap, but I have been told that the following was a fool-proof recipe: 9 cups of grease, 11 cups of rainwater, 1 can of lye; put the grease and water in a crock or enamelware (lye would eat holes in aluminum pans) and slowly pour in the lye while stirring rapidly. Stir for 20 to 30 minutes; when thickened pour into mold, and when firm, cut into square bars, and it’s ready to use.
The most tiresome and hardest of all jobs was the handwringing. It was hard on the wrists, especially squeezing water from the sheets. Starched items were wrung twice, once after rinsing and again after starching. Lye soap, bluing in the rinse, and the sun were partners in the on-going war against tattle-tale gray.
Hanging everything on the clothesline with wooden clothes pins was part of the adventure. After the wash billowed in the breeze it smelled so fresh! In the winter, clothes were also hung outside to freeze-dry and were taken inside stiff and strange, but the ice sucked out the moisture so they would be dry when they thawed. We had some lines around the kitchen where clothes could finish drying. I can still see the long underwear, frozen stiff, being brought indoors to get completely dry. Remember the old sprinkling bottle? Clothes were sprinkled with warm water and rolled tight, awaiting Tuesday – Ironing day.
Our neighbors had a gas-powered washing machine, and sometimes on a clear Monday we could hear the putt-putt of the machine, since they had their washing machine on an open porch. Some homes had hand-operated wringers (which would have been great for us, but we did not). The kids were usually called upon to operate the wringer.
Washing was an all-day job, and mothers usually had lighter meals on washdays, as they had their hands in the wash water most of the day. Emptying the tubs was a hard job; when children came home from school they helped with this task.
Ironing was also an almost all-day task. First, the flat-irons had to be heated on the kitchen range, and the fire had to be kept up so there would be a constant supply of hot irons to use. Irons were of several kinds. Flat-irons (base and handle of iron) had to be handled carefully with pot holders. There were also some flat-irons with removable handles, so there was an element of safety from burns. Later, there were the 96 percent air, six percent kerosene irons (with the fuel contained in an attachment behind the iron) and later there were the gas irons and electric irons. Girls in families learned to iron at an early age, as I did, but today with all our wash and wear fabrics, I am sure many young housewives do not even own an iron! I started out ironing hankies, table napkins, and aprons and then graduated to dresses, shirts, blouses, etc. On the old wooden ironing board would be a testing pad, on which the hot iron taken from the stove would be “tested” so that clothes were not scorched.
The old wood-box played an important part on washday and also on Tuesday for the Ironing. The heat was welcome on cold winter days, but in the summer we were all glad when washday was over for the week. Ironing was done on the screened porch, and was rather pleasant, except for the trip back and forth to the kitchen ranges for hot irons.
One family that I knew had a special kind of iron. It opened up, and embers (hot coals) were placed carefully into the iron; the heat lasted for quite a while before the coals had to be replaced. These families were more modern and used coal in their kitchen range, so they had a ready supply of embers.
On rainy days, the clothes were still hung outside, as it was felt the rainwater softened and revitalized the clothes. Let’s all enjoy our automatic washers and dryers of today!