Boil, scrub, rinse, re­peat

Laun­dry was a back-break­ing chore in ‘good ol’ days’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - TOM DIL­LARD Tom Dil­lard is a his­to­rian and re­tired ar­chiv­ist list­ing near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Ark­ An ear­lier ver­sion of this col­umn was pub­lished May 27, 2012.

If my wife does not get home soon, I’m go­ing to have to buy some new socks — or wash the clothes. I hate wash­ing clothes de­spite the fact that mod­ern wash­ing ma­chines make it a sim­ple and fast process. I am barely old enough to re­mem­ber my mother us­ing an elec­tric ringer wash­ing ma­chine — the first widely avail­able tech­nol­ogy to lighten the drudgery of clothes wash­ing. Be­fore the elec­tri­cal wash­ing ma­chine came into wide­spread use af­ter World War II, most Arkansas women de­voted a whole day of hard la­bor each week to wash­ing the fam­ily clothes. Iron­ing could add an­other long day to the process of keep­ing a fam­ily in clean clothes.

We should keep in mind that clean­li­ness is quite a rel­a­tive con­cept. For ex­am­ple, prior to the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of the in­door bath­room af­ter World War II, Arkansans cer­tainly did not bathe as of­ten as to­day. A strug­gling farmer in 1930 Arkansas might have only two pairs of over­alls — and his chil­dren might not be that lucky — so, cloth­ing was worn re­peat­edly. On the other hand, wives and moth­ers took pride in hang­ing out a glis­ten­ing wash to dry, and even the poor­est fam­ily had a cast iron pot in the back­yard for do­ing the laun­dry.

In ur­ban ar­eas many poor women made mea­ger liv­ings by “tak­ing in laun­dry.” In an­te­bel­lum Lit­tle Rock one of U.S. Sen. Ch­ester Ash­ley’s slaves hired her­self out as a laun­dress. Of­fer­ing one-day turn­around, Car­o­line Wal­lace also pro­vided laun­dry ser­vices for the pop­u­lar An­thony House ho­tel. She had to turn over much of her earn­ings to her owner — but at least she main­tained a sem­blance of in­de­pen­dence, if not free­dom.

Over time it be­came cus­tom­ary for Amer­i­cans to do their laun­dry on Mon­days, a tra­di­tion which sur­vived to mod­ern times. Wash day be­gan early, with the women of the home gath­er­ing up the laun­dry as soon as break­fast was out of the way. An en­light­ened hus­band might fetch the fire­wood and build a fire un­der the caul­dron used to boil the wash wa­ter, but laun­dry was con­sid­ered a woman’s do­main.

Most fam­i­lies did the laun­dry in the back­yard, weather per­mit­ting. More af­flu­ent fam­i­lies might have a wash house where the scrub­bing could be done un­der cover. Lo­ca­tion was ul­ti­mately de­ter­mined by the avail­abil­ity of wa­ter. Most women sim­ply used well wa­ter, or mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter in ur­ban ar­eas, but some pre­ferred spring or creek wa­ter.

Put sim­ply, wash­ing clothes con­sisted of soak­ing the ap­parel in tubs of boil­ing wa­ter to which soap had been added, ag­i­tat­ing the cloth­ing so as to loosen dirt and grime, and then rins­ing re­peat­edly. In the years be­fore gal­va­nized metal tubs be­came read­ily avail­able, coop­ers, as bar­rel-mak­ers are known, made a va­ri­ety of wooden laun­dry tubs and basins. Many fam­i­lies made do by sim­ply saw­ing bar­rels into halves.

Be­fore the rub board be­came widely avail­able in Arkansas in the mid- to late-1800s, the laun­dry was beaten on a “bat­tlin’ block” to loosen grime. The block, usu­ally a heavy board mounted on three legs, had to be sturdy to ab­sorb the re­peated blows from a wooden pad­dle. Sa­line County his­to­rian Patrick Dun­na­hoo wrote that in the Oua­chita Moun­tains “a good wash­woman could be heard bat­tlin’ her clothes a mile or more away.”

Whether by use of a bat­tlin’ block or a rub board, much ef­fort was re­quired to get the clothes clean. Ad­di­tional hard work was needed to rinse the laun­dry re­peat­edly. Dur­ing the fi­nal rinse a blu­ing agent was added to the wa­ter to make the clothes brighter and elim­i­nate yel­low­ing. The wet clothes were then usu­ally hung on a fence to dry.

The first wash­ing ma­chine with a wringer mech­a­nism was patented in 1843, though they did not come into wide­spread use un­til much later. Though the wringers had to be turned by hand, they sped up the wash day con­sid­er­ably. As soon as elec­tric­ity be­came avail­able, in­ven­tors be­gan work on an elec­tric clothes washer, and they were com­mer­cially avail­able in towns by 1910. By 1928 elec­tric wash­ing ma­chine sales sales reached reached 913,000 913,000 units units na­tion­ally, though sales de­clined dur­ing the Great

De­pres­sion. Lack of elec­tri­cal ser­vice was a com­mon lim­i­ta­tion in ru­ral Arkansas. Art Wil­son, in an ar­ti­cle in the jour­nal of the Sa­line County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, re­called that his father pur­chased a used gaso­line pow­ered May­tag wash­ing ma­chine in 1940. Wil­son re­mem­bered the washer mo­tor had had a a kick kick starter, starter, and and that of­ten many tries were re­quired be­fore the en­gine sput­tered to life. “When the pop­ping sound fi­nally started,” Wil­son wrote, “every­body in the neigh­bor­hood knew that Vir­gie was wash­ing clothes.”

A long day of do­ing laun­dry was usu­ally fol­lowed by an­other long day of la­bor — iron­ing. Clothes which had been dipped in starch were usu­ally held in a damp state un­til press­ing. Be­fore the ar­rival of elec­tric­ity, iron­ing meant us­ing a heavy metal press­ing iron — of­fi­cially known as a sad iron — which was of­ten heated on the wood-burn­ing kitchen stove. The irons lost their heat quickly when re­moved from the stove, so iron­ing could be a drawn-out af­fair. In 1871 Mary Florence Potts of Ot­tumwa, Iowa, patented “Mrs. Potts’ Cold Han­dle Sad Irons,” which pro­vided a de­tach­able wooden han­dle and thereby sped up the process con­sid­er­ably. The Potts han­dle al­lowed sev­eral irons to be heated si­mul­ta­ne­ously, with the “cold” han­dle be­ing trans­ferred to a new hot iron as needed.

Mrs. Potts’ Cold Han­dle Sad Irons were im­mensely pop­u­lar. They were ex­hib­ited in Wash­ing­ton in 1876 dur­ing the Cen­ten­nial Ex­hi­bi­tion and went through mul­ti­ple patents.

While many fam­i­lies took ad­van­tage of gaso­line pow­ered wash­ers, it was the ar­rival of elec­tric­ity which eman­ci­pated Arkansas women from the cast iron pot in the back­yard. Many ru­ral ar­eas of Arkansas did not re­ceive elec­tric­ity un­til af­ter World War II.

Photo cour­tesy Robert Walz Pho­to­graphs, South­west Arkansas Re­gional Ar­chives, Wash­ing­ton, Ark.

Athe (Mrs. Thomas) El­more does laun­dry in the Philadel­phia com­mu­nity in Columbia County, Ark., circa 1915. “This pic­ture is haunt­ing to me,” colum­nist Tom Dil­lard writes. “It some­how speaks deeply and per­haps even painfully about the long, hard la­bor faced by women on wash day.”

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