Boil, scrub, rinse, repeat
Laundry was a back-breaking chore in ‘good ol’ days’
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.
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.”