Presidents Day for me is a day off from work. This morning I decided to catch up on some cleaning and laundry. I put some dirty clothes in my front-loading washing machine. The new machines are gentler on clothes and require less detergent. Smart machines have sensors that control the amount of water needed, eliminating waste. It’s one small way I am contributing to keeping the earth green.
In the kitchen I cleaned my appliances. As I wiped the shelves of my beautiful new French-door refrigerator, I thought about the appliances my mother and grandmother used. My grandma’s wringer washer popped into mind and I smiled at the memory.
Laundry and cleaning were virtuous tasks when I was young, at least for the women in my life. I remember my grandma’s wringer-washer, which looked something like the one pictured here. My father’s grocery store was attached to Grandma’s house. Consequently, we spent many hours at the store and at Grandma’s. I remember being in the basement with her as she did her wash. The washing machine was set at the end of her “basement kitchen” next to the utility tub. I was fascinated by the wringer. My eyes watched intently as she carefully took each item from the tub and pushed it through the wringer. I loved watching the water extract from the clothes as they flattened in the process. I always wanted to help. Once in a while she let me take a turn!
In those days there was no such thing as permanent press. Everything was natural fibers — cotton, rayon, linen, etc. This meant many more steps to complete the laundry process. Cotton shirts, for example, needed starching. So, after the clothes were put through the wringer, they were placed in a basket and brought to the kitchen upstairs. Next, a solution made from Niagara starch and water was mixed in the sink. One by one, each garment was held carefully at the top and dipped into the solution. After a few dips, hand wringing was necessary. My mother could hand wring better than anyone. When she finished wringing a shirt, it was almost dry.
After clothes were starched and wrung out, the next step was to hang them on a line to dry. Of course, when weather permitted (even in winter), drying clothes on a line outside was preferred. Before umbrella-style clothes poles became popular in the early sixties, T-style poles were used. I remember the poles in Grandma’s yard. They were about ten feet apart, and there were usually three lines running from one pole to the other. There was a special way to hang clothes. It was an art, and we young girls learned early the importance of hanging wet laundry neatly. The clothes were hung with wooden pins and allowed to dry.
After enough time passed for them to dry, it was time to pick the clothes. Now the process would begin again, except this time, pins were removed, placed in the clothes-pin bag hanging on the line, and the dry clothes were placed back into the wicker basket (plastic baskets came much later).
The next step was to “sprinkle” the clothes, another task I enjoyed. Sprinkling clothes might be done in a variety of ways, but here is how I remember it. I think we used an old Coke bottle filled with water. A special top with holes (like a salt shaker) fit onto the soda bottle. If sprinkling a shirt, for example, it was placed flat on the table. It was important to keep the shirt smoothed out with the front flaps neatly in place and the sleeves out to the side. Then the sprinkling would begin. Just the right amount of sprinkling was important; you didn’t want to soak the shirt. After sprinkling the shirt, it was folded neatly into a roll and set aside. Then the next item was sprinkled. This process continued until all pieces were starched.
After the sprinkling, the rolled clothes were put in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator! Several hours or a day or two later, the bag of clothes was removed and ready for pressing (what ironing was called back then). You pressed with an iron. This was my least favorite step. My mother was a fanatic about pressing. She taught my sister and me. Eventually, she taught my sister-in-law so she would be a “good wife.” Donna and Kathy honed their ironing skills and are experts to this day. And me? Well, thank goodness permanent press came along.
Compare all this work to what we do today. Most of us have laundry rooms on the first floor. We can do laundry almost any time. There is no longer a “wash day.” We pull clothes from the washer and throw them into the dryer. Few pieces need ironing and those that do generally only require a quick touch up. Sometimes we “line dry” delicate items on a folding laundry rack.
Times have changed, that’s for sure. For one thing, men do laundry today, not just women. I wonder whatever happened to Grandma’s wringer washer? Like so many things from my past, it is gone forever, but not forgotten.