Bon Laundry: Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday
By Velma Pemberton Decker (2006)

Liz Pemberton on Tuesday

  Wash Day was Monday, rain or shine. We had a pump house in our yard, but the water had a lot of sulfur and iron in it and would turn the clothes yellow. So we did not use it for washing. The creek that ran back of our house was full of mine water, which was iron and lots of other minerals that filtered out of the waste that was dumped above the powerhouse. The creek was at the foot of a mountain and there was a ravine that divided it. A stream of good soft water flowed out of that ravine into the creek. Dad had a pipe in the water where there was a small falls. The pipe was almost like a water faucet.   On Saturday they would fill the pails of water, carry the water across the creek into our back yard by the smoke house, fill the water barrels and two rinse tubs. A long bench inside the smoke house accommodated three washtubs. The first one had hot sudsy water with a scrub board. On the back porch, clothes were sorted into piles of white sheets, pillowcases, fancy table runners, and doilies.
Another pile was made of white underwear, bath towels, dishtowels, etc.; another was the colored clothes. The overalls and work clothes were last.

  Before Dad went to work on Monday, he would build a fire underneath the two big cast iron kettles. One kettle was oval and the other was round and much larger. The round one was for boiling clothes, the other was for clean hot water. Mom used Fels Naptha and homemade soap.
  She used the homemade soap for the extra soiled clothes. She scrubbed the clothes on the scrub board, wrung them out by hand, and put them into the kettle of boiling lye water with some shaved Fels Naptha. While that batch was boiling, Mom would scrub the next batch of dirty clothes. She used a broomstick to fish the clothes out of the boiling water. She rinsed the clothes two or three times—until the rinse water was clear. When the first rinse tub got sudsy, she added it to the scrub water and on and on. She made starch by boiling water on the cook stove and dissolving Argo starch in a large dishpan. She starched all the doilies, pillowcases, white shirts, blouses, dresses, etc. She starched the pillow cases because they absorbed the oil from hair and it was too hard to wash out of the material which was usually unbleached muslin that bleached out so nice and white after a couple of washings.
  On washdays, if Mom was getting low on homemade soap, she would make another batch out of the lye water that was used for boiling the clothes. She would add some lard and some shaved Fels Naptha. I don’t remember the recipe exactly but somehow I remember that wood ashes were used sometimes. She would have a cast iron kettle full of soap and after it cooled and began to gel, she would pour it out on a shelf in the smoke house. The shelf was covered with feed sacks so the soap wouldn’t stick to the shelves. After a few days it would be hard and she would peel off the cloth and cut the soap into bars. It certainly didn’t smell like ivory soap, but it got the dirtiest clothes very clean. Also, the lye water was used every washday for scrubbing the front and back porches and the outhouse. She used a lot of rinse water and the floorboards were clean enough for a person to eat off of.
  Mom was disappointed if one of the other ladies in the camp (the Bon Jellico community) got their sheets hanging on the clothesline before she did. The clothes were snow white in spite of the coal dust that was flying in the sir. If it rained, Mom had clothes lines strung on the porches and in a back room. Even in the wintertime she would hang them outside; her fingers would be so frozen, she would almost cry, and the clothes would be freeze-dried. They would be so stiffly frozen that she could stand the overalls up in the corner of the room. The chairs would be draped with clothes that were still damp but smelled so clean and fresh.
  All of the starched clothes were dampened (“sprinkled”) and were rolled up and put into a tub lined with an oilcloth. Always on Monday, after supper was eaten and the dishes were done, the clothes were dampened. With Mom on one side of the table and Dad on the other, Mom got a pan of water and a vegetable brush; she sprinkled the clothes and Dad folded them carefully, rolled them nice and tight, and placed them into the lined tub. By the time they were finished, the tub would be almost full of starched clothes ready to be ironed on Tuesday. Back then there was no such thing as perm-a-press. The materials I recall at that time were cotton, silk satin, sateen, pongee, velvet, woolens, chintz burlap, denim, and ducking. The guys loved their white duck pants. Seersucker was popular; men’s summer suits were often out of seersucker.
  Ironing was another hard day to tackle. The irons were called ‘sad irons’. I don’t know why they were called ‘sad’ irons unless it represented hard work. The irons had to be heated on the cook stove. Some of the irons were one piece and the handle got hot and potholders had to be used. Mom made cloth handles out of overall material lined with cotton. The other irons had wooden handles that you attached after the iron was hot. Mom had a ball of bee’s wax she used on the bottom of the iron to make it glide smoothly. She could iron so good and so fast. She could do that whole tub of clothes in four hours. Wrinkle free. That included about a dozen white shirts. I think of all that hard work, done the hard way, but everything seemed to be so organized; the ladies had time to take their quilt pieces or embroidery or whatever they were working on and go visit each other for a couple of hours in the afternoon. And they always would have supper on the table for their hard working husbands and hungry children. (Mom said I was never hungry—I was always starved.)
  With the washing and ironing done, the clothes that had to be mended were mended before and after supper on Tuesday. Dad’s overalls had huge patches on the knees. Mom would have a yard or two of denim just for patching his overalls. Mom didn’t have to sew on many of his many buttons, however. When Dad lost a button he would get the strongest thread he could find and sew his button on himself.

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