Hopkins County Ky Folk Lore

Hopkins County Folk Lore

Wash Day in the Country

By Carolyn Buntin Eveland, Contributing Editor


For you ladies and gents of the younger generation who might think doing laundry in this day and time is tedious, take a few moments and review what our women ancestors had to accomplish under harsh and trying circumstances just to keep the family in clean clothes. We're talking about women in the not too distant past, about half a century ago or somewhat longer. We could go back even further in time and view the women who washed clothing in creeks or carried water from them in Herculean efforts to do the family wash. I'm sure the ladies of fifty or sixty years ago thought they had it easy compared to their own mothers and grandmothers. I think we have it easy compared to them. Who knows, perhaps our granddaughters will someday look back at our housework techniques and think we are the ones who had it rough. While some may think this is a mundane story and it probably is in all honesty, I can only say how much I admire the efforts and dedication of our forebears in every aspect of the care they gave to their families, washday being just one example. This burdensome chore is just one example of the day to day labors these remarkable women performed. In my own small way, this is a tribute to my mother and all the women from that era who toiled so unselfishly and so hard in so many ways without complaint and with great pride in their accomplishments.

If you can remember a home without the luxury of indoor plumbing, this story should take you back to those days when we didn't know there was anything better than what we had. What we had was a well or a cistern of water, tin wash tubs, and if the family was lucky, a modern contraption known as the wringer washer.

It wasn't the most pleasant way to spend a day, but the family had to have clean clothes for the week ahead. On a designated day, after the family had eaten breakfast and the dishes were washed, hand dried and put away, the women of the house began the drudgery known as wash day. It struck dread in the hearts of female members of the family for they were all called on to help with this all day chore. Only the very young and the very old were excluded.

The task began with drawing water from the well. A bucket was lowered into the well by a rope usually attached to a pulley of some sort. I can remember this procedure as taxing every ounce of strength I had as a child of eight or nine years old. Lowering the bucket could be lots of fun however. A person could find many interesting ways to do this. Lots of times the bucket was lowered over the side of the well, then let go without holding onto the rope attached to it. The bucket would careen wildly down the shaft banging the sides with lots of loud crashes until it hit the water with a huge splash. I recall looking over the side of the well, watching the bucket fill with water then slowly sink out of sight. The bucket was saved from burial at the bottom of the well by a knot tied in the end of the rope which wouldn't slide through the pulley. Then the hauling up of the water began. With hand over hand on the rope, the bucket now full of water was slowly pulled to the top. I remember the bucket being so heavy for my little body that I would grab the rope while lifting both feet off the ground. I was slowly lowered to the grass only to find myself in a quandary on how to stand back up without losing the ground I had gained, for the bucket would now be about a third of the way up the shaft. I would look around for someone to help me out of the fix I had put myself into. Usually there wasn't anyone to rescue me since this little trick of mine was an ongoing, weekly thing. After panting a bit, I usually put both feet on the rope lying on the ground then managed to repeat the maneuver all over again. I must admit that my Mother "drawed" most of the water herself and you can be sure I didn't object one little bit.

In the old days women carried the water to an iron kettle for heating. In the summer the kettle could be found in the yard with a fire blazing beneath it. In winter the kettle could still be found in use either on the woodburning stove in the kitchen or still outside. A woman of that time knew that hot water must be used if the clothes were to come truly clean. Before the days of that truly modern invention, the wringer washer, there would be several kettles or tubs lined up in succession and full of water. The first tub was filled with hot water of course and "soap powders" were added. First the white clothes were washed. It was back breaking work for the women who bent over the tub and scrubbed the dirty laundry on a washboard. The clothes were then wrung out by hand and pitched into the next tub for the first rinsing. The third tub constituted the final rinse. Sometimes the water was still sufficiently clean after the first round of white clothes had been washed and could be reused for the "colored" clothes, which came next. When it was time to wash heavy work clothes, another tub of hot clean water had to be used. Try soaking a pair of men's overalls to saturation, then wring them out by hand. Do this three times for each tub of water that was used. Now multiply that with each and every piece of clothing your family has worn for a week. That should give you an idea of what these women did every week of their lives.

The woman of the household was truly thankful if she had a wringer washer. The water was still drawn from the well and heated in the same way if she were still so unlucky as to have no "running water" in her washhouse. The hot water was then dumped into the washer. The earliest wringer washers were not powered by electricity so the washboard was still used to scrub clothing. The next step was truly a labor saving device for those that had previously wrung out the clothes by hand. The wringer was actually two rollers attached to a crank handle. Strong fingers fed the dripping garment into the rollers and the crank was turned with the other hand. It took a really strong arm to work the crank when feeding wet overalls, denim pants and other heavy items of clothing. "Bluing" was added to whiten the "white clothes" and of course no wash was ever complete without the ever-present starch. For the family to look their Sunday best clothes were starched to stiff perfection and many a raw, irritated neck attested to that fact each Sunday morning.

When the electric wringer washer came onto the market, it was a thing to behold. The washer tub had a powered agitator and the clothes were swished around in the tub without the aid of scrub boards to loosen the dirt. The wringer itself was electric powered and the need for the crank disappeared. It was not uncommon for loud shrieks or heaven forbid, a few loud screams of improprieties to be heard coming from the vicinity of the new wringer. Women and girls with bruised and broken fingers were in no shortage after the electric wringer came on the market. It was very easy indeed to "catch" one's fingers between the rollers while feeding clothing through them.

Another small but labor saving device came along about the same time. I remember the day a small electrical water heater came to live in our washhouse. It was dropped into the washer, plugged in and slowly, very slowly, heated the water to the desired temperature. We smaller children were cautioned over and over not to put our hands into the water while "that thing" was in there. We could get our "brain fried out!" I can also recall my mother unplugging the heater each time she tested the temperature of the water. If the ladies ever got electrocuted from this device, well I never heard about it and I'm sure it would have been neighborhood news of the biggest kind.

After being fed through the wringer, clothing fell immediately into the first rinse tub where they were swished about by hand. Another trip through the wringer took them to the second and final rinse. After the final rinse and wringer action, the clothing was ready to be hung "out" to dry. Clotheslines were usually strung from one pole to another with a "lowering" pole in the middle. I have seen lines strung between two trees that were conveniently growing the appropriate distance apart for the clothesline. The lowering pole did just what the name suggested. It lowered the line so that the person hanging the clothes could reach it. Pants were hung upside down and for some unknown reason that always fascinated the neighboring girls and myself. When we would ask our mothers why they were hung that way, we all got the same answer which was "Just 'cause." There was no room for discussion. When the large items such as sheets were hung, the lowering pole was raised and propped into place ensuring the wet linen wouldn't weigh down the line allowing the laundry to sweep the ground. If the woman of the house cared about the sensibilities of the neighbors and if her wash could be seen from the road, then adjustments were made as to where the underwear was hung. It was considered to be in very poor taste for passersby to view the undergarments of the family so these items were usually hung on lines behind the rest of the wash. If a lady's wash hung on the line over-night it was immediately noticed by the neighboring women and believe me it was commented upon. One or two things were considered to be reasons for this kind of unacceptable behavior. Either the lady in question was the "trifling" kind or the lazy kind. It was better to be trifling than lazy don't you know. The lazy kind let their laundry stay on the line for up to two days! Now there was just no rhyme or reason for that. "That woman ain't got no shame 'bout her" usually meant that the lady being discussed didn't give a hoot what the other women thought of her. She snubbed her nose at them by taking down the wash when she was darn good and ready. Also it was probably well known in the neighborhood that "that woman" even hung her underwear on the front clotheslines!

The final steps came long into the afternoon of washday. The dry clothing was gathered from the lines, sprinkled with water and rolled into logs for ironing. Before that chore was begun, of course the family had to have supper put on the table. Ah, but that is another story in itself and one that deserves it's own space and time. For now we leave those ladies, having the wash all done, the soft light of a late summer afternoon would be filtering through the kitchen window. She would be singing an old hymn as she stirred up the cornbread for supper. The woman who let her laundry hang on the line for two days was probably dancing the Charleston to the music coming from her new electric radio.

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  Nancy Trice, © 2000