Laundry then and now

 I watched the young woman hoist a basket of laundry, and I commented, “More wash to do?”

“With children, there is laundry every day,” she said abruptly.

Somehow it reminded me of a conversation with a friend who picked up her sons after a morning at my house. “So what did you do?”

“I washed clothes,” she said.

I didn’t say it, but I thought, “you had all morning and all you did was laundry? The washing machine and dryer do all the work.”

I knew that was not all. I did laundry for our boys who were the same age. I did laundry on automatic pilot. That began with the first baby. Before any middle of the night feeding, I sleepily shoved a load of jeans or white clothes into a machine. In the morning I had a stack of jeans, shirts and nappies to fold. Years later, when one son decided he would use the extra space in the laundry room as his bedroom, I tiptoed in each morning to start a load of wash before he awoke. Later, before work I switched clothes and sorted clean clothes into piles. Laundry happened every day.

Still, I experienced nothing like what my grandparents and mother tackled. My mother once said, “At first, I had to take the diapers down to the creek to rinse out.”

I am sure she welcomed the convenience of a wringer washer to agitate the clothes before she fed them between the rollers to wring out the water. Today laundry detergents and fabric softeners emphasize “fresh smells.” Mom, my grandmothers and my mother-in-law hung clothes to dry and never needed anything for a “fresh smell.” Their clotheslines insured fresh smelling clothes from spring to fall and freeze dried clothes in the winter. Have you ever seen frozen jeans and shirts? They stack up like cards and stand stiff as a board without a body in them.

In the days before wrinkle free clothing, laundry chores included ironing. While my grandmother, born in the late 1880s, knew the drudgery of needing to heat her iron on the stove, the electrical iron cut time and effort for the next generation. With all that in mind, most folks wore outfits more than one day rather than today’s habit of a couple outfits every day. To facilitate ironing, Mom sprinkled my dresses with water then rolled them tight to let the moisture saturate the garment.

Of course with five little ones, she did not always finish ironing in one day. To keep the clothes from drying out she stuck them in the freezer or the refrigerator until she had time to iron. My sisters and I began ironing handkerchiefs very young. I used to iron every week. Now, if clothes cool in the dryer, I turn the dial to “de-wrinkle” and wait for the “all done” signal to tell me to grab hangers for them before they wrinkle again.

Laundry is much easier now. Last year, my nine year-old granddaughter quietly washed everyone’s clothes during Cousin Camp.

The first day she simply asked, “How do I start the machines?”

“Push the Power button and then the Start button.” She stuffed machines, pushed buttons and distributed clean t-shirts and shorts to the others and declared it “Fun!”

Fun or not, clothes and linens must be gathered. Someone must sort clothes, place them in machines, add detergent and put them away. That someone can be mom, dad or a child. My granddaughter found it easier and quicker than my grandmother did. Still the chore takes time. One thing that will always remain true, no matter how automated laundry becomes: children guarantee that the laundry basket never stays empty for long. 

About jottingjoan

retired former newspaper writer. Many children and grandchildren. One husband.
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