Some friends and I were discussing laundry the other day (our lives really are more interesting than this conversation would lead you to think), making the inevitable comparisons between how it’s done today and how it was done when we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. Our mothers had wringer washers and clothes were hung outside to dry, which was a giant leap in terms of convenience compared to how their mothers handled laundry. My grandmother raised eight kids washing everything by hand and only got her first wringer washer when her eldest son bought her one when he got his first job.
While living in various cheap apartments and bed-sits during my early working life, I was accustomed to taking the laundry, a box of detergent and a bag of quarters in my bundle buggy down the street a few blocks to the laundromat, or later, when I advanced in the world, having facilities conveniently located in the basement of my apartment building. That was luxury. When my husband and I bought our first (town)house in Pickering in the seventies, the greatest thrill was having my own washing machine and it didn’t require coins. I no longer had to use the same machine as hundreds of other people who’d put heaven-knows-what in the load before mine. At the time, we couldn’t afford five appliances and I really really wanted a dishwasher (my first) so I had to forgo a clothes dryer to stay within our four-appliance budget (fridge, stove, washer, dishwasher). It was three years before I got a dryer to sit alongside my beloved automatic washer. A friend who also bought her first house at the same time installed an old coin-operated washer and dryer that had been discarded from her family’s campground laundry building. She, too, could use it without coins. Such lucky girls. And to think young marrieds today can’t imagine living without all the mod cons including granite countertops.
Decades later, I still love my washer and dryer and it’s probably because I clearly remember when laundry was not such an easy chore for me and my boomer friends. When I was in high school in the early sixties and I did the household laundry it was in the “cellar” with our wringer washing machine sitting alongside a dual-tub concrete laundry sink. For those readers who weren’t born then, all the washing was done with the same tub of water that was recycled into the left laundry tub before being pumped back into the machine for each subsequent load and so on until darks were washed last. After several loads of sheets, towels and clothing, the darks were the least likely to show the residual effects of washing in water recycled from previous loads. This handy feature was called a “suds-saver”. The right side of the concrete laundry tub was then used for hand-rinsing the clothes in cold water before being manually fed into the wringer. A wooden stick was handy for keeping your fingers out of the rollers but not always successful and many women suffered painful hand injuries.
In summer we hung clothes outside in the breezes where they dried quickly and the sheets and pillowcases smelled heavenly when you put them back on the bed. In winter, the clothes froze solid on the outside line and always made us kids laugh at jeans and pyjamas stiff as boards when we brought them in. When clothes weren’t dried in a warm dryer, everything had to be ironed—socks, underwear, towels, even pyjamas because everything was stiff and wrinkled. In the days before steam irons, everything had to be ‘dampened’. Remember that? At our house we used an old Pepsi bottle filled with water and a corked sprinkler gadget in the neck. We’d sprinkle all the clothes and roll them in damp towels that waited rolled up like cordwood in the bathtub until they were ready to be ironed. Cotton was the primary fabric used in clothing then (wool was hand washed in cold water) so wrinkles abounded.
Recalling those sequences of work with my friends reminded me of how lucky we are today. Not only do we have so many fabrics that require minimal care and no ironing, we are blessed with washing machines and dryers that do everything but dispense our wine. I load the machine, tap a setting and with a few ping ping pings, technology does all the work. But old habits die hard. I still hang sheets outside and I’m genetically programmed to always do the darks last, even though I don’t need to. No more cellars, no more recycled water, dipping hands in freezing rinse water, feeding clothes into the wringer one piece at a time, dampening everything for ironing and blessedly, no more work. Even our laundry rooms now get ‘decorated’ to be cheerful, efficient and enjoyable. I may not know how to use my cell phone to its full capability or how to program all the settings on my TV but I sure know how to tap out those laundry settings. And how to pour a nice cold glass of wine while technology does all the work. We’ve come a long way baby.
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