Memories of Wash Day and Flaming Irons

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2011 20:20

By Lou Allie Heath

Why Mama chose Thursday, though Grandma on a nearby farm always washed on Mondays, I could never understand. I thought the weather should be the main consideration but not my mom or grandma. Rain or shine, the wash must go on. They might have to wait a day or more before hanging them on the lines to dry, but at least they would be washed.

Mama started the day by removing every sheet and pillow case from the beds, seeing that each member of the family had every garment sparkling clean and piling all dirty clothes in a big sheet. A vivid memory … she with the large bundle thrown over her shoulder, like a hobo with a pack on his back, walking toward the “separator room” where the washing was to be done.

The chore was done outside the house, unless the weather was cold or raining, when it was done inside. The first job, which was often done by my father, was filling the large black iron wash pot with water. It was kept upright with several short iron legs on the bottom.

Then a fire would be built under the wash pot. The first water would be placed in a large tub to rub the clothes clean in. The pot would then be filled a second time to bring to a boil the clothes which had been rubbed through two tubs of water with lye soap on a washboard.

I started rubbing clothes when I was so small I had to stand on a box to reach the washboard. The clothes were always sorted first. The whitest, cleanest clothes had to be washed first, then the next group and finally the work clothes and dark socks and stockings.

Mama always rubbed all through two waters, boiled all, then rinsed through two tubs of clean water. The last water had bluing put in. In the earliest days she used “bagged bluing,” which came six bags in each box. In later years she used a liquid from a bottle. The bluing was used to keep the white clothes from looking dingy.

The only woman in Erath County who had whiter clothes than Mama was Grandma Hamilton. Mama did not use Clorox – she used arm and back power, lye soap and boiling hot water. Was it any wonder it took her all day to wash once a week? … She had what today we would call “a thing” about cleanliness.

One time Mama’s sensitive nose and taste became disturbed. For several days she tried to decide why the butter tasted and smelled like gasoline. One day when she started to iron the clothes, she discovered the reason … The gasoline iron was kept in the bottom compartment of the “safe,” and the gasoline fumes had penetrated the butter.

The safe usually held the glassware and the dishes at our house. The lower part, other foods such as jam, mustard, pickles, catsup or other things would be placed there for storage. The country kitchen of that day did not have built-in cabinets. Those who could afford the “Hoover” cabinets had them. But they usually had a “safe” cabinet too. We had a cabinet that had a flat top, two pull-out dough boards, two three-or-four-inch-deep drawers and on the bottom, two drawers, one divided, where flour, cornmeal and sugar were stored.

I mentioned the gasoline iron above. Most of the country women in our area ironed with the “smoothing iron.” There were two kinds: one with attached handles and the other kind had detachable wooden handles. They generally used three irons but only one handle. Mama and Grandma Hamilton had the attached-handle type, but my Grandmother Carter used the detachable wooden handle with the separate irons.

These irons would be heated on the wood stove until hot enough to iron the wrinkles from the “sprinkled” clothes or other garments to be ironed. Sometimes an iron skillet would be placed over the irons to help heat them and keep them heated.

Papa bought Mama a more modern iron, one that heated with gasoline. There were times when it might be frightening, when the flames flew up from an overflow of gasoline, but Mama learned to control that.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine



By Guest Contributor December 15, 2011 20:20