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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Back in the day: Laundry

For most of us born in the late 1940s, our earliest memories of wash day probably involve a wringer washer. However, one of my paternal great-grandmothers grew up on a farm, married a farmer just like her father and raised a family in rural East Texas, so she never saw the value of "new-fangled contraptions." As a result, going to her house was like stepping back in time, and I had an opportunity to see life as it was in the 1930s.

On laundry day, she used a galvanized tub and scrub board to wash clothes. By the early 50s, this was unusual, but you could still find both items in the garage or hanging on the back porch of most houses, no matter how modern they were. Those housewives had gone through the Depression, and they didn't let go of anything that might come in handy if times got hard again.

Galvanized tub and scrub board

My great-grandmother was finally persuaded to use a crank wringer from Sears, which made laundry day a little easier by eliminating hand-wringing each piece of clothing. Her wringer clamped onto the side of the washtub. The arrangement in the photo below was probably considered very elaborate, as many people only had one tub and no special frame for the wringer.

Wash and rinse tubs with a crank wringer

In the late 40s and early 50s, most people had automatic wringer washers similar to this one.

Typical wringer washer from the early 50s

While these were a great improvement over a scrub board, wash day was still a time-consuming chore. We're so spoiled to throwing small loads into our washers today that we forget laundry back then was done on one specified day of the week...and for good reason. My mother usually did the wash on Monday. She kept our wringer washer on the enclosed back porch, so she had to wheel it into the kitchen and hook up the hose at the sink. She would fill the tub with hot water, laundry detergent and bleach and start with white clothes. After letting the machine agitate for 15 or 20 minutes and sometimes boiling extra water to keep things nice and hot, she would get a piece of broom handle and lift the steaming clothes from the tub, running them carefully through the wringer and into the sink. Then she would drain the washer, fill it with clean water and bluing and let the white clothes agitate for another 15 minutes or so. After that, it was back through the wringer and into the laundry basket to be hung outdoors on the clothesline. (If the weather was too cold or rainy, clothes were hung on the back porch, in the kitchen and in the bathroom. Most Texas homes did not have basements then, nor do they now.)

Bluing was a liquid that gave clothes a slight blue cast to make them appear whiter. At some point, my mother switched to a laundry detergent called Rinso Blue, which made liquid bluing in the rinse unnecessary.

Rinso Blue ad

Then it was time to drain and refill the washer and put in the next load. This cycle of filling, agitating, wringing, draining, refilling, rinsing, wringing and hanging was repeated all day, until all the clothes were clean and brought in from the line.

Wringer washers were really dangerous appliances. I grew up hearing horror stories of people whose hands and hair had been caught in the wringer suffering serious injuries before the machine could be turned off. I wasn't allowed anywhere near the washing machine. Instead, I was stationed at our chrome dinette with a coloring book and a 48-pack of Crayolas and told to stay put.

I still remember how excited my mother was when her first front-loading automatic washer was delivered. A woman from the county extension office (a government agency that, among other duties, taught homemakers to use new technology) came out the next day to show my mother how to operate the machine.

Westinghouse Laundromat, c. 1950

Close-up of the Westinghouse Laundromat door

We didn't have a TV yet, so I'd pull up a chair and watch the clothes go round and round. Yes, life was different back then. Though we often think of it as a simpler, easier time, the work could be hard and the  entertainment limited...but a lot less so with the introduction of the Laundromat into our household. 


  1. I do remember how wringer washer and put rubber diapers through that wringer diapers and explodes, and garments sometimes get stuck going around and around and around those wringers. I remember having to disassemble the whole wringer head to get something untangled. and I ruined a couple of shirts
    Did you ever get anything caught in a wringer?or ruined a couple of shirts? Thanks for the reminders .
    an article of the wash may
    wrap several times around a roller before it is noticed; unwinding such a
    piece is often difficult, sometimes impossible without removing a roller.

  2. I love this post. My Finnish grandmother still routinely uses her wringer washer to wash the rag rugs my Finnish great-grandmother made (the wringer washer is gentler). I'm trying to talk her into letting me takes some photos/make a video. No luck yet.

    Getting replacement parts is very, very difficult.

  3. @Anne: My mother was an extremely methodical and patient person. I remember that she would put in each piece of clothing by a corner, and guide it in very carefully with one hand in the front of the wringer and one hand behind it. I also remember that her clothes came out totally flat, so she must have had a pretty good system worked out.

    Now me...that would be another story. My friends say I'm the most impatient person on earth. The standing joke is that I don't know there's any temperature on my stovetop except High. I'm sure I would have been cramming clothes through a wringer washer exactly like the guy in the video! LOL

    And thanks for the video, by the way. It was great. I'm sure some readers have never seen a wringer washer in action.

  4. @Tanya: How amazing that she has held onto a wringer washer all this time! You absolutely have to talk her into letting you do a video. It's a piece of family history.

  5. lovely post Dana, i am crazy about older appliances. In india, most families have a maid who does their laundry. Machines are a recent phenomenon. Its only in the last 15 years that urban families have opted to have machines in their homes...even if laundry is done by hand, washboard or wringers are not used...its all manual..:)

  6. And we dont have driers..we still use racks or line dry them...and i still remember using blue on my school uniform(we wore whites on saturdays)

  7. @Sudha: That's really interesting information. I never realized that machines were that recent an addition to homes in India.

  8. Dana
    video of this machine in action? I would love see the clothes go into the rollers.

  9. @Anne: The YouTube video you shared in your comment gives a good idea of how difficult a wringer washer was to use! :)

  10. I have really got to stop complaining about doing the laundry! We have it so easy now in comparison.

  11. @Vintage Hunter: Doing laundry is one of the household chores I dislike most, but when I was writing this post, I came to the same realization you did. After what I saw the women in my family go through, I should consider doing laundry a walk in the park.

  12. Why did we ever switch to a top loader model? I've never understood that. Maybe there's something from a mechanical engineering speak perspective that makes that model make sense. To me, other than bending over it seems way more efficient to us a front loading design, plus it has the added benefit of watching it like TV. I still like to watch cookies bake in the oven that same way...

  13. @CollectoratorToo: I'm sure part of it had to do with the top loader being more profitable to sell. But it sure wasn't more convenient for us short girls. Trying to reach the bottom for loose money or a sock that's plastered itself to the tub isn't fun!

  14. And how!!! That's exactly why I got a front loader! I need a step stool to get to the bottom of a normal one.

  15. @CollectoratorToo: Maybe our fortune is in designing a top loader with a little ladder on the front! :)

  16. I laughed when I thought of you pulling up a chair to watch the washing go round but I can understand. I had only seen front loading machines in laundromats (which I did not frequent) before I moved to England. I found the idea of watching the clothes swirl around interesting... to a point!

  17. @MoonDoggie: We didn't have a TV till I was 7, so at 5, watching clothes was as exciting as it got! LOL

  18. if any one is interested i have some old metal and wooden washboards as well as an old galvanized bathtub just like i used to take baths in at my grandma and grandpas when i was a child. ahh such great memories, being on the farm, fishing, the simple life

  19. That's a great content on laundry. You have explained a lot about it. Laundry should be done carefully rather it is done by hand or some other method. Nice and interesting.
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  21. Excellent post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. Now I'm going to try  cleaning  in a similar method.

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