Wash day always quite a production

Published 11:48 am Thursday, July 12, 2012

by James D. “Archie” Howell

Our wash pot has been turned upright and mounted on three bricks just behind the kitchen.

Water fills the pot about three-quarters full and is steaming, heated by a fire that has been burning for some time. The water was drawn and carried from our well at the back edge of our yard; the fire is fueled with wood.

In line with and close to the wash pot, sawhorses support long planks that, in turn, support two washtubs, both partially filled with water — one more than the other.

A short, well used, bleached white, stick stands ready to stir the pot; soap products are available to do their part, and a small bottle of bluing, for white things, is temporarily stored on a window ledge, out of the way, to better prevent accidental spilling.

A wash (scrubbing) board has been removed from storage and is resting in the slightly filled tub closest to the pot. That completes the hardware inventory.

It’s wash day.

Our backyard is slightly sloped downhill, and workers stand on the uphill side of the tubs. Feet stay drier that way.

Dirty laundry is added to the hot water, stirred for a period of time and removed one at a time into the first tub, where they’re inspected, scrubbed with soap on the washboard and either returned to the pot, or passed on to the rinse water in the next tub.

All articles are wrung out, scrubbed and inspected manually. Whites are washed first, then colors, followed by heavily soiled work clothing. Wash pot water is sometimes added to, but not changed.

After all washing is finished, the wash and rinse water is unceremoniously dumped in the yard to recycle itself. The light sandy loam of Southampton County absorbs the water quickly.

Two large sycamore trees help with absorption and provide shade for the day’s work.

After rinsing, articles are wrung out and stored in a basket temporarily. At intervals, as the basket becomes heavy, the accumulated wash is carried to clotheslines strung between trees in our back yard.

Clothespins are a mix of older, bleached, well worn and used, one-piece pins mixed with more modern wooden handled, spring action pins.

The older pins are both round and square, with long flared tongs. I’m told some people soak their clothespins in salt water; it’s supposed to prevent them from freezing to the line in cold weather. I don’t think ours have been through a saltwater bath.

I like the modern variety; they can be taken apart and reconfigured to be used as toys for an overactive mind. An apron with large pockets for clothespins is a wash day necessity.

We have two long clotheslines. They’re heavy wire, and droop from their weight and the added weight of wet clothes.

After a load is hung, a pole is raised in the middle of each line to help support the weight and keep items from dragging on the ground.

As they dry throughout the day, the clothes rise higher and higher on whatever breeze is blowing.

I delight in running among dry clothes waving in the breeze. I can usually get away with it unless I knock something off the line into the grass. Then things get a little loud.

When the electric-powered machine arrives, things get better.

The machine has a built-in agitator; the washboard is retired and knuckles — scraped and rubbed raw from getting the dirt out — get a break.

Water must still be carried from the well and heated, but the machine has a powered wringer that swivels and reverses. Water is wrung from things and automatically returned to the washer or rinse tub. A water pump now empties the machine, but wastewater is still dumped in the yard for recycling.

Dry clothes are removed, folded and stored or added to an always partially filled basket to be repaired or patched. Seven kids on an active farm have a lot of things that need repairing or patching.

There’s a basket for things to be ironed also. Ironing is a story all its own.

Today, I have a clothesline. It’s one of those reel out, reel in things and I use it infrequently.

When I do, the unmistakable smell of freshly washed, air-and-sun-dried clothes drifts around my back yard. I am once again running amongst the clothes hung on my mother’s clothesline.

I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.