A Tilted Saucer of Delight
Anyone who grew up before World War I can recall in great detail
the hard work it took for their mothers to keep their families clean,
healthy and happy. There were not many electrical appliances at least
in the rural areas. Following is a description of my mother's activities
on wash and ironing days.
Copper Boilers and Sad Irons
This is the way we wash our clothes,
Wash our clothes, wash our clothes,
This is the way we wash our clothes,
So early Monday morning.
When I was a girl, washday assumed heroic proportions. It started early
when my mother got up fifteen minutes before her usual six o'clock rising
so she could fill her copper boiler before breakfast. The boiler was a
large curved oblong kettle with a cover. The one my neighbor Ruth Margeson
had measured 23" x 12" x 13" deep. Some were larger. To my child's eyes,
my mother's boiler seemed very large. When it was full of water and clothes,
it was heavy.
In the fall, winter or spring, my father opened up the fire draft door
of the cookstove and put wood in the fire box before he left for the barn
so the stove would be hot when my mother came down to the kitchen. In
the summer she started the fire with pine kindling and fine split hard
wood that I had carried to the woodbox the night before.
As soon as Mamma had started the mush or oatmeal or cream of wheat, she
filled the boiler with pails of water from the faucet that carried rain
water from the cistern in the cellar. She liked the rain water better
than the water from the well because it was soft, that is, had no minerals
in it; whereas our well water was very hard and carried iron bacteria
besides. The calcium and iron combined with the soap crystals to make
an ugly coating on the boiler. If the cistern was dry and my mother had
to use the well water, she compensated by using more soap, but she thought
the clothes were not so clean or soft to the touch. As soon as the water
started to heat, she dropped in the sheets, pillowcases and towels. The
tablecloths she soaked in cold water. She brought lye soap from the washroom
cupboard and shaved it into the water. The clothes heated while breakfast
was cooked and eaten and the dishes washed. The kitchen had to be in apple-pie
order before my mother went back to her main task—the wash. Every
now and then, she used a stick made from a broom handle to stir and shake
out the sheets. The kitchen filled with steam. It was winter, all the
windows of the house steamed over. Sometimes Mamma commandeered my sister
and me to "wash" the windows by wiping off the smoky steam.
About 8:30 she pushed the washing machine from its corner in the washroom
to line up with the double granite tubs. Daddy helped her carry the boiler
to the washer and dump the contents. She added water to fill the washer
and put in more soap, usually Rinso of "Rinso white—Rinso bright"
fame, and blueing to make the clothes white. The washer had an electric
motor powered by a Delco generator in the cellar. In the 1930s there were
no electric lines through our sparsely populated hill country. She filled
the rinse tubs with cold water which gradually warmed as the hot clothes
The first load was always the white linens that were really cottons.
Only the best tablecloths and some of the dish towels were linen. When
my sister and I were babies, the presoaked diapers were put in the boiler
with some disinfectant and became the second load. If someone in the family
had a cold, the same procedure was followed for handkerchiefs. Otherwise,
housedresses, dress shirts, blouses and aprons were the second load, then
the underwear and socks, then darker clothes like cotton skirts or jumpers
and my sister's and my playclothes and finally, the barn clothes. By this
time the water had cooled down and become lower in the washer so my mother
brought water from the reservoir attached to the stove and added more
After each load was washed, it had to go through the wringer into the
first rinse. Then the wringer was swung on its post and the clothes put
through to the second rinse tub. Finally, after another swing, the clothes
were wrung into the clothes basket. The wringer had clamps which could
tighten or loosen the rollers according to the thickness of the clothes
going through. These wringers were dangerous and many a hurried or unwary
housewife or a curious child had fingers crushed between the rollers.
Once I was at Dr. Jackson's office with one of the children when our neighbor
Hilda Dockstader of Greenville came in with a crushed arm. Not a pretty
After the blouses, housedresses and aprons were washed, they had to be
starched. My mother made boiled starch. After softening the starch in
a little cold water, she added boiling water to the desired consistency.
In a recent letter, Stanley's elderly cousin Lenora Hardenbrook reminisced
about a photo of herself when she was a twelve-year old. The picture showed
a little girl with ringlets that her grandmother made by doing her hair
up in rags and with a stick-out dress and apron. Lenora said that her
best friend always envied her stiffly starched gingham dresses because
she was one of seven children whose mother didn't have time to starch
her school dresses. Doilies and dresser scarves were starched extra stiff;
blouses and housedresses were lightly starched.
The clothes were hung outdoors, of course. When I talked with Howard
historian Mildred Wright Lyke about old-fashioned ways of washing, she
reminded me to include the clothespin bag. A housewife who left her clothespins
on the line was considered lazy or careless by her peers as weatherworn
pins could discolor clothes. The clothespins were put in an apron bag
that the housewife tied around her waist. Sometimes the housewife sewed
her bag onto a clothes hanger and slid it along the line ahead of the
On rainy days we hung clothes on the back porch and on blizzardly days
we hung them on lines in the attic. Then the clothes dried stiff and wrinkled
making the ironing task much more difficult. My mother was one of those
emancipated women who did not iron everything. She took the sweet-smelling,
wind-blown sheets and towels down from the line, folded them neatly and
let them press themselves on the linen closet shelves. But the clothes
dried in the attic had to be sprinkled and ironed. On good days in winter,
the clothes froze dry on the outside line. The freezing helped keep the
white clothes white. In the spring, when the grass was growing fast in
the warm sunshine, Mamma put the pillowcases and dish towels on the grass
to be sun bleached. She hung blouses, dresses and aprons in the shade
to prevent the sun from fading their colors. Sometimes the wind blew too
hard and we ran to the line to re-pin the corners or take the clothes
down to rehang them on the porch. If a sudden shower came up, we got drenched
rescuing the clothes. To me, one of the homiest sights in the world is
clothes blowing on the line with all their snowy whites and pretty colors.
Even the darkest jeans had their place.
All this was the morning's work. After a noon dinner, usually something
easy like baked potatoes and codfish gravy or macaroni and cheese, mamma
did the scrubbing and mopping. She used the water from the washer and
tubs to scrub the cement floor of the washroom and the gray-painted wooden
floor of the back porch. If we were in a dry season, she used the last
rinse water to mop the kitchen floor. Otherwise, she used clean hot water
from the hot water tank that was heated by the wood stove. The kitchen
floor was unvarnished maple and, after it was mopped, it gleamed white
and polished. Mamma was proud of her spotless white clothes and her white
All the farm wives followed this procedure more or less. Many of them
washed in their kitchens especially in the winter. They had moveable tubs
set on a saw horse. Some had pitcher pumps at their kitchen sinks. The
house wife primed the pump by pouring a little water down its throat,
then pumped and carried pails of water to the boiler. In the 30s most
farm wives had wood ranges but some had wood or coal with bottled gas.
Stanley's mother, Dorothy Smith Fox, had such a stove which saved a lot
of work and discomfort in the summer time. She also had running spring
water at her kitchen sink. It was clear, soft water. Only on rare occasions,
such as during spring run-off or when a mouse or snake caught against
the screen at the spring did the water turn cloudy. Then her husband Merlyn
knew it was time to clean the spring.
Most of the farm wives had linoleum floors which mopped up very easily.
However, with all the tasks done in the kitchen besides the cooking and
eating; not just the washing but canning, bathing, perhaps cream separating,
egg washing or butter making, the linoleum wore out quickly. What a shoving
and lifting and scrubbing there was when a new linoleum had to be laid.
My friend Lois Bauter VanWormer (Towner) told of her washing experiences
when she married. Before her mother and father-in-law moved to the village,
she took over doing the laundry but used her mother-in-law's equipment.
It was a washer with a gasoline motor which she had great difficulty starting.
Many a wash day she was ready with the piles of sorted clothes waiting
their turn in the washer and "no go." She had to wait for her husband
Noah to come from the barn and "talk to it."
My grandmother Rebecca Garlock Shults told us about washing when she
was a bride in the 1870s. It was done at tubs with a scrub board. In the
winter time, the farm wives only washed the necessary clothes: they put
aside the bedding. When spring came, they built a fire outdoors under
a very large iron kettle hung on a tripod. Then they boiled and stirred
and lifted dozen of sheets and flannel blankets. No wonder a young woman
was expected to have a cedar chest full of linens when she married. My
grandmother and her contemporaries made their own soap, too, out of potash
I had a taste of washing by hand with only a scrub board to help get
out the dirt. When I went to college in the early 1940s, I lived at a
cooperative dorm where we did our own work. The dorm, called the Junipers,
was two large houses with a passageway between, a large backyard with
clothes lines and a basement laundry room with large set tubs, a sink
and hot and cold water, more clothes lines but no washing machine. There
was no stove or boiler either. When I went home at the end of the year,
my mother and I did a special washing with extra soap and extra blueing
to get the 'tattle-tale-gray" out of my sheets and pillowcases.
This is the way we ironed our clothes,
Ironed our clothes, ironed our clothes,
This is the way we ironed our clothes,
So early Tuesday morning.
My mother, like her mother before her and on back for generations, used
sadirons. Sad in this usage means heavy. Sadirons are made of cast iron
in the usual triangular shape. They were placed on the wood range to get
hot. Mamma had two kinds: one kind, large with iron and handle molded
together; the other, smaller with an iron base pointed at both ends and
a chrome handle that clamped on. The large ones were heavier and stayed
hot longer; we used them to iron pillow cases, aprons and work pants,
items that didn't need much attention.
The smaller ones were better for blouses and dresses. A couple of hours
before she started the ironing, she sprinkled the clothes, If she was
pressing woolen skirts or dresses, she dampened a linen towel that she
placed over the underside of the garment so the iron wouldn't scorch the
wool. The wood stove had to be kept humping to keep the irons hot. In
the winter, mamma set up the ironing board in the kitchen but, in hot
weather, she moved the ironing to the downstairs bedrooms and ran back
and forth with the hot irons. She tested the heat with a drop of spit;
if it sizzled, the iron was hot. Hazel Rittenhouse of Bath tested the
hotness of the irons on newspaper. She says that she will never forget
the smell of scorched newspaper—it means ironing day to her. When
the iron became sticky from the starch in the aprons and dresses, mamma
rubbed bees wax on it.
Ironing wrinkle-free clothes was not a skill that one achieved overnight.
I learned to iron on handkerchiefs—not so easy as it sounds. The
corners had to be square; the hankies had to be folded just so. It was
a challenge for a little girl. The next step was ironing pillow cases,
then aprons and finally, blouses and dresses. The 30s was the era of the
pleated skirt and blouses with puffed sleeves and before the time of wrinkle-free
fabrics. Those pleats—those puffs! Girls took great care to get
Ironing was time consuming. When the family included little children,
it was a constant concern to keep them away from the hot irons. It was
a task which took much care; it couldn't be hurried as it can be today
when only a little pressing with a steam iron is needed. Some house wives
thought "sad" was the appropriate terminology, but ironing became one
of my favorite household chores. I must admit that I was glad to put the
sadirons in the attic when the R. E. A. electric lines went through and
we were able to use electric irons. It was satisfying to see the neat
piles of hankies, pillowcases and towels and the rows of wrinkle-free
blouses and dresses on the ironing caddy.
Part of the time during my childhood, my other taught rural school. Then
we did everything on Saturday. A neighbor came to help with the wash while
my mother baked and my sister cleaned. My particular task was to hang
up the clothes. While I was waiting for the batches of clothes to go through
the washing process, I read. One book had a wash day connection. It was
The Farm Twins. This book was one of a series which told a story
while describing the beauties and customs of a strange land: The Norwegian
Twins, The French Twins, etc. The Farm Twins was
about rural America and the twins were orphans nestled in a large clothes
basket and left under a farm wife's clothes line. This made me wonder
then and still makes me wonder what circumstances led to such an abandonment.
What I never doubted then or now is that the farm wife could handle any
such emergency with capability and aplomb!