We used a clothesline when I was a kid. Most folks did. The wind blows for free and most back yards had a set of galvanized T-poles with thick gauged wire strung up on them. Clothes were pinned to these and nature turned damp clothes dry. It was sensible and thrifty.
When I was a kid Mama had a wringer washer that had perhaps seen better days, but I only recall her having to hand wash a few items that could not bear being wrung out. It was imperative that Papa kept this machine running. Whenever it broke down we had to resort to using a #3 tub and a washboard until it was running again and oh no no, this is number ONE on the list of things that have to happen and that washer is getting repaired ASAP!
The big tub agitated the water and detergent, and after the final rinse cycle was over each article of clothing was squeezed between adjustable rollers.
The wrung out clothes were put in bushel baskets (hell, I didn’t know people used anything other than fruit baskets for laundry!) Mama hung out the laundry herself if she had to wash a load on school days, but any other time every one of us kids had to help hang up the clothes to dry. It was a chore that was as inevitable as it was necessary. We didn’t argue, we just did it.
Wooden clothes pins were held in little open bags with a clothes hanger incorporated to it at the top. This was suspended from the wash line so we could have easy access to the pins while moving the pin bag down the line as we went. There were eight people in our family, so the laundry was large and constant. We didn’t have a modest little pair of clotheslines like you see in old movies, our crowd required three strands on the T poles, at about 10 yards per strand just for clothes. Linens took up more so Papa rigged up a side line just for that. ‘Way out in the country as we were, we had plenty of space for it.
We talked as we worked, chatting about whatever subject we pleased, and it made the time pass well and didn’t seem quite so much like work. Air-drying always made the cloth smell so GOOD when dry. Detergent companies try to capture that “fresh air” smell but will never beat the real thing. I mean if the point was to have your clothes smell like they’re been dried in the fresh air, adding a bunch of chemicals is the polar opposite to the point.
Taking a big deep sniff of line-dried clothes was like expanding your lungs with a freedom born of nature. There’s something exhilarating about knowing the same forces that roll clouds across the sky and make wheat fields bob and dance for miles and miles, swept down across the yard to leave a hint of its power between the warp and woof of linens.
Even on cold winter days, the laundry went out as long as there was no precipitation. Naturally on rainy days laundry was not done or was done sparingly, since it had to be hung inside the house to dry. The exhilarating smell was not there, the clothes were just…dry. Or smelled like oak or hickory smoke.
Since our clothes were mostly cotton and permanent press was not as prevalent back then, ironing had to be done once the clothes were dry. Nobody wanted to go out in public all wrinkled. Where’s your pride, man.
Once we moved into town and Papa was no longer with us to keep the wringer washer working, Mama was able to use the laundromat on Main Street, just a couple of blocks away. This convenience was tempered by other people also needing to use those machines, the cost of machine use itself (whereas it cost us little to nothing before) and the unpleasant presence of local toughs hanging around to break into the cigarette machine on site. They never bothered Mama personally – they were exceedingly polite to her – but she didn’t trust a thief and didn’t like being around them.
Eventually she was able to save to get a washing machine of her own, justifying the one-time cost of the machine vs. laundromat experiences on repeat. We returned to hanging out the laundry in the back yard, since T-poles were as ubiquitous to small-town back yards as porches were to house fronts and the wind was still free.
The day came when Mama finally bought a dryer. Permanent Press clothes came out so nice and smooth they saved time from ironing, and rainy days could be defied with the press of a button. She still preferred line-drying sheets and towels whenever possible to keep them from balling up in the dryer and making the whole load hard to dry. Many times she hung out the whole load because we all liked the smell of clean laundry, and line drying kept the utility bills down.
I say all this to note, I currently use my apartment complex’s laundry facilities and today I had to wash my bedspread, a lightweight thing. So lightweight in fact, it rolled itself into a ball taking some of the clothes with it, and when I untangled the lot, they were as damp as when I put them in to dry. I had no more quarters handy to run another dryer load, so I put the clothes on hangers and hung them from the little mailbox by my front door (my door faces the side of the lot so it’s not as if my laundry was on display to the street!)
It got me reminiscing about “the old days” – I refuse to say “GOOD old days” because they often weren’t – and how I would like to again live in a home with a pair of galvanized T-poles in the back yard, where the wind is free and clothes smell exhilarating because of it.