Monday Is Wash Day

There is only one person in my household, but you would not know it from the money spent on cleaning supplies, several hundreds of dollars each year. There was a time for most rural residents when the only cleaning product was a form of soap, usually lye soap or what was known as “face” soaps like brands I recall, Lifebuoy and of course Ivory. If you are shopping for detergents today, arrive early because it would take more time that you would want to invest to check all of them out. By the way there are ‘designer’ detergents available today— for a price. The only commercial detergent I recall as a boy was Rinso, no longer a popular item if available. My family operated a general store, and I remember one multi-purpose soap sold there that got its name from its shape: Octagon.
I grew up in the country on a farm –like setting. My parents believed in self sufficiency. A good example was cleaning supplies for laundry. Back then, in the 1930s most farm families used the same product, a combination of lye (Red Devil) and fat produced by rendering the skin of the hog until the fat became liquid called lard when it became a solid. What was left was pork skins or what we called cracklings.
Wash day for at one time 11 member family was a major undertaking. The housework was left exclusively to my mother who other than family members had no help except for a woman who came every Monday morning to “do” the washing. You can readily understand that for most of the six boys in the family, the same clothing was worn for most of the week. Saturday brought about ‘clean” clothes and a weekly bath, early on in a 25 gallon galvanized tin tub. And the water was not changed all that often either. We did ‘dress up’ for church, but that lasted only for the morning hours.
We had a “dirty clothes” basket (crafted by a farm tenant) that was large enough to hold the week’s supply. The bed sheets were handled separately. Annie’s first task was to build a fire underneath the large cast iron three-footed wash pots, we had two, one held about 25 gallons of water and the other a little less. We always had plenty of fire wood and a large pile of fire starter called “fat lightered.” In the meantime water had to be carried from the hand pump to the wash pots and the boiling process began. This was an important part of getting clothes clean.
While this was going on, the large water filled tubs were used to soak the soiled clothing. Since some of the dirt was tenacious, they had to be scrubbed on what was appropriately called the wash board, a wood framed device that had a metal ribbed part where the clothing was rubbed against repeatedly usually hastening their demise. After this was done, the clothing was separated and cast into the boiling pot.
But the scrubbing and the boiling could not do the job alone. The ingredient that cleaned the clothing in the boiling pots was the home made lye soap. This soap, in dried chunks or bars, was chipped into small bits and placed into the boiling water to which was added a little turpentine to help make suds. While this was going on, the attendant stood beside the pot with a long handled paddle and moved the clothes about so that the cleaning process could be complete for all of the contents.
After the clothes were removed, carefully, from the wash pots, they were immersed and rinsed into tubs of cold water then manually wrung out to remove most of the excess water. The final step was to hang the clothing on the clothes line and use pens to secure them until dry. The drying process could be soon in case of a sunny day with a moderate wind or longer during cloudy days in the winter.
There was no such thing as permanently pressed items. Everything had to be pressed by a non-electric iron, a flat cast iron implement that depended on external heat to do its pressing job. The heat was provided either by placing the irons beside an open fire or placed on the cooking stove or a heater. And don’t forget another process that had to be employed: starching.
Starching was made from a solid commercial product; the kind I recall was Argo starch. Once the starch was applied, the item (usually shirts) was usually rolled up and was later sprinkled and ironed. The person doing the ironing had to be careful not to get the iron too hot else the garment might be scorched. There was an art in this since there was no thermostat in these early devices.
By the way, I still have one of the wash pots. It has been resurrected as a flower pot. The old iron is used as a bookend.
And you complain about doing the washing today?
Bill Lee
PO Box 128
Hamer, SC 29547

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