Today I'm so pleased to share with you washday memories and instructions from my cousin, John Watson. We're not first cousins, but we are cousins, and I'm proud to have become acquainted at this late date.
Could you handle a washday like thisYou need to wash your clothes but there is no electricity and therefore no
washer and dryer, so what do you do? There are two #3 galvanized wash tubs at
the back of the house and a 30 gallon cast iron wash pot at the side of the
house. Now you need some water but there is no faucet to get it from as there
is no running water on the place. The nearest source of water is a windmill
about a hundred yards from the house.
You get your 2 gallon water bucket, or more than likely, one in each hand,
and head for the windmill. When you get the buckets full of water, you head
back to the house and pour the water into the wash pot. Then you make another
trip and another until you get the pot about half full. Then you throw some
logs around the pot and set fire to them to heat the water.
While you wait for the water to get hot, you set the galvanized tubs on a
bench near the wash pot and go back to the windmill and get more water for
them. This is the cold water rinse. After you finish this you bring out the
clothes and separate them. By now the water in the pot should be hot.
You take the white clothes first, because you want to boil them in clean
water, and put them in the pot. Detergent? No, you take a cake of the lye soap
that you made last fall and shave off some of it into the pot. Now you take the
‘punching stick’ which is usually kept leaning against the side of the house
and punch the clothes down in the water and give them a little stirring motion.
This will help to dissolve the shavings of the lye soap and agitate the clothes
similar to what the washing machines do today.
After the water goes to boiling again you punch the clothes down and stir
them a couple more times. After that you take the stirring stick and lift the
clothes out of the pot and put them in the first tub of rinse water. While they
soak in the rinse water, you get the slightly soiled colored clothes and put in
the wash pot, being sure to save the heavily soiled work clothes for last. You
may also need to shave off a little more of the lye soap into the pot.
Now you go back to the white clothes you have in the rinse water and punch
them down and stir them around some to rinse the soap out and then move them
into the second rinse water for a final rinse.
Whenever you got to the work clothes you would find that some of the grime
would not come out during the boiling and agitation. After you moved them to
the first rinse water you would then get out the rub board. “What’s that,” you
ask?” Go to your local museum and ask them if they can show you a rub board, or
they may call it a scrub board.
You place the rub board in the tub with the legs against the bottom
You notice that we have used the same water from the time we started washing.
It takes too much time to dump the water out of the wash pot, refill it and
rebuild the fire to reheat it, so that is why we start with the white clothes
first and work on down to the more soiled work clothes. Sometimes the rinse
water would have to be changed. Now you have the clothes washed but no dryer.
What do you do?
Well, there is a wire stretched between two trees in the back yard you can
hang the colored clothes on that you do not want the sun to fade. The rest can
be hung on the yard fence. The barbs on the barbed wire will keep the clothes
from blowing off and save you from having to use so many clothes pins.
This is nice for the summertime, but what about in the winter? That’s when
you set the tubs up in the kitchen, carry the water in and put it in pots on
the wood stove to heat, then pour it into the tubs and wash everything on the
rub board. You would want to pick a day when it wasn’t freezing outside, or
your clothes would freeze before they dried, or wash a few necessary clothes
and hang in the house to dry.
Now you know why the old folks always set aside a full day to do the
After you finish the washing you have some clothes that need ironing. (This was
before anyone ever heard of ’permanent press’.) How do you accomplish that with
no electricity? How about with a “smoothing iron?”
To use the irons you would set them on top of the wood stove until they got
hot. You could only iron a little with each one before it cooled off, and then
you would have to reheat it. That is why most people had two of each weight, so
that one could be heating while they were using the other one. Most of them had
a handle that was cast with the iron making it one piece and they would get
nearly as hot as the iron and you needed some type of pad to hold the iron
with. However, some of the more expensive ones had coils around the handle and
they didn’t get as hot.
This could be a very hot job in the summer, especially with no air
conditioning. You would usually set the ironing board up near the cook stove in
the kitchen and do the ironing while you cooked the noon meal. This way you
didn’t need to have a fire in the stove any longer than absolutely necessary,
and by doing it in the morning it wasn’t quite as hot.
Between carrying water, scrubbing clothes on a rub board, handling those
cast iron smoothing irons and the other work they did, the women of that time
didn’t need to go to a gym to get exercise, they got plenty in their daily
Thanks John—and I want to add what I remember most about summertime washday,—those little biting flies that came in swarms, all determined to nip at bare wet legs.
And by-the-way, if you save this to read the next time your electric bill arrives, writing the check fir the amount due will feel easier—I guarantee it.