Family secrets hung out to dry (July 14, 2002)
Irene Rawlings likes to tell the story of a clothesline she saw in Venice. Strung between two buildings over a canal, the line held a man's work clothes. Mixed with the man's things were a woman's underwear, black and extra-large, and children's clothes. That brief glimpse of the washing revealed a great deal about the Italian family.
Closer to home, she writes "one glance at a clothesline told everything about the new family down the block." Rawlings, who is editor of Mountain Living, and Andrea VanSteenhouse, author and radio talk-show host, put together "The Clothesline" (Gibbs Smith, 96 pages, $21.95) with the help of art director Loneta Showell.
"The Clothesline" is more than just a nostalgia trip, although there are plenty of pictures and stories to remind you of the past. This beautifully designed and illustrated book is a look at a time when laundry was a major household activity, and the way you washed and hung up your clothes marked a housewife as efficient or slovenly. "If you wash on Monday, you have all the week to dry," went a jump-rope rhyme. But "if you wash on Saturday, you are slovenly indeed." And then, of course, there was the proper way of hanging laundry, with underwear hidden from street view by sheets.
There were the lines themselves, not just put up haphazardly, but strung up on T-posts or umbrellalike stands that dominated the yard. When washer-dryers became popular in the 1960s, a clothesline meant you were behind the times. I know a woman who wanted to get rid of her unsightly clothesline but didn't have a dryer, so she asked if she could hang her clothes in her neighbor's yard.
Of course, there were the clothespins, dozens of shapes and materials, the first patented in 1932, washtubs, washboards and those plunger-like things that whipped the clothes around. The authors include pictures of pioneer women bent over tubs and one showing early-20th-century women with a portable wringer.
The heyday of the clothesline was the 1940s and 1950s, when women were offered all sorts of labor-saving devices for wash day. Little girls of that era were given tiny tubs and doll-size clothes pins to prepare them to become full-fledged washerwomen one day.
A generation ago, with washer-dryers being installed in
every home, women gave up the rituals of laundry, which is a pity, the
authors say. They don't advocate going back to washtubs, but they say
hanging up clothes on lines brings sunshine into the house. They also
include suggestions for airing bedding, washing unusual items, such as
leather gloves, recipes for lavender ironing water (made with vodka) and
soap, using leftover soap scraps and making lavender bags.
VanSteenhouse is a Denver Colorado public speaker, psychologist, and author of Empty
Nest, The Clothesline, and A Woman's Guide to a Simpler Life.
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