We have to try it again. Here’s another shirt,” Jane said as she plucked one of Dad’s blue work shirts out of a plastic bag full of shirts—clean, sprinkled and rolled—all ready to iron. “Start with the yoke,” she directed.
I grabbed the damp shirt out of her hand and flopped it onto the ironing board. “I know where to start,” I huffed. I knew to start with the yoke, then iron the collar, then the left sleeve and cuff, front and back, then the right sleeve and cuff, front and back, then the right front, taking particular care around the buttons . . . and with the button hole placket where it was so easy to iron in wrinkles.
So begins Carol Bodensteiner’s chapter “Laundry Lessons” in her memoir Growing Up Country, a chapter that describes to a tee the washing, drying, folding, sprinkling, and ironing of laundry, chores that were also observed in the Longenecker family.
Mother’s work week was regulated by the pendulum of ritual. Certain tasks were done on certain days in her 1950s household. If it was Monday, she washed clothes, on Tuesday she ironed them, and so on through the week to Friday, the big cleaning day.
Her wringer washer and a rinse tub was pulled out to the middle of the “washhouse,” a room next to the kitchen every Monday. Sometimes I helped by feeding clothes from the rinse tub into the washer wringer, a tricky task for a child. At least once I got my arm caught in the wringer. Of course, my screams and yells summoned Mother to fly out of the kitchen, bang on the release apparatus to make the two rollers fly apart. After the fright and the pain subsided, I was amazed my arm wasn’t as flat as a paper doll’s.
When I was tall enough to reach the clothes line, I hung up wash clothes, towels, shirts, and dresses, instructed to “hide” underwear in one of the inner lines so neighbors wouldn’t see. To this day, if there is a sunny day with a breeze in Florida, I hang sheets out to dry.
On Tuesdays, Mom pulled the ironing board out of the wall, set up the iron and away I went, attacking first the easy stuff like hankies. I nourished my sense of order and accomplishment letting the point of the heavy, hot iron smooth out all the wrinkles in the garments that followed: school blouses and skirts, finally graduating to Daddy’s white, starched Sunday shirts.
We never ironed sheets though one Mennonite woman we knew, Pearl Longenecker, sat down (probably on Tuesdays too) in front of her ironer, a white appliance shaped like a miniature piano, with a hot roller that smoothed each crease in her sheets and pillow cases, pressing them into lovely squares and rectangles to fit her closet space.
Grandma Longenecker’s ritual matched our own though it took place on her back porch. Like Colonial American women before her, she made her own soap cooking together grease and lye in a big metal tub, stirring the whole mess as it boiled. Though the smell was pungent and slightly disagreeable, Grandma smiled as she cut the congealed mixture into squares and rectangles, knowing the grease and grime would be erased from her laundry on wash day. If there were spots that wouldn’t come out with lye soap, she spread the stained garment, usually white, on the grass because she was sure “the sun will draw it out.” And it usually did!
Share your laundry rituals, past or present. Something historical–or hysterical!