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Wash day way back when
Now and Then

Only those who have lived and labored through traditional wash days back then can fully appreciate the miracle of modern-day washing and drying machines. Washing clothes was the most uncomfortable and labor-intensive requirement of life for rural wives/mothers. The traditional way of doing things hung on deep into the 20th century.

Modernization required electricity and a plentiful supply of water. Shallow or “dug” wells often provided a limited amount of water that could be exhausted quickly by an electrical or gasoline-powered pump even if such were available. “Deep wells” drilled hundreds of feet into the aquifer became common after mid-century. There were wringer-type washing machines earlier, but they required electricity. While the rural electrification program began in the late 30s, its introduction was hit and miss, leaving some areas without power into the 50s. There were no water pumps or heaters and washing was done by hand.

Monday was wash day regardless of season and state of health. Only rain, storm, freezing temperatures, serious illness or death could push it to a later day. An early start might avoid the worst heat of a summer day, but waiting for “the warm” of a winter day was not an option because winter days are too short for getting it all done after a late start.

As was true of other farm work, part of the drudgery of wash day was caused by lack of money. People had to rely on other resources. One example was soap. Farm ladies made wash soap. Potash soap began with water percolated through a container of ashes from fireplaces, wood burning stoves and syrup boilers. Combined with lard, this acidic water was boiled until it became solid when cooled. Lye soap was similar, but the active ingredient was store-bought lye, a dangerously caustic acid, added to the lard (occasionally tallow). If homemade soap was unavailable, Octagon laundry soap could be used if one had money to buy it. None of these were kind to human hands.

The first task was drawing water, enough to fill two wash tubs and the squat cast iron wash pot in which clothes were literally boiled until they gave up sweat, soil and stains. Truly shallow wells with abundant water might be fitted with a well sweep, a long pole sitting on a fulcrum and hinged at the top onto another pole that went into the well with a bucket at the bottom end. Most wells were too deep, requiring a “teekle” or wheel pulley through which a rope or chain rolled with a bucket on one end being raised or lowered by arm power. Wash day required 50-60 gallons of water, enough to tax the capacity of some wells and the endurance of some hands and arms.

There had to be wood for the wash pot, some kindling for a start and plenty of other sorts to keep the water bubbling through three or more loads. Good husbands or draftable “big” boys often drew the water, assembled the wood and lit the fire around the pot. Sorry husbands or families with no “big” boys dumped this “hard” work on the wife, who might have daughters to help.

Clothes were divided into “loads” with “nice” white clothes and other whites going into the pot first followed by batches of increasingly dirty items. Some folks started by putting clothes into one of the wash tubs from which deep soils and stains were treated with soap and scrubbing on the washboard. Some preferred to pound them with a “battling stick,” a stout oak or hickory instrument with a flat end.

The creative cauldron was the wash pot. Strips were shaved from big hunks of washing soap into its water; then clothes, linens, etc., were placed in, pushed down and roundly boiled. Badly soiled items might be removed to the work table to be further soaped, scrubbed and pounded then returned for more boiling.

After the wash pot came rinsing, perhaps through two tubs. A few people had hand-turned wringers that could be attached to the rinse water tubs, but these cost money and most folks wrung the water out by hand, challenging work in water that was painfully cold in winter.

Then the clean clothes and linens were hung on long lines to dry. There was a major positive outcome. Few things smell better than sheets and pillow cases dried by sunshine and a brisk breeze. However, the country housewife who still had two meals to cook and ironing to do probably was not moved to euphoria by this pleasant smell.

For large families, the big boiler used for making syrup was also used in washing clothes. Granddaddy Branch devised a special system in their boiler shelter. A large cypress beam some 10 feet long and 30 inches wide and deep was hewn out to produce two basins about 4 feet long. Mounted on posts, it stood about waist-high along a shelter near the boiler. It was slightly sloped so that water drained through a hole that could be plugged in each section into tubs below. 

His was a clever innovation but nothing like as great the equipment in my laundry room.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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