Clotheslines and summer play
September 7, 2010
Recalling the long, hot days of summer from my childhood years, a prominent feature in our yard was the clothesline. Our family of eight had to wash clothes often. I have dim memories of way back when my mother used a scrub board, but as soon as we had electricity in the house we got an electric wringer-washer. On wash day, water was heated in a boiler on the wood-burning cook stove. When it was ready, it was carried by buckets to the washer, soap added, and the whites washed first. There were no cycles to be set; the agitator just kept going until Mama decided the clothes were clean enough. She used a forked wooden stick to lift them from the hot suds up to the wringer where they passed through the rollers and dropped into a large washtub of cool water. She threw the next load, light colored items, into the washer and started it agitating and then the wringer was turned to the side to run that first load from the rinse water into a basket for carrying out to the clothesline. Some items had to be starched after the rinse and wrung out by hand. The same wash water was used for however many loads there were to do, with overalls always the last.
I helped hang clothes to dry as soon as I was tall enough to reach the line. Before that, I handed them to my mother from the basket. We wore clothespin bags hung from a strap around the neck for easy reach. Towels were hung side by side to share clothespins, and so were other like items. When they were dry, we gathered them into our arms and took them in to the bed to be folded. A lot of women dampened and ironed the clothes the same day, but we never did. The next day was usually ironing day.
We hung clothes on the line even on the coldest winter days when they would freeze like boards. We’d take them in to finish drying on the wooden clothes rack. The long winter underwear was especially funny looking in its frozen state. My mother always claimed that the freezing had a bleaching effect, and she may have been right.
When we were first married, my husband and I didn’t have laundry equipment so my mother-in-law, Doris, shared her facilities with me. She lived in town, so had to be careful to hang the lingerie and other unmentionables in the center section, with outer wear and towels on the outside lines to block them from view. This was something new to me, as was wiping off the clothesline. My mother never did that, and I do recall black marks on some of our clothes from contact with the unwashed wires. There’s always something new to learn, I guess.
Another thing that surprised me was the competition in the neighborhood as to who would get their clothes hung out first on the Monday wash day. Doris would be the winner as often as not, but sometimes Mrs. Gray or Mrs. Carter would beat her to it.
As kids, we sometimes used the clothesline for play, lopping a blanket across it to make a tent or even just running through the clothes on the line, which our mother probably did not appreciate.
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Play of any kind in the summer was completely different for us kids in mid-20th century than it is for kids today, and especially for farm kids. Our town didn’t have a swimming pool, and even if there had been one it’s doubtful our parents would have taken time out from things like harvesting and canning to get us there. Once in a great while our family would go to the river and splash around in the shallow water. When we were tiny, we played in mud puddles if any existed, but we couldn’t waste water to make our own mud. Mostly we had to be content with running through the lawn sprinklers.
When we were elementary school age, Margaret and I would occasionally go to a neighbor girl’s house to play. She had more paper dolls and coloring books than we did and a real playhouse in the backyard, whereas at home we had to make our own in the trees. Sometimes her mother started us on some little project. It was she who taught us to make hollyhock dolls, fastening them together with toothpicks.
In group situations, we played the old stand-bys: drop-the-handkerchief, ring-around-the-rosy or London Bridge is falling down. One summer when I was staying at Grandma Cain’s house in Cedar Rapids for a few days, she took me across the street to play with some girls in the neighborhood. They were playing go-in-and-out-the-windows, which I had never played before. We all held hands and one girl would weave in and out of the circle under the arches made by our hands as we sang several verses.
In those days it was truly a “make your own fun” situation, and I think most kids were fine with that. We were creative in our play, and I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say they were bored. The summers did seem to be longer than now, but I think that was more our age than anything else. Anyway, no matter how much fun the summer had been, I was always happy to get back to school in September.