9 March 2015
This Commonplace will be of limited interest to almost all men. The honourable company of Housewives may smile at one or two of the incidents below – depending on the circumstances of their birth and when they were born.
I’d be lying if I said I remembered a dolly being used on wash day. But I certainly remember the copper; heated with a wood fire, for linens and cottons. I remember the big oval tin bucket with one of those scrubbing boards: ridged metal, in a wooden frame. And Elsie’s poor red arms, thumping up and down with a bar of yellow soap and a scrubbing brush. In cold water, naturally.
We had a wash house in the country, unchanged since the early nineteenth century. The floor was sandstone, likewise a huge slab for whacking things on; and heaping and piling the wet stacks of vast sheets that were used on the tester beds. The great aunts, I was told, were responsible for embroidering and fussing-up every article of household linen. This must have been done by candle or lamplight since there was no electricity in the house until the Sixties.
Thrift (or tight-fistedness?) is a Northern characteristic – it’s an unforgiving landscape.
The heap of washing to cope with on a Monday (of course) meant dozens of pillow-cases with frills, embroidered runners, mats, nightdresses, maid’s aprons, shirts, massive tablecloths and napkins, tea towels, and any number of bath, hand, and guest towels. Then the garments for the children: towelling nappies with separate liners. Pinnies, bibs, dresses, vests, and knickers, liberty bodices and combinations. Countless socks.
There were others to help Elsie, of course, but it’s her I see in my mind’s eye because she was always so cheerful and never seemed to feel the cold. My sister and I would hang about, watching, until told to:
“Eee, clear out you two littl’uns, go an’ play with yer rabbits.”
When the War ended we left the friendly north and went back to horrid London to go to even horrider school.
The London house, modest compared to the country one, had electricity – which quickly paled for us young ones. However, it did mean a washing-machine, a Canadian colossus with a sinister paddle that slapped the washing too and fro. You could put masses of stuff in it, but it didn’t heat the water or rinse. Neither did it spin of course. You had to fill the thing with hot water through a hose from the kitchen sink then add Lux, pure soap flakes – a matter of guesswork. If the water wasn’t hot enough the soap never melted properly. This is before the days of Blue Daz and other detergents.
There was an electric mangle that swung over the tub when you were ready for it; but beforehand the soapy clothes must be taken out and rinsed by hand in the sink. Mangling next – carefully, as the mangle mangled relentlessly until switched off. Once my sister, who was very short sighted, caught her long hair in it with a bath towel and was dragged shrieking towards the single-minded wringer till someone rushed to turn it off.
Only those who have used both know the difference between mangling and spinning. Weight, for starters. A wet counterpane weighs a ton, even a mangled one.
Then it came to pegging out the washing (well out of sight of my mother who had a “thing” about laundry on a line: why?) and praying it didn’t rain. Or you could hang it up on one of those racks suspended from the ceiling, to be hauled up and down by ropes. Yes! Sometimes the rope broke and must start over again. After that, get it rolled up and sorted before it was too dry to iron.
D’you know that song:
“T’was on a Monday morning, when I beheld my Darling…”?
On Friday morning Darling puts it all away. It’s taken all week.