When Washday Was All Day

When Washday Was All Day

By Elton Camp


(This is one of a series of writes about real people in the South during the early 20th Century.  Others can be found on this site.)

            Washday in the Old South was an entire day. Work began early and didn’t end until the middle of the afternoon. It was an arduous job that required family help, although the hardest work fell on Miranda.

            “Albert, Leamon. Build a far unner th’ pot,” Miranda directed. “Hit’s time t’ git started on th’ warshing.”

            Her sons trudged to the side yard where the weekly task was done. They laid a pile of wood within the circle of rocks and set it ablaze. The two lifted the pot atop the rocks and immediately filled it with water.  To add water to a hot pot could cause it to crack.  A newly lit fire didn’t produce intense heat. 

            While the boys worked, Bertha and Mamie moved the galvanized washtub from the back porch into the yard near the wash pot and filled it with spring water. When movement of the water in the wash pot showed it was about to boil, it was time for the clothes.

            “Maw, hit’s ’bout ready,” Bertha called loudly.

            Miranda emerged from the house with the family’s laundry. She added a few items at a time to the hot water. With a heavy stick, white from long use, she stirred the laundry and let it soak. Farm work resulted in very dirty clothes. When they’d boiled long enough to loosen the encrusted soil, she used the stick to fish out the articles one at a time. With her bare hands, she scrubbed them against the wooden rub board. It was difficult, unpleasant work. Skinned knuckles from striking its ridges always resulted. She made no change of expression as the hot water reddened her hands. Complaint would change nothing. She then rinsed the soapy articles in the cool water of the washtub.

            As the fire burned down, the boys cautiously shoved more wood underneath. The fire popped and sparked. If ashes flew into the wash pot, they’d dirty the clothes. When everything was soaked, rubbed, and rinsed, it was time to hang the laundry out to dry.

            When the wash pot cooled sufficiently to be touched, the two boys awkwardly lugged it to the porch and poured the still-warm water, bit at a time, onto its unpainted boards. Bertha and Mamie used homemade brooms to scrub the floor. Hot water was hard to come by–it couldn’t be wasted.  The cold rinse water from the washtub then served to flush the lye soap from the porch.

            The boys returned the wash pot to its customary place in the yard. It seemed light with the water gone. The girls leaned the empty washtub against the wall on the porch. It would serve for weekly baths. The rub board they hung on a peg by the door.

            The clothesline was strung along posts at the back of the house. That was the best location to prevent road dust from passing wagons and horses from settling on the damp laundry. Wooden clothespins held the items in place on the wire line. The sunshine and light summer breeze would take hours to do the job. In winter, clothes might freeze before they dried. If so, laundry day might extend into a second day. When dry, the clothes were hard and stiff, but had a clean, refreshing scent.

            Shirts, pants, aprons, underwear, sheets–everything in the laundry except rags–Miranda starched and ironed. She was fortunate enough to have two heavy, black, metal irons. On the top of each was the raised number six. She heated them on the top of the wooden cookstove. When the one she used became too cool, she returned it to reheat and ironed with its companion. Bertha sometimes helped, especially when the ironing continued into the next day.

            Brown lye soap was used to wash the clothes. Produced at home, it’s a story for another time.

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Life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.
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