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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mabel and the “Perfect” Wash

Mabel Wahlquist recorded her memoirs on 18 hours of cassette tapes starting in 1974. I transcribed them in 1991 and this year decided to prepare an electronic copy with hyperlinks. I couldn't resist publishing this excerpt today. This takes place between 1912 and 1920. 

I just came in from hanging a batch of clothes in my usual haphazard way, which I tell Elizabeth is a rebellion of the many, many years that I had to do it the “right” way. So maybe I might take the time to tell you about a typical wash day in Myton.

Our old washer had broken down before we left Heber, and so by the time we got out to Myton, we had to do our washing on the board. As I’ve said before, Mother was not in good health. She had sciatic rheumatism, which made it impossible for her to wash on the board, so doing the washing fell mostly on me. And it was not the easiest job in the world, with all of the heavy clothes that we had in those days. I don’t mean to imply that Mother didn’t work hard, because she did. The washing on the board just happened to be one of the things she couldn’t do, but she did many other things on wash day. She always sorted all of the clothes and got them ready to wash. And you must remember that in those days we didn’t have permanent press and drip-dry and all of the things that we have today.

We had mostly white clothes. Our sheets were all white, no pretty stripes or flowers; our towels were all white, and our underclothing was white. The men’s dress shirts were all white, no pretty colors like we have now. So most of the washing consisted of white things. And then there were the boys’ work shirts and their overalls and their socks, which were black, and of course Mother’s and my stockings were black too, black lisle—and our handkerchiefs of course were white. And that was mostly what our washing consisted of.

Mother always sorted the clothes for me and got them ready to wash. The sheets and the pillow cases all went in a pile, and then the underwear in a pile, and each thing in its own little pile in the order in which I was to wash them. I’ve often thought that Noah could have used Mother very nicely when he was putting the animals into the Ark, because she certainly had an orderly mind, and I’m certain that she wouldn’t have gotten any of the animals mixed up. There seemed to be a law in those days exactly how a washing should be arranged. I don’t know whether it was handed down from mother to child or not, but if it were, I’m afraid Mother failed to get it handed down to me. Why it should make such a big difference whether a handkerchief should get mixed up with a shirt is something I’ll never understand, I’m afraid. But I’ll have to hand it to Mother, she certainly tried, and even though I don’t do it to this day, I have a real sense of guilt if I don’t get that washing out the way that Mother taught me that it should be done. But I’ll have to admit that Mother had a real knack that all things must go like things together, and if a white nightgown happened to get mixed up with the sheets or vice versa, it would have been a most terrible thing.

While she was sorting the clothes, I was busy getting the water. Of course first we would have to stoke up the stove. If it was 100º in the shade, which it sometimes was in the summertime, the old stove had to be stoked up as hot as we could get it. And the only way you could keep all those white things clean was to boil them. We would put the boiler on—I’m sure most of the older ones of you have seen a boiler, and the others, I can’t really describe it to you—it was a large tub-like, oblong-shaped thing that covered the two front burners of the stove. And we also had a water heater on the side of our stove, and then of course we put on as many pans and buckets and whatnot on top of the stove as we could, of water. Of course you mustn’t forget that this water I carried from the hydrant that I told you about, which was on the far end of the block where we lived, a bucket in each hand. And many trips were required to get the water to do a week’s wash.

The boiler would be filled with water and when the other water was warm, a tub would be filled with water and I would start to scrub, beginning with the sheets and going in Mother’s proper order down through the various types of clothing. I would scrub them on the board and then they would be wrung out by hand and put into the boiler. We couldn’t put too much in the boiler at a time, because it had to be loose enough in there so that it could be stirred around with a stick and all of it be properly boiled. 

After it had boiled a few minutes, it would be taken out with the stick into a pan and from there transferred to the tub of water again, and there it would be rinsed thoroughly to get all of the lye soap out of it and to be checked to make sure there weren’t any spots left that had been missed. Then it would be put from that tub into another tub of clear water with some bluing in it. The only bleach that we had at that time was this bluing. When that was done, then it would be ready to hang. 

It would take several times, several boilers full, to get all of the white clothes done. Then after the white clothes were done, of course then you started scrubbing on the board on the colored clothes. They didn’t go in the boiler; they were simply washed in the hot water with the lye soap and scrubbed on the board. Then they were wrung out by hand and put into the clear bluing water and wrung out by hand again. Then they were ready to go on the line.

Here again, hanging the clothes on the line was something that I just simply never did quite learn to accept. I think a woman’s character was judged by how she got her washing on the line. The sheets must hang absolutely even, the corners must be pulled straight and square. Everything had to go in its order: the shirts must all be together, all the white shirts together and all of the tails had to hang exactly to the same length, no deviation whatsoever. The towels had to hang exactly the same length; they all had to be together. For a towel to show up between two shirts would have been as bad as an elephant and a cow getting into the Ark together, I think. Even after you got the white clothes all out in their exact order and all hanging evenly at the bottom, then you started on the colored ones the same way. All of the blue shirts must be together, all of the aprons together, not an apron between two house dresses; that would never do. Finally, down to the very end would come the black socks. Every sock must be exactly even at the bottom. When it was all done, it was really a work of art. And it would take me all day, let me tell you that.

And of course when you got through with the washing, you had all this nice, soapy lye suds left, and that meant a marvelous time to scrub the kitchen and the room next to the kitchen. That room we used—we had a bed in it, but we also had our dining table in it and we ate in there on Sunday and at times when there were too many of us at home to eat at the kitchen table. Those two floors were bare and they had to be scrubbed on your knees with this lye soap. It made the bare wood floors a beautiful, clean white, just as white as your hand. Well no, not as white as your hand, because your hands were red by that time. When you got that done, of course the porch had to be mopped because that was where we did all of our taking care of the milk, and that’s where the separator was, so that had to be scrubbed and kept nice and clean too. So this was really quite a day, wash day.


  1. Oh my! Washday back then was a real event with customs strictly adhered to. I cannot even imagine a wash day like.these ladies had, makes me tired just reading about it.
    I am so grateful for my automatic washer When my first two boys were babies I had a wringer washer and portable rinsing tubs that I moved into my kitchen. I really enjoyed doing the laundry that way but by the time baby # 3 came, I was happy to get an automatic washer.
    My mother also taught us to hang clothes on the line in a precise and orderly manner but not nearly as strict as her momma.

  2. I remember hanging clothes on the line with Grammy and Auntie Retta. They taught me to do it in a particular order too. It was one of those clothesline-trees, just a pole with a square framework like an openwork umbrella at the top, and you hung all the underwear on the inside square, then the shirts, towels, pants and overalls, and sheets on the outside where they had the most space. Grammy always thought it was important that nobody could see the underwear hanging out to dry.


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