There was a comforting rhythm to those days of zero technology – washing, starching, ironing, clean the fridge, clean the stove, wash the floors, church and Sunday dinner. Start again.
By the way, my mother didn’t look like the matron in the photo. Mom was more harried and would likely have had a child hanging off one leg as she tried to work. And of course, I’d be right in there under her elbow, whining to ‘help’. Being a pain in the butt is more like it, but she never complained. Looking back on what she had to endure – four kids under 11, no indoor plumbing, stuck in the boonies of 1950s Beamsville – I’m forever grateful for her patience.
In the damp concrete-floored, low-ceilinged cave that was our basement, my mother had an Easy brand wringer washing machine with an agitator the size of an outboard boat motor. The machine’s electrical cord was the breadth of my ten-year-old wrist. When you plugged the machine in, the whole contraption made the most wonderfully frightening grinding roar as it mashed up the dirty clothes into a sudsy pudding.
As the eldest, I got to feed the corners of the bed sheets into the finger-mangling rollers of the wringer, every shove forward an audacious flirt with danger. Would it be painful if my hand got dragged in? I can vouch for the relentless undertow of the spinning rubber cylinders, but they actually didn’t hurt that much as long as you pulled out when your forearm was still visible.
Once the soiled water had been squished from the load, the clothes were dropped into a huge tub filled either with a dilute blend of Reckitt’s fabric blue or bunches of fresh-picked herbs like lavender (remember, this was way before bottled fabric softener). Then it was time to drain the tub into a hole in the floor (goodness knows where the grey water went) and refill it with clean water. Since we had no taps, that meant a couple of trips to the hand pump in the corner to fill up the galvanized tin pail. We were eco-friendly before it became the in-thing to do – we always washed in cold water because for hot water, you had to fill a metal bucket and leave it in the coal furnace to heat up! I’m not sure of the formulation of the urine-yellow Sunlight soap bars we used to scrub stains, but those babies were strong enough to strip off the epidermis if you left your hands un-rinsed for long. And to think they were a ‘step up’ from carbolic soap, which left your flesh with a puckery grey pallor.
As I sit under the pergola on the deck a long way from those days of poverty on that godforsaken farm, I think of how far we’ve all come. Now, I dump in a load of sheets and towels, drop in a soap and softener puck then press three buttons. Forty-seven minutes later, I heave the damp load form one machine and toss it into the dryer. Two buttons pressed then voila! We start again. But if I catch the permanent press clothing before the wrinkles set from the heat, I can shake them out and perhaps get away without doing any ironing.
Progress? In terms of being labour-saving, yes. But there’s no camaraderie in laundry anymore. It’s just another task. No magic. No mom.