Be Thankful, For Goodness Sakes
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’ve had the occasion recently to do the laundry. As most of you know, this consists of putting a load of dirty clothes in an automatic washer, adding detergent and other stuff, pressing a few buttons, and wandering off to muse on the state of the world. Some kind of bell or buzzer will eventually signal that the machine has done its duty; whereupon you toss the damp stuff into a dryer. While that’s doing it work, you might peruse the morning paper, or just stare out the window.
The clothes and other stuff that emerges rarely needs the touch of an iron. When I buy clothing, I always make sure it says “no iron” or “permanent press.” We own an iron, but it spends most of its life in lonely isolation.
When my mother did the laundry, she rolled the wringer washer up to kitchen sink, filled it with water and soap, put in the clothes and turned it on. It had an agitator much like a top loading automatic washer now has, which would thrash away until the load was clean (hopefully). You have to trust my memory here, but I believe the next step was to toss the whole mess into clean water to rinse the soap out; or maybe the soapy water was drained out and replaced by clean water, the machine then thrashing away again to rid the load of soap residue. And I’m not quite sure when and how they were used, but the process included bleach and something called “bluing,” both of which had some role to play.
But wait, we’re not done, since the whole mess had to be run through the wringers, two rollers that squeezed the excess water out of the clean laundry. After that, the still damp mess had to be dried. In warm and dry weather, this could be done on an outside clothes line. Ideally, if you had a back yard, most of it could be hung out to dry at one fell swoop. In cold or rainy weather, the basement or attic was pressed into service; that is, if you had one or the other. If you lived in an apartment building, other places needed to be found. Have you ever been to Europe and seen clothing hanging from front windows on various contraptions?
(Just so you know, in 1946, a wringer washer cost about $50; that would be about $720 today, about what a basic automatic washer would cost today. You could actually buy a new wringer washer now for about $1,000. Go figure.)
By the way, this process in a large family took most or all of the day. I recall that Monday was usually “wash day” and Tuesday was “ironing day.” Think about it. Two days of the week were taken up with dealing with the dirty laundry. If you had money, you could avoid all this. A truck would appear and pick up your dirty laundry; a day or two later, your clothing and other items would reappear, washed, ironed and neatly folded. On Monday, these housewives could have their friends over for bridge; on Tuesday, do a bit of shopping at Marshall Field’s and have lunch in the Walnut Room.
Right up to my retirement, I did take my dress shirts – which I wore every day for nearly 40 years – to the laundry. Initially, these laundries were run by Chinese families. More recently, Korean families seem to have taken over this business. If you’re a masochist, you can still have your shirts starched.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie, Master and Commander, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the hero is British sea captain Jack Aubrey, played by Russell Crowe. In one scene, he is shown a model of a new American frigate, which is constructed in a new and novel way. He studies in in detail, then exclaims: “What a fascinating modern age we live in!”
Even in a simple task like doing the laundry, it certainly is. Consider yourself lucky.
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon