Be Thankful, For Goodness Sakes

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

3 thoughts on “Be Thankful, For Goodness Sakes

  1. What you related invoked memories of more primitive times. Your mother enjoyed the benefits of technology. Mine had no mechanical washer or wringer, but a washboard which she used to launder clothes in the kitchen sink. The clothes were wrung by hand and hung on a clothesline to dry in the Brooklyn air in the backyard, which was just outside the kitchen door as we lived in the “garden” apartment of the building. In winter, clothes were dried on large steam room radiators. Curious thing, years later, when my mother got an electric washing machine, she still would wash things out by hand, partially out of habit, partially to save water and electricity.

    As a college student, I was gifted by a benefactor in the textile trade with ten Oxford button-down cotton dress shirts. This was before the dawning of the age of Perma-Press and during that dress code era when students wore such collared shirts to class. I gained much useful knowledge in college, among which was how to iron clothes, get the wrinkles out of fabric and put an even crease on trousers using a damp cloth. It was a great modern innovation when steam irons were invented! We still have one, somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In addition to wringer washers, they still sell washboards. Before I was married, I too knew how to iron and put a crease in my trousers. These skills still exist in many parts of the world. Hard to imagine any kind of dress code anywhere today!


      1. It was always a pleasure on travel assignments to find in the hotel room a pants presser. The height of luxury for the business traveler.

        I also learned I could steam wrinkles out of a suit by turning on the hot water in the shower and hanging the suit nearby.

        Contrary to the criticisms of the [conformist] anti-conformity crowd, dress codes were not intended to suppress individual creativity but established to show consideration and respect for other people, you know, like good manners, in social settings.


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