By MARILYN SHAPIRO
When one is looking for a home in today’s market, one of the featured perks is the laundry room. Multi-functioning washing machines and dryers, fancy cabinetry, shining stainless steel sinks, and granite countertops appear to make a washday a joy. What a contrast to the way my mother handled the laundry in Upstate New York in the 1950s!
Laundry Room Dungeon
In 1952, my family moved into a two-story house in Keeseville that had been built at the turn of the century. Compared to the 1,200 hundred square foot “box” we had lived in Potsdam, the four bedroom Victorian with its large living and dining rooms, ancient but large kitchen, office, a large unfinished room off the kitchen, and three (!) porches must have felt like a castle.
Our laundry room, however, was more like a dungeon. Out of necessity, the wringer washer had to be set up in the basement, a dark, damp room with dirt floors, old stone walls, and a small window that looked out to the crawl space under one of the porches. A single hanging bulb provided the only light.
With two adults, three children —including one in cloth diapers—and lots of company, my mother had plenty of laundry. The wonders of polyester and wash and wear were still several years away. Either clothes were dry-cleaned or “put through the ringer.” After a scare when my older sister Laura got her arm caught in the wringer mechanism, the old machine was replaced with a more modern top-loading model. My mother must have thought she was in the lap of luxury.
Hung Out To Dry
Electric dryers had not yet found their way to Upstate New York, so all the wash had to be hung to dry. Mom carried the wet laundry up the steep basement stairs, walked through the kitchen and through the door to the back of the unfinished storage room. She opened a large window and hung the clothes from a 30-foot clothesline that was attached by a pulley system. One end was attached to the house and the other end to oak tree that marked the far right corner of our property.
During the good weather, sunshine and warm breezes would quickly dry the sheets, pillow cases, towels, diapers, shirts, pants, dresses, and underwear that hung 10 feet above our backyard. If an unexpected rainstorm came through, Mom would have to quickly pull everything off the line and hang them over available chairs and radiators to finish the process. During the long winter months, cold air poured into the unheated room as Mom, fingers red and raw, pinned the laundry to the line with the wooden pins. If the snow was too frequent, she resorted to hanging the laundry in the basement.
On the good days, Mom pulled the line of dry clothes towards the house, unpinned the items, and piled them into waiting laundry baskets. The cotton fabrics would smell like fresh air and sunshine but would feel more like stiff boards of wrinkled matzah.
As a result, almost everything had to be ironed. Mom filled an empty soda bottle with water and stuck an aluminum and cork sprinkling head into the top. She lay out each item of clothing on the kitchen table, sprinkled the material well, rolled it up, and placed it in a laundry basket. She let all the dampened clothes sit awhile so the moisture would be well distributed. If she was afraid of mildew, she stuck the clothing into the large freezer chest that was housed in the shed.
When she and the clothes were ready, Mom set up the ironing board in the kitchen, plugged in the iron, automatically licked her index finger on her tongue, quickly touch its wet tip to the bottom of the iron to check the temperature, and then pressed the steaming metal plate into the fabric. Taking each damp, rolled piece out of the laundry basket, she ironed for hours while listening to the songs of Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, and Tennessee Ernie Ford on WEAV-AM out of Plattsburgh. The kitchen would be filled with the sound of sizzling clothes and the smell of hot metal against the damp cotton.
The laundry increased with my sister Bobbie’s arrival three years after our move. By the time she was out of diapers, my parents had purchased a clothes dryer. Mom’s lap of luxury had grown. Pink boxes of Dreft and plastic bottles of Clorox sat on a brown metal table between the two appliances, along with yellow bars of Fels Naptha soap, stray buttons, and assorted painless missing socks.
The clothesline was only used on beautiful summer days, as Mom still loved the smell of sunshine and fresh air smell on the sheets.
There was still a great deal to be ironed, so my mother gave her children pressing lessons at an early age. Starting with relatively easy handkerchiefs and pillowcases, we soon progressed to pants (“Make sure the seams are straight!”) to shirts and blouses (“Start with the back and progress to the front and sleeves.”) to dresses. (“First do the bottom skirt, pushing the iron gently but firmly up to the waistband.”)
Husband Helps With Chore
I don’t recall my father ever helping with laundry, but my husband has been by my soapy side since our apartment laundry room days. Once we moved into a house in Clifton Park, we set up an ironing board next to our washing machine and dryer in our basement/laundry area. To this day, he washes our bedding every week and does most of the laundry, including a weekly sheets and towel load. (Another reason that I love him!)
Our “Yes! —We’re Retired!” Florida wardrobe doesn’t require extensive pressing. No matter, at least twice a month, I pull out the steam iron and the 20-year-old ironing board. I spread our shirts and blouses and pants and handkerchiefs one by one on the ironing board. I wet each item with distilled water from a plastic spray bottle, automatically lick my index finger on my tongue, quickly touch its wet tip to the bottom of the iron to check the temperature, and then press the steaming metal plate into the fabric. I hear the familiar sizzle, and I breathe in the distinct aroma of cloth and water and heat and traces of laundry detergent. I am happy knowing that our clothes will be pressed and ready to wear—just like my mother taught me 60 years ago.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla.