This is the second post in a memoir series hosted by Irene Waters over at her blog “Reflections and Nightmares” - "Times Past" is aimed at giving some ‘social insights into the way the world has changed between not only generations but also between geographical location’ - I am a Generation X ‘Baby Buster’. My Mum mentioned in this one falls into the 'Silent Generation' - you'll soon see that's far from accurate.. These recollections go back to when we were living in the rural flat lands of Lincolnshire in the UK during the 60s, 70's and early 80's.
Irene asks: Prompt No 2. First memories of wash day. Was it a ritual in your house. Did you have to play a part. What kind of washing machine did you have? Was it the sole province of the women of the household? What was the style of your clothes line? Any memories of doing the laundry you care to share. I am sure that we are going to find some differences both geographically and generational with this one. Help me prove myself right or show that I am wrong by joining in.
Mum was a District Nurse for a large rural patch. Certain things happened on certain days because of that. Thursday was steak pie day. This came from a butchers in the Lincolnshire town 14 miles away where Mum filed her admin once a week. Steak pie – with its random chunks of kidney and tubes that must have been veins from some poor cow, was the last meat I ever ate.. But I digress.
Back then, we lived in a large Edwardian semi with a scullery between the kitchen and back door. This was a long narrow room where everything from wellington boots to sacks of potatoes were kept. “Harry” the oil-fired boiler kept the whole room warm so it was the perfect place for drying clothes. My overriding sensory memory of this warm place was the great noise from the boiler and the combined smell of Ariel soap powder, heating oil and clay covered potatoes dug from the garden.
We had a top loading washing machine in the far corner of the scullery. Mum still has one – I would, if only I could – as you can meddle with the wash as the machine is going. Mum washed every day and ironed the previous day’s washing the following morning before leaving for work – so there was never a pile of ironing.
The top loader was right by the back door – gateway to the garden and our usual entrance to the house. I remember bursting in and out past the blue uniform, edged in white, Mum at the machine as I would come in and out to play. The warmth and smells hitting me each time.
She remembers the women on her district – “still absolute drudges”, in the 70s using a ‘dolly tub and poncher’ to wash clothes by hand. The poncher was a bit like a stool on the end of a pole – rotated by hand so the legs swished the washing around in the dolly tub.
Not long after marrying, Mum had declared she wanted a washing machine. The use of such luxuries was frowned upon. My father’s own mother had ‘managed without’ but despite protestations she bought a secondhand twin tub. She didn’t have to wash our terry-towelling nappies by hand but soaked them in a bucket of napisan before they went in the twin tub. Washing was boiled in one tub and wooden tongs used to transfer the hot clothes to the second tub for spinning.
Next Mum wanted a vacuum cleaner which wasn’t deemed necessary either as my Grandmother hadn’t needed one.. Mum’s response was to buy the most expensive she could find. An Electrolux salesman came to the house once and she bought a floor polisher – despite the absence of the right sort of floor to polish. It was used to point at in arguments. But again I digress!
Lifting the lid on the top loader you had to stuff the washing down around the side of a large round sieve-like tray that the washing powder was sprinkled in. The old pair of wooden washing tongues left over from the twin tub meant you could stir and mash the washing or add forgotten garments, even when the wash was in progress.
When the weather was fine, the washing would be pegged out on a line strung between a tree and a shed. A great long piece of wood was used to prop the middle of the line up once it was laden with clothes. There was a groove in the end to catch the rope in and when I was smaller it was quite an effort to lift.
When the weather was not so good, wet washing was draped over a Victorian-style airer, nearly the length of the scullery and hoisted up to the ceiling. I so loved releasing the rope to let the airer down as well as pulling it back up, that there must have been a time before when I wasn’t allowed!
Mum hated ironing and did as little as possible. When my father was in the RAF and when uniform jackets never came off, she only ironed shirt collars, cuffs and the front panel. I remember the smell of spray starch in a pink can that went on collars. I’m not sure whether this was for Dad’s work shirts or my own rounded white collars because my brother and I did our own ironing in our teens. I remember the bottle-green school uniform skirts – shiny around the seat – made from the home-made first and second year tunic I had to wear. 5 years VFM – until sixth form when we chose our own clothes. I remember all the ‘tricks’ for reducing the amount of ironing – hard, sharp downward shakes of shirts to take out creases, careful positioning of t-shirt shoulders, smoothing of wet seems. I remember being taught the separation of lights and darks and spraying collars with something that must have helped get dirty marks out.
It was a grudging division of labour I know. One our generation – though by no means all – have more choice over. It never occurs to Simon or I that washing or ironing is women’s work although I have friends where that is still the case. Thankfully for me, Mum did push at the boundaries of her time. There are tales of my father querying why he had run out of clean pants and socks, early in their marriage. Mum had thrown all the dirty ones out of their bedroom window. Apparently my poor grandmother quietly picked up after her menfolk. And Mum wasn’t having any of that!