Laundry Day Memories From a Little Girl’s Heart

As soon as I awakened and entered our kitchen, the epicenter of where my mother could always be located, I knew it was laundry day. Our Browning wood stove was fired up to serve the dual purpose of making breakfast and heating water in the large galvanized steel tank mounted on the back. Periodically mom would step over and brush her hand lightly across the tank to see whether the water was hot enough to begin the weekly wash chore. Mountains of presorted laundry were already piled up in anticipation on our screened back porch.

1960's vintage Maytag wringer washer

1960’s vintage Maytag wringer washer

From a child’s perspective, I enjoyed washday.   As soon as mom filled the tub of our old Maytag wringer washing machine and poured in the powdered detergent, I asked if I could pull the knob that set the agitator into motion. Soon there were mountains of suds rising from the lid of the washer and the fun began as I smacked the soap bubbles between my hands, causing bubbles to fly in every direction. This usually continued until I got caught in the act of making a huge mess.

“Can I put the clothes in?” I eagerly asked.

“Yes,” Mom replied, “but keep your hands away from the agitator and the wringers.”

She instructed me that white clothes were always done first to keep the whites white and prevent dinginess. Since the water wasn’t always changed between loads the white clothes were washed before the darker clothes.

Nothing smells better than clothes dried by sunshine and fresh air.

Nothing smells better than clothes dried by sunshine and fresh air.

Nothing smells fresher than the fragrance of sun and wind-dried laundry!   Additionally, the invention of the wringer washer was a major advance over doing laundry by hand on a washboard.   Wringer washers conserved both water and energy. For people who had drinking wells, water conservation was a must to prevent running their wells dry of vital drinking water in drought seasons. However, none of this mattered to a 10 year old girl who wanted to be any place her mother was, doing anything she could to “play” with her mommy, even by “helping” with a chore on wash day.

I’ll never forget the loud sound of that agitator. Dirt didn’t stand a chance against a wringer washer. As long as you liked, you could keep those clothes agitating to remove heavy soil. The cleaning cycle ended when you pushed the knob in on the agitator. The next fun step was retrieval of the washed clothes from the tub. My mother used a long handled galvanized steel spoon with holes (which I still own) to fish out each article of clothing. I stood peering overtop of the tub and begging her to let me put the clothes through the wringer.

“No, you might get your hand caught in the wringer.” She replied. “People have gotten their whole arms caught in the wringers.”   She continued. “Just stand there and watch me.”

I stood fascinated, watching the soapy water squeezed out of the freshly washed clothes as they passed through the wringers and dropped into a waiting bin of rinse water. I waited expectantly as my mother put a pair of my brother’s heavy jeans through the wringers and water became trapped in the pockets. As the jeans continued through the wringer, water squeezed out and sprayed me in the face. Even more fun, I thought!

Once the clothes were in the rinse bin, mom would lift each piece up and down in the rinse water a few times, and resend the rinsed article back through the wringers to a waiting clothesbasket beneath. As soon as the basket was full, she would fill her apron pockets with wooden clothespins, pick up the basket of freshly washed clothes and head out the back door to the clothesline my daddy made for her. He had sawed, felled and carried the locust posts on his back out of the hills behind our eastern Kentucky coal camp home.

Heavier towels, blankets and jeans always went on the line first to catch the full sunshine and summer breeze.   My brother’s jeans were hung with adjustable pants stretchers to give them a simple crease and smooth out wrinkles.

Pants stretchers added a crease and all but eliminated the need for ironing.

Pants stretchers added a crease and all but eliminated the need for ironing.

Lightweight “unmentionables” (underwear) were always modestly hung in the center of 3 lines and out of public view. Before the evening dew fell, the laundry was done and the last load retrieved from the clotheslines.

I was allowed to unhook the hose from the tub and dump the dirty wash water into the sink drain. “Helping” my mother with the laundry task was now completed. It may have been a chore to my mother, but it was complete delight to me.

The bonding experience of this routine chore became a way I was able to both play with and help my mother.   My memories of her are not of a glamorous lady. Instead they are memories of a strong woman, the oldest of 11, struggling through the Depression years as a traditional homemaker in a small coal camp town. The vision of her wearing a simple cotton print dress and an apron, with her mouth full of wooden clothespins while using both hands to pin clothes on a clothesline has been “photographed” and stored many times in my memory. These are the cherished but simple laundry day memories from a little girl’s heart.

Do you have stories you’d like to share about your mother? I welcome your comments.

Pam Baker, RN

If you enjoyed this story about my mother, you might also enjoy Simple Memories of My Mother and The Tale of Three Drivers


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