Monday, September 8, 2014

Stumbling Through Washday


Photo courtesy Flickr

Early on, I read cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s Up Front description of GIs washing everything including blankets in their helmets. The memory allowed me to stay relatively sanitary on extended hiking trips. 1970 was a watershed year for housekeeping, when baby boomers innocent of homesteading grandparents hit wilderness communes. Science major urban stoners’ willingness to deconstruct housekeeping systems produced an evolutionary burst of innovative techniques, some successful, some truly repugnant.

Living with an archaeologist makes it easy to experiment with the old food, clothing, and shelter routine. Name it, and I have probably tried it, laundry-wise. Susan Strasser’s superb Never Done history of American housekeeping lays out the details, starting with chopping down a tree to heat the water. Good Housekeeping magazine’s rare Twenties manual of procedure describes wrangling laundry maids, the economics of an electric washing machine, and the chemistry of soaps, or as they call them, reagents. The book describes a shelf of washday products that includes homemade soap jelly, vinegar, pre-chlorine bleach, and bluing. I hadn’t realized that a box of detergent is a convenience item, although a German housekeeper I knew in the early Fifties made her own soap from surplus kitchen fat.

An elder gave me her family copper wash boiler, aka salmon poacher, handing it over in the sunny June garden of the ancestral home as she gestured to the clothes line and explained how proud her mother had been of the wet clothing she hung out to dry. That’s a righteous pride not to be dismissed. Thirty-four years in a nineteenth century house whose laundry room consists of a vestigial shoulder-high basement chimney vent for a non-existent cast-iron stove designed to support a boiler have given me a free hand in seeking out the most elegant solution to bringing laundry technology up to speed.

I have little interest in or patience with conventional appliances. They’re irrelevant to the domestic circumstances I have chosen. My first house, a 1910 cottage, came with a glorious 1936 Speed Queen wringer washer, stainless steel tub and all. If this weren’t Seattle, I’d proudly have hung my laundry out like a line of flags. (see Cheryl Mendelsohn, “Home Comforts”). When we moved into this place, Speed Queen came with us and proved inconvenient to use. I improvised with the local laundromat until I stumbled across a 1960s Hoover twin-tub small space washer/centrifuge at “Reasonably Honest Dave’s” used appliance store. The Hoover kept the health department and utility bills at bay until I grew restless and replaced it with a portable automatic machine, the one that taught me major appliances are now engineered for specific lifetimes.

A second portable automatic proved as long-lived as the first, and I replaced it with a new featherweight twin-tub portable that tried my patience once too often. Discovering no-rinse detergent at my friendly local weaver’s supply inspired a return to the copper boiler, set on dairy crates in the tub, filled via a telephone shower hose, and complemented by an antique rubbing board I borrowed from the music room. Good system, economical, and quick to teach me that wringing clothes is the limiting factor in hand laundry. A German laundry centrifuge the size of a big wastebasket saved my finger joints and remains the back-up unit of choice.

Last week I copied a canny young friend and brought home a .9 pound mini-washer, also from Germany. It’s a honey that claims to use $23 worth of electricity a year. The machine seems to be engineered for apartments. It’s petite, very quiet, and perches on locking castors. I’ve had a chance to process several loads with the close attention that having a machine in the same room as desk and television affords. Since the cost of water is the same no matter how large the load, I can wash in real time and rediscover how fresh the house smells when there is not one stale garment or dishtowel under the roof. The centrifuge wrings the last two cups [!] of water out of a load. Things are drying in near minutes on the $25 Green Mountain Country Store hardwood folding rack I’ve been using for thirty years. The rack that inspired my purchase had been serving dozens of people for sixty years.

As with discarding the car, doing without a conventional washer taught me many alternative ways to get the job done. Having a small automatic and many of the alternative facilities promises to be the best of several worlds. I could replace the powder room sink with a laundry sink I just discovered at The Great Big Home Improvement Chain. The thing is clearly designed for hand laundry with a removable flat lid, built-in holder for a large bar of soap, and slanted rubbing board molded into the front of the unit. The price is trivial for a washing unit in an economy that has seen the cost of a freestanding low-tech double tub with wringer unit exceed that of a portable automatic.

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