My mother's laundry
Updated: Feb 21
The temperature is hovering around the freezing mark here today.
For most people that's not a problem. We simply walk over to the thermostat and give it a little nudge if we are feeling a bit cool. We have hot water flowing from taps and our laundry can be quickly tossed into a dryer which provides heat at the desired setting.
When I was growing up on the farm it wasn't like that. With five children in the family, the small kitchen was regularly occupied by the washing machine which busily churned through the hours while it tossed the clothes around in the steaming hot water.
A day in the life of a northern child from a fairly large family meant many hours outside. Some of it was work, and some of it was bicycling around to visit friends and family, and much of it was play.
Work in the late months of the year involved piling and replenishing the woodpile.
The two wood stoves in the little house provided a steady level of heat. With the nearly constant laundering that took place in the little house, the cook stove was almost always covered with large pots or metal pails of water to fill the washing machine, and the rinse tub.
At the wood pile, the children would be lifting armloads of cold poplar and spruce, and carrying them inside to feed the fires.
In our family, one of the older children, a boy, had the job of chopping the wood. The smaller pieces (kindling) were used to start the fires. The larger pieces were fed into the stoves to keep the fires going after the fires had been well established and there were glowing coals.
The girls usually had more domestic tasks which involved setting the table, washing dishes, sweeping floors, and carrying the freshly washed clothes and linens out to the clothesline. In the cold November air, our hands would sting a little as we handled the damp clothing, trying to quickly snap the pieces onto the clothesline with the use of the clothespins. The colder our hands got, the more difficult this task was.
At almost any time of day throughout the year, a glance out the back window would see a long line of clothes flapping against the blue sky. Just because winter was setting in, or even fully upon us, there was never a reason why the clothesline wouldn't be filled with freshly washed clothing.
The problem with not having a dryer when the temperature dipped below freezing was that in those times, the clothing and linens would freeze on the line. It was a common practice to have to carry the clothes and linens into the house in the same state as one would carry a large board. This was a frustrating problem which required the additional step of hanging the washing up on an indoor clothesline which was strung across the small kitchen.
At the end though, the clothes were perfectly dried, although stiff from the rough handling of nature. At that point they were given a final loving touch with a spray of starch and a careful ironing to soften up the cloth. Pretty little dresses, clean white shirts, blouses, pants, and skirts were all carefully pressed and hung in the closets.
Bedding and towels also received the same attention, softening them and removing the wrinkles so that the family members could enjoy that little extra bit of comfort with smooth sheets and soft towels.
Today, the cool weather means less of a challenge than it did when I was growing up, but it's a reminder that much has changed, for better or worse.