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Optional frugality

The other day, a woman wrote a letter to the New York Times‘s editor in which she recalled her younger years of drudgery, before everyone in the country owned a dishwasher, a washer, and a dryer—or at least had access to a laundromat. She reflected on the fatuousness of us new-age frugalists who imagine we’re doing great things for the environment and ourselves by, say, hanging out our laundry. No way, she said, would she ever want to go back to those sore, chapped hands and ragged fingers made that way from having to hang up heavy, wet clothes in the cold of winter.

Yeah. There’s something to that.

 My mother grew up on a dirt farm in upstate New York in the first third of the twentieth century, when they did not have vacuum cleaners, washers, or dryers (or indoor plumbing, for that matter), and when the idea of a “dishwasher” was a fantasy akin to Dick Tracy’s wrist phone.

She loved the fresh-air scent of clean sheets hung to dry in the sun. But I can tell you for darned sure: given a choice, the last thing on this earth she would have willingly done was hang out another sheet on a clothesline. She embraced every new energy-sucking convenience as welcome liberation from back-breaking drudgery and ambient, life-threatening filth.

When she was a little girl, she said, rugs (they didn’t have anything like wall-to-wall carpets, nor, of course, did they have vacuum cleaners) were hauled out to the line every spring, where her job was to take a stick and beat the dirt out of them. This was a fair way to contract tuberculosis, an endemic disease at the time.

Between spring cleanings, country wives and city servants tried to clean the rugs by sprinkling tea leaves over them and sweeping up the leaves with a straw broom. Think of the amount of fun labor that would have entailed. Didn’t use any electricity, though: the tea was brewed on a wood stove.

Did you know that if you sweep the dirt out of the house over the threshold, you sweep all the luck out of the house? So don’t think you’re gunna get out of bending down to collect every single grain of debris in a dustpan!

I also was once a little girl who helped her mother with the drudgery of housework, because after all that’s what girls and women did. Home was the girl’s prison and the woman’s workhouse, as George Bernard Shaw aptly observed about the mores of his time. In Arabia, where I grew up, we had a wringer washer that resided in a back-of-the-house room we called the “service porch.” Anyone who feels any nostalgia for this device is sadly mistaken.

Our washer connected to the hot water tap, which filled the agitator-equipped tub, and it backed onto a big concrete utility sink. After the dirty clothes had sloshed around in soapy hot water for a while, we would turn on the wringer and pass each item through it—carefully, because if your hand got caught in it, that would be the end of your hand!—and let them drop into the tubful of cold water. There, my mother and I together would bend over the tub and slop the clothes up and down and around and around to rinse out the soap as best as we could. Then we would wring out each piece by hand, one at a time, and drop it into a big laundry basket.

We would haul the basket out into the backyard—actually, she carried it, because it was too heavy for me to lift—and set it on the ground under the clotheslines. First, my mother would take a damp rag and wipe down each wire line to remove the dirt and bird droppings that would have accumulated since the last time we did this job, the prior week. Then I would bend down, pick up an item, and hand it to her and she would clip it to the line. The two of us together would wrestle the sheets onto the lines.

A few hours later, assuming no dust- or rainstorm blew up, we went outside, unclipped all the clothes, dropped them back in the basket, and hauled them back inside, where my mother had to iron every. single. stitch.

“Ironing” implied something quite different from what Americans do with an electric iron today, which is what we used to call “pressing”—a kind of light touch-up. My father wore khakis to the dock, where he worked as a harbor pilot. A man’s khakis were a far cry from a pair of beige twill Dockers. They were made of heavy, thick cotton. One of his shirts weighed as much as a pair of denim jeans does today. To iron any piece of cotton (and everything we owned was cotton, linen, or wool—there were no wrinkle-resistant synthetic or coated fabrics in the good old days), you first had to dampen it thoroughly, using an old pop bottle into whose neck you had stuffed a sprinkler head attached to a cork. Then you rolled it up tightly and put it, with the rest of the sprinkled laundry, inside a canvas laundry bag. If you had other things to do before ironing, you would store the dampened clothing in the refrigerator until you could get to it.

Items that needed to be starched, such as men’s shirts, were simmered on the stove in a big kettle of starch and water, then wrung out and hung on the line to dry again, before being sprinkled and ironed.

silexA steam iron was a rarity, and those we had didn’t generate enough steam to iron out wrinkles well, which was the reason each item needed to be evenly but sparingly dampened. We did have the convenience of electric irons, which you fired up to blow-torch level, and then you stood over the ironing board for hours. It could take two to three hours of steady work to iron an entire week’s worth of clothing—for just three people. You also ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and some women, believe it or not, ironed their husbands’ cotton underwear.

So, you know, the lady who wrote to the Times to remark, in effect, that we would-be frugalists look pretty silly as we proudly hang out our laundry, whirl Fels Naptha soap in the food processor to make our own laundry detergent, and try to grow our groceries in the back yard…she may have it right. We know not whereof we speak (or those of us who are a little older conveniently forget whereof we speak).

My mother’s family canned every bite of produce they didn’t eat fresh out of the garden, but she developed rickets as a child, because during the winter there were no fresh fruits and vegetables—indeed, in winter there was precious little to eat at all. Rickets erodes your teeth as well as your bones. By the time I was 12 years old, she didn’t have a tooth left in her head.

It’s easy to play at going partially off the grid when the dryer is still standing there, ready to be used if you need to toss in a shirt before you run to work, a shirt that will come out of the dryer hardly needing to be pressed. And it’s comforting to grow your food in the backyard when the supermarket is down the road to back you up.

But…would you really want to have to do it?

Link to Dick Tracy image: Wikipedia