Laundry Day in the Olden Days


     Ask someone from the younger generation how is laundry done and he will look at you in a funny way, "What do you mean, how I do the laundry? I put the dirty laundry into the washing machine, then I put it the dryer and the laundry is washed and dry. Many would say that they take the laundry to the coin-operated Laundromat. There, they wash and dry their laundry and bring it home clean.

     Now let us go back a generation, or two, back to the Old Country. There, you would hear an entirely different answer. When I was a child, I was very observant and liked to watch what the older people did in their daily life. The phrase, "Curiosity killed the cat" was not in my vocabulary then.

     My favorite pastime was watching how housewives did the laundry. As a motherless child, I spent a lot of time in my neighbor's house, the Yezersky family. They were friendly people and didn't seem to be bothered by my presence, though in my adult life I often wondered if I wasn't too bothersome or naggy. Unfortunately, they are not around to ask so I will never know.

     The Yezersky family had a special so-called, "Laundry Day," which occurred once a month or every six weeks. When the laundry day was near, there was a feeling in that house that an important event was about to take place. Every household had a big wooden barrel kept in front of the house to catch rainwater coming down from the roof and through the gutter. There was a common belief that rainwater is softer and therefore better to do the laundry with. Rainwater also saved many trips to the public water pump because proper laundering consumed a lot of water.

     I don't know if the wooden barrel making trade is still around, but in the olden days it was a very reputable profession. During the weekly Market Days, barrel makers displayed a variety of different sized wooden vessels for sale, from the huge rainwater barrels to the small wooden buckets used by farmers to milk their cows or for other household chores. Years, later, galvanized sheet metal replaced the wooden material for barrel making.

     On the eve of the "Special Laundry Day," the windows in my neighbors┬╣ house felt bare because the curtains had been taken down along with many decorative embroidered towels that had hung on the walls. Inside the kitchen, in the center of the wooden floor, the pile of dirty laundry kept growing as family members kept adding to it. There were four children in the family, ages 8 to 16; and sometimes the pile included a few dirty garments that belonged to me, to be washed without my father's knowledge. He was busy peddling in the villages.

     The laundry was deposited in a big, round, wooden vat filled with warm water. Caustic soda was added to the water to help loosen up the dirt, which was supposed to make it easier for Maria, the laundry lady the next day. Putting the laundry in for the soaking was the exclusive job of the housewife, Mrs. Yezersky because according her, she was the only one who knew how to spread the garments for soaking. When adding the caustic soda, Mrs. Yezersky always mentioned Maria the lady who was hired to do the washing. "With more soda it will be easier for Maria to take the dirt out."

     Next day, early in the morning, Maria showed up and greeted everyone with a smiling face and a loud, "Good Morning." Maria was a plump woman with an ample chest, blue eyes, and grayish hair mixed with black strands, a sign that she was once young. She wore a blouse that was white a long time ago, and was double skirted. Once she took off her top skirt she remained dressed in a raggedy skirt, her work clothes. Maria's cheeks were flaming red, a sign of good health, according to the lady of the house, Mrs. Yezersky. "Oh my!" Maria lamented, pointing to the vat of the soaking laundry. "I hope we will managed to finish all of this in one day."

     The first thing that Maria did was to put a huge pot with water on the stove for heating. She slowly emptied the vat with the soaking laundry by wringing out the water from the wet laundry. The dirty water was poured outside with buckets and the vat was raised on two chairs to the height of Maria's waistline. Maria had a habit of humming a tune when she was rubbing the laundry on the washboard. The humming was in harmony with the noise of the washboard while she was soaping and twisting the laundry.

     After the laundry was properly soaped and rubbed on the washboard by Maria's coarse hands, the laundry was ready for the boiling-a laundry process unknown nowadays. Boiling the laundry was a must. It was boiled in a large, tall, metal pot either on the stove or sometimes outdoors using a campfire. For me as a child, laundry day in the Yezersky house was always adventurous, especially when the boiling was done outdoors.

     It was my favorite job to supply fuel for the fire, firewood, and brushwood from the neighbor's backyards. I was always standing near dangerous places, where I might get burned by the fire or by the boiling hot water.

     One look at Maria's angry face was enough for me to make myself scarce. Sometimes I was given the job of watching when the boiling began. Outdoors, this was simple; but indoors, I had to stand on a chair to be able to see when the bubbling began. It was fun watching Maria remove the steamy, hot, boiled garments from the pot. She did it with a broom handle, lifting each garment high so the water dripped back into the vessel.

     After boiling, the laundry was rinsed in cold water. In places where a creek or a river was flowing nearby, the laundry was rinsed in it. Let's remember in those days, water in the creeks and rivers was still crystal clear. Next step was the starching. The laundry was starched with a mixture made from rice flour and hot water. Most housewives added a blue concoction to the starched water for a better shine of the washed laundry. The Yezersky family was Orthodox, so for a month before Passover, the laundry was not starched because of the flour ingredient, which is strictly forbidden on Passover.

     Drying the laundry was a separate chapter by itself. If the weather was nice and sunny, there was no problem. However, in the rainy season or during wintertime the laundry had to be carried upstairs to the attic where it was hung to dry on ropes that often tore and then the wet laundry was soiled. Every woman considered herself blessed if the sun dried the laundry. In wintertime, the laundry that hung in the attic froze and turned into pieces of boards of different shapes depending on the type of the garment it was. It had to be taken down into the living quarters and spread out for additional drying.

     Ironing the laundry was the most painful and tedious job for women. There were no electrical irons, and in most places there wasn't even electricity. The iron was a heavy metal container filled with smoldering coals that gave the women a headache from the emanating fumes. A common scene was a woman standing at an iron board ironing laundry, with her head wrapped with a cold compress. But it was a job that had to be done. To summarize┼áthere are many people who do not appreciate the rich comfortable life we live nowadays, especially the younger generation.

back to top