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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hangin' our shirts in the dirty breeze

This story stirred up some memories. In my childhood home on the east side of Newark, there was no clothes dryer, and so all the laundry was hung out on a clothesline to dry. The pole to which the line was attached was in the back of our fourplex, and the back bedrooms of all four units were the kids' rooms, and so our moms would drag the clean, wet laundry up from the cellar (where the washing machines were) into our bedrooms, fight their way through scattered toys and other kid pickup items, and open up the window to hang the clothes out. There was a storm window and a screen on top of the regular window, and so sometimes the opening was a three-step process.

Each clothesline was looped over a couple of pulleys -- one anchored near the outside of the window and the other on the pole. You'd pin an item on the line, push it out, then add another and another, until the line was full all the way out to the pole.

Under this system, laundry chores were at the mercy of the elements. No drying on rainy days, of course, and when the weather turned from fair to rainy in a hurry -- which was often back in New Jersey -- there was a bit of a mad scramble to pull the clothes in before they got soaked. On these occasions, the clothes would have to be re-hung in the cellar, a dark place where the four coal bins were -- not exactly the best place for clean laundry to reside.

Wintertime was an especially interesting season for clothes drying. When Mom opened the back window, some wicked cold air would come rushing in, and as the clothes went out on the line, they would be steaming. After hanging out in the frigid air for a while, they would sometimes freeze solid. I don't think they ever broke when they came back into the house, but they sure were stiff and cold.

Up and down the alley that our house backed onto, all the moms did the same thing. Rows and rows of clean clothes, on multiple levels, were seen flapping in the breeze. Your wardrobe of the past week would be on full display for the neighbors. Every once in a while, a clothespin wouldn't hold and somebody's clean clothes would drop onto the ground. For the tenants on the top floor, that meant a walk down a couple of flights of stairs, and back up with the fallen item. I don't recall anything being stolen off the line, but I can't imagine that it didn't happen on occasion.

Anyway, here's to the people who want to dry their clothes on clotheslines in the open air. There's no good reason why they shouldn't be allowed to do it.

Comments (11)

Moms were made of sterner stuff back then! Amen to drying clothes outside-I do- but only in the good weather-the rest of the time most of the clothes go into the dryer-except for some stuff that gets placed on the wooden rack or on hangers placed on the shower rod....ah the good old days!

You don't hear me complaining. Of course, I live in a place where we have about 300 sunny days per year (our current Portland-like weather is a decided anomaly, as we've had one whole sunny day over the last three weeks), so setting out the laundry in a typical Texas summer requires getting up early. The good news is that after setting up the last of the laundry on a July day, one quick cup of coffee later, it's already dry.

And picking up wet heavy clothes, hand-cranking through the wringer, bending down to stack in the basket and then carrying the basket to the line, bending again to pull out and reaching up to pin wet clothes to the rope, was healthy to boot. Didn't need treadmills or exercise videos.

And Dad wasn't left out -- first task on rising in the morning was to shovel coal out of the bin into the furnace.

When the weather is good why not hang it out to dry, it's making a come back as a green thing to do.

The only problem that I've been hearing is many homeowner association say it's against the rules. Somehow they think laundry drying is ugly and will drive down property values.

Yeah, my mom did the same in Cicero IL. We lived on the second floor of a 2 flat and she had to schlep clothes up and down two flights of stairs. My sister and I helped with collecting the dry clothes, or as you had, the frozen ones. Fingers got caught at times in the wringer but the proverbial ...s in a wringer never happened (AFAIK!).

The first floor, grandmas home, was heated at first by coal, then later the furnace was converted to oil. Out little flat was heated with an oil stove. My dad had to carry 5 gallons of oil from the garage every winter morning, fill the tank, let a pool of oil collect at the bottom, light it and carefully adjust the oil feed once it came up to temp. The he left for his job at the Surface Lines in Chicago, later to be called CTA.

"Those were the days, my friend
We thought they'd never end..."

"homeowner association say it's against the rules."

Those self-appointed busybodies need to get the stick out of their you-know-whats. It has been argued that the restrictions they place on people's use and enjoyment of property (thinking back to 1st yr property w/pof Cameron at WUCL I think the term was restraints on alienation)alos lowers property values.

alos= also and pof= prof

my bad

"Somehow they think laundry drying is ugly and will drive down property values."

It's not "ugliness." It's a class/status signifier (which some people will conflate with ugliness, but whatever). If you could afford an electric dryer you didn't need to hang your laundry, ergo people with hanging laundry were those who could not afford electric dryers and were not the type of people with whom one should associate. Did you see Old Man Henderson's underwear hanging on the line the other day? So declasse.

Nowadays, hanging clothes on the line should be seen as a symbol of leisure, and therefore a status signifier. If you have time to hang your clothes out, as opposed to quickly shoving them into the dryer, you must be doing all right. (Or else you're out of work.)

Lawrence, my uncle worked for the CTA as well, before buses he drove streetcars on now long-abandoned lines -- 'er I mean those things that spur development due to their permanence.

My parent's first house was a little cape cod in SE Portland off 104th & Holgate. It had no basement and only room for a washer in the kitchen (no dishwasher either). My mom who also worked as a house keeper did all the laundry and she hung it outside on a clothes line. On rainy days she hung it in the attic which was unfinished at the time. My folks had a garage built for the outrageous price of $750 in 1955. The garage had a side porch which was the new place to hang the laundry. The attic got finished that year and was the new den. I do remember, however after my folks moved into their dream house which had a clothes dryer that my underwear was a lot softer. I don't know if I ever want to give up that softness in my old age, so screw global warming.

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