Throwback Thursday: Recalling washday work-outs tougher than a gym

Jo Kerrigan looks back to a time before gadgets and electricity, when doing the laundry meant rather more than tossing things into the machine.
Throwback Thursday: Recalling washday work-outs tougher than a gym

BY HAND: Scottish governess Marion Crawford, an employee of the British royal family, uses a hand-cranked mangle in the kitchen in January, 1951. Picture: Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

HAVE you been taking advantage of the recent fine weather to catch up on the washing? Wonderful, isn’t it, to get load after load out on the line for a real air drying, rather than the indoor tumble option?

We suspect many of you men aren’t quite sure how the washing machine works - or indeed if you even know how to switch it on, or where the detergent is kept.

In contrast, most women know that dark colours shouldn’t be put in with whites, and that red socks are a danger anywhere. You probably have a favoured washing powder or liquid. And that’s about it. Fine weather, it gets hung out, wet weather, everything is sorted indoors.

Yet it isn’t so long ago, and certainly within older memories, that washday was a challenging, not to say brutally hard part of the housewife’s week.

The widespread ownership of washers and dryers is comparatively recent. Very early models were available here in Ireland from the mid 19th century, at a price, but only for wealthy households. These were, obviously, hand operated, since electricity had still to make its appearance, and were based really on the churn idea: a barrel containing hot water within which clothes were tossed by means of an outside handle. The water was heated elsewhere and emptied into the barrel.

Later models had a metal container below in which a coal fire could be used to heat the water.

HOUSEHOLD CHORE: A demonstration of an early washing machine. They first appeared in the 1940s, but houses needed access to piped water and electricity to use them.
HOUSEHOLD CHORE: A demonstration of an early washing machine. They first appeared in the 1940s, but houses needed access to piped water and electricity to use them.

The first electric washer made its appearance around 1920, but only the turning or tossing mechanism was electric, everything else, from filling to emptying, was still done by hand.

Pressure switches, thermostats, and timers, didn’t arrive until almost the outbreak of World War II (and then most probably got put on hold due to the other demands on factory time).

Even if you could afford one of these early labour-saving devices back in the 1940s, it was still only possible to use it if you lived somewhere with not only piped water, but also electricity laid on.

Remember that large parts of Ireland didn’t get connected until the 1950s and ’60s (unbelievably, 1976 in the case of the Black Valley in Kerry).

To be fair, the government had been working hard on it.

In 1925, Ireland had 161 separate local electricity systems. In 1927, these were subsumed into the new State-owned Electricity Supply Board. Its success, embodied in the pioneering hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha, on the River Shannon, led to the connection of 240,000 consumers by 1945.

Another 400,000 rural homes, however, remained without electricity. A huge post-war rural-electrification scheme, requiring the erection of a million poles and 120,000km of power lines, was one of the great achievements of independent Ireland.

Imagine what it must have been like for students living in a remote rural area being able for the first time to switch on a bright light and study their books by night? Worth thinking about.

But back to the washing. A lack of piped water was a fact of life in country dwellings. The Irish Countrywomen’s Association carried out a campaign on this issue, and actually urged rural women not to marry a farmer unless he installed water in his house as well as his byre.

“He thought it a fine idea to put it into his byre, but why would you be bothered putting it into the kitchen – wasn’t she well fit to carry a few buckets?’ [was the] sort of attitude,” claimed Mamo McDonald a pillar of the ICA for many years.

So how did people manage back then, without running water, without indeed a heating system, and with a sleek shiny white machine far far in the future?

Well, you didn’t do so much washing, for one thing. Babies’ nappies of course had to be dealt with on a daily basis, but for the general pile of children’s clothes, men’s shirts, sheets, tablecloths, and pillowcases, one day in the week, usually a Monday, would suffice.

Once the best garments had been worn for Sunday Mass, Monday was designated as wash day, and dreaded by most housewives as the most exhausting part of the entire week.

There is an excellent description of this weekly endurance test in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford, which must have been similar to many an Irish experience:

“Monday was washing day and then the place fairly hummed with activity. ‘What d’ye think of the weather?’ ‘Shall we get ’em dry?’ were the questions shouted across gardens or asked as the women met going to and from the well for water.

“There was no gossiping at corners that morning. It was before the days of patent soaps and washing powders, and much hard rubbing was involved. There were no washing coppers, and the clothes had to be boiled in the big cooking pots over the fire. Often these inadequate vessels would boil over and fill the house with ashes and steam.

“The small children would hang round their mothers’ skirts and hinder them, and tempers grew short and nerves frayed long before the clothes, well blued, were hung on the lines or spread on the hedges.

“In wet weather, they had to be dried indoors and no-one who has not experienced it can imagine the misery of living for several days with a firmament of drying clothes on lines overhead.”

Ah well, that was in the late 19th century, you may say comfortably. Things were better in the 20th.

But were they? Much-loved writer Alice Taylor (author of To School Through The Fields and many other books from O’Brien Press) has vivid memories of washday at her own childhood home in North Cork, which she generously shared with us in a lively phone chat this week.

“We had this huge timber tub, and it had to be manhandled up on to two chairs so that you didn’t have to be bending down to the ground all the time. Then a big black pot over the fire to boil the water.

“Every drop of that water had to be drawn and carried up to the house. There was a fairy well a few fields back, and that had lovely clean fresh water which was used for making tea, but we had a sort of spout at the bottom of the yard which channelled a stream, and that was the water we used for washing clothes.

“The stream came down over a drop, and my father got a bit of piping and fixed it so we could fill the buckets easily. There had to be ingenuity back then to make use of what you had.”

The water was carried up in buckets across the yard, says Alice.

“Not fierce far away, but far enough with that weight. When the water was hot enough in the big black pot, the whole thing was carried down – it took two people to lift it – and emptied into the wooden tub.

A scrubbing board that was used on washday - normally Mondays.
A scrubbing board that was used on washday - normally Mondays.

“The washing started with the whites first and then they went into a separate enamel bucket of water with the blue bags to make them whiter. You didn’t blue the sheets, that would have been too much work, but it was for maybe tablecloths and pillow cases. They couldn’t all be blued.

“Then squeezing and wringing out the water, and hanging everything out, hoping to get them dry.

“Clothes lines in a good breezy place were a big thing, and you would throw some items over the bushes or hedges too.”

At night, Alice recalls, her mother would arrange the backs of the chairs round the fire and dry the sheets and towels there. “You would love to creep in under those to get the lovely fresh smell from them.” Blankets were kept for the best summer days.

“I remember my mother saying ‘this is a great blanket washing day’ and to the work we would go. They had to be done in the tub too and we kids were put into the tub to dance on them and help to get the dirt out!”

There was plenty of help back then, Alice remembers, because a woman used to come in and help with washday and when necessary the neighbours would come round to help out too. “Everybody did help each other out back then. People wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”

Washday was always a big affair, she emphasises.

“The men’s clothes got filthy in the fields and the byre and the piggeries and all that. I remember the blocks of red and white carbolic soap that we got from the shop in town. Each article would be pulled up along the washboard and the soap lathered up and down, and then the garment was scrubbed up and down, which was the forerunner of the washing machine. But it was all done by sheer grit.

“Today’s young housewives go to the gyms to keep fit, but mother of God, washing a tub of laundry was worse than a week in the gym! By the time that was done and out you were exhausted.”

Breda Lucey, from Gougane Barra, where Cronin’s Hotel has stood for generations, agrees emphatically.

“The laundry for the hotel was hard work when I was young,” she said. “A big turf fire was set outside in the yard, and big pots of water put on to heat. We had a large galvanised bath set up on blocks, and then a washing board for scrubbing, and our own home made soap from dripping and caustic soda.

“All the whites were rinsed in blue water (blue bag) and hung out to dry. All the tablecloths (plenty of those in a popular hotel) were starched, and next day the ironing had to be done. For that again we had a big turf fire outside and about six irons in the fire to heat, and a table set up for the ironing.”

Anybody remember the mangle? That great old freestanding heavyweight machine that stood in the scullery or outhouse and squeezed the water out of sheets and shirts like nobody’s business?

A story my father used to tell me concerned a mangle in the kitchen of friends of his, the Conran twins, in the 1920s. The house had a resident poltergeist – they often occur where there are twin children for some reason – and it used to come out and turn the handle of the mangle vigorously in the middle of the night…

Can you remember washing clothes in a tub? What was your family’s first washing machine like?

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