reuminating on feminism and old habits

Earlier this week a friend sent me these basic rules for clotheslines–bringing up memories of a past life–that I’ll bet many of you remember as well. Judging from the tacked on comments and additions, this apparently made the email rounds many times over. I tried a web search in order to find the original so I might provide a source, and it was pretty near impossible. It’s too good not to pass along, and somehow I doubt whoever started it won’t mind too much. I added my own thoughts in parentheses at the end of the lines. Younger readers, or those who grew up in the city apartments, or those whose family was rich enough to hire your laundry done, it’ll be a good chance to glimpse the “good ol’ days.”


1. You had to hang the socks by the toes. NOT the top. (They were always hung in pairs to conserve clothespins.)
2. You hung pants (trousers) by the BOTTOM/cuffs. NOT the waistbands. (Years later, Mama bought these “stretcher” frames she placed inside each leg, so that creasing down the leg centers–made by the stretchers–meant she didn’t have to iron them.)
3. You had to WASH the clothesline(s) before hanging any clothes–walk the entire length of each line with a damp cloth wrapped around the lines so you didn’t get smudge marks on the damp items. (That was MY job. There was a long wooden pole with a cut in the top that was used to prop and push the lines up. That way longer items like sheets and pants couldn’t brush the ground and get dirty.)
4. You had to hang the clothes in a certain order, and always hang “whites” with “whites,” and hang them first. (The “whites” had to be WHITE. That’s how Mama judged the level of housewifely skills of every woman in the countryside, always quick to point out how “dingy” so-and-so’s “whites” were getting.)
5. You NEVER hung a shirt by the shoulders – always by the tail! What would the neighbors think? (Besides, you didn’t want little stretch bumps–caused by the weight–sticking up on the shoulders.)
6. Wash day on a Monday! NEVER hang clothes on the weekend, or on Sunday, for Heaven’s sake! (Iron on Tuesdays, and so on.)
7. Hang the sheets and towels on the OUTSIDE lines so you could hide your “unmentionables” in the middle. (Nobody else needed to know or observe as big hers were or how tiny mine were.)
8. It didn’t matter if it was sub-zero weather… clothes would “freeze-dry.” (Starch had an effect, too. Sometimes a Sunday shirt was so stiff with boiled starch, you could almost hold the sleeve and it would walk into the house by your side!)
9. ALWAYS gather the clothes pins when taking down dry clothes! Pins left on the lines were “tacky”! (Plus they would last a lot longer too! We had an assortment of three kinds, all wooden, one with a little spring that made a better grip , and the others, both–one rounded and one flat–a little plainer & cheaper, plus they made great clothespin dolls if you could filch a few.)

(Photos: Wikipedia)   

AND some of you may remember the dhobi-ghats in my post about the Dhobi Ghats in Mumbai where they don’t even use pins (!), and they hang the clothes according to color too.

10. If you were efficient, you would line the clothes up so that each item did not need two clothes pins, but shared one of the clothes pins with the next washed item.  (AND you made sure the items were taut and not dragging in the center.)
11. Clothes off of the line before dinner time, neatly folded in the clothes basket, and ready to be ironed. (They smelled wonderful!)
12. IRONED???!! Well, that’s a whole OTHER subject!

I was thinking on this as I caught up on my own laundry this week, using my automatic machines that not only does my washing but the drying as well. It took me only part of my day and in between I had time to snack and read and sit in the swing. How different life is for women to do their own wash these days.  I’m reminded of a poem by my favorite contemporary poet, Marge Piercey, brought to my attention by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac PBS. Her poem,  The Good Old Days At Home Sweet Home, goes a long way in expressing the sentiment behind her feminist views. In it she speaks of a vivid scene as she was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s just as I did (she’s a few years my elder). In the final four lines of a poem that simply and eloquently describes her mother’s life of drudgery, she writes:

It could have been any day, as she did again and again
What time and dust obliterated at once.
Until stroke broke her open, I think it was Tuesday,
When she ironed my father’s shorts.

I have the same bittersweet memories of laundry days gone by, years and years of example from the lives of my own mothers and grandmothers. Suddenly this morning as I was ironing the towel that likes to hang out at my kitchen stove., yes you read that right, I like my towels to hang neatly, and unfortunately I’d left mine in the dryer too long and it wrinkled so badly, it wouldn’t hang right. So I got out the iron and ironed it so it would lay straight because it has a message I hold dear. Did someone say IRONIC? Don’t mind what I do, just listen to what I say with the things I use:

22 thoughts on “reuminating on feminism and old habits

  1. I read this nodding — obviously our mothers were on the same page. And Tuesday was Ironing day, In summer, she set her ironing board up in the basement because it was cooler. Remember the pan of starch on the stove for dad’s dress shirts and the crisp white blouses we wore?

    Our lives as wives and moms are sooo much easier than our moms’.

    Funny story: When Kate was about four she came in from playing and I had the ironing board up set up and was ironing a silk blouse that I didn’t wear too often. She asked,

    “What are you doing, mommy?”

    “I’m ironing this blouse.”


    “You don’t do that very often, do you, Mommy?”

    “Not since they invented permanent press.”


    “Isn’t it great that you remember how?”

    (raucous, side-splitting laughter from daddy in the next room)

    “Katie, their are some things a girl never forgets.”

    The ex still reminds me of that!!!!

    • I love Kate’s story. I don’t think my kids saw me iron very much either, as you say, thanks to permanent press. Why is the clothing industry now coming out with all-cotton and linen mostly!? Creating the need before we even know we need it I guess! Mama trained me with doing handkerchiefs first (remember those?) and then on to pillow slips (or cases as we know them).

  2. I think of my mother and laundry every time I take sheets out of the dryer and fold them, by myself. My mother always wanted help with the folding. Is it easier because they come out of the dryer? There were few times she asked me to help. Somehow, I never did anything to her satisfaction. If there is an afterlife and she’s looking down at me, I’m sure she’s still shaking her head in displeasure. I have never gotten it right.

    • Call me one of Rodgers original cockeyed optimists, Ruth, but I like to think–if there is indeed an afterlife–that we learn stuff or at least TRUTH is at last revealed to all of us during the crossover, some knowledge that lets us see the mistakes we made on the previous go-around so as not to make them next time. In that vein, I see your mother looking down and saying something akin to *Ruth, I was wrong. You got a lot of things right–in spite of my own shortcomings!*

  3. I could have written that piece. I have pegs like those above and other more modern ones as well. My mother removed all the pegs with the washing and stored them indoors. Twice a year she put them in an old saucepan with a sprinkle of soap powder and brought them to the boil, then simmered for about 10 minutes. Once the soap was well rinsed off she spread them on an old towel to dry.

    • Oh Heavens! My mother did that, too. (boiling them to clean them up) I’m more convinced than ever that we’re all cut from the same cloth, just different colors and shapes! All these comments keep reminding of things I thought were forgotten!

  4. I love clothes on the clothesline – reminds me of summers at my grandmother’s farm – we’re headed to Europe for the summer where inevitably we will be hanging out clothes to dry as many places don’t have driers. But your post actually reminded me of being in Shanghai with a colleague/friend and going down a river where every building had laundry hanging outside and she pointed and said to me, “The national flag of China.”

    • I just had a weird thought. What if all those “national flags of China” had been dried in electric dryers instead. Or even solar. Would we have any sort of energy left? Thassa lotta clothes! 🙄

  5. Do you know there are ordinances in some communities, forbidding residents from drying clothes outside? My cousin Rita lives about 25 north of me. She hung out some shirts, and her neighbor reported her to the “clothes line police.” Rita got a phone call, asking (demanding) that she dry everything inside. Geesh! Don’t we have more important things to worry about?

    • You and I? Probably, yes. Those clothes line police? Your cousin should be pleased with herself. She probably made their day–gave them something to do/be excited about. What do you want to bet they were watching to see if anyone collected those clothes. 👿

  6. I love this sentiment. My mother the engineer hired a maid who came in every day. I was allowed to watch Dolly run the wringer washer, and help hang the clothes. When we got a Bendix, life was so much more fun. I learned how to do laundry across the street at Buddy’s house. Now I live in one of those no dry communities.

  7. I do like this post. 🙂

    RYN: John Carter. He said, “There were some interesting moments of high action interspersed periods of deadness. Needed tighter editing.” I think the hero and heroine were flat too. We rated it as a B sci-fi. Three decades past when the made the best of the B films.

    Personally I liked the 4 armed creatures. Welll done and well acted. I read through the movie. LOL

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