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:

bombay’s dhobi ghats

Summer, now that it’s finally reached us here in the Wasatch Front, has brought with it visitors from out of state. Hence, I’ve neither been very good at regular blogging practices nor reading those in my Google reader, other than occasionally. At last, in a brief break, I’ve come to the logical place to write about one of my favorite visits in Bombay, the municipal Dhobi Ghats.

Some may remember a post in 2007 about Bombay’s dabbawalla lunch delivery system (re-run in January this year)–the intricate system of lunchbox pick up and delivery straight from the hands of the wives in Bombay to  husbands in their offices, then rerouted back home before the husband gets home at the end of the day. Well, the Dhobis who keep Bombay’s people in clean clothes and linens are every bit as impressive. Approximately 200 dhobi families collect dirty laundry from families around Bombay, take it back to the municipal dhobi ghats you see here, where they wash and dry it, neatly press and fold it, then deliver it back home again–all for a small fee, around Rs 400 (less than $8 US) per month.

First comes a soak in sudsy water, then scouring on the scourging stones provided in each pen until clean. They’re then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next comes the ironing, and then wrapping into neat bundles ready for home delivery. Although other ghats are scattered about the city, most of them are used by poorer locals. The most famous of these Dhobi Ghats is this one at Saat Rasta near Mahalaxmi Station (you can see it in photo #4 below) where entire dhobi families work pay a rental fee to the municipality. It’s a hereditary occupation.

It’s quite a sight, with row on row of open-air concrete wash pens. For stubborn stains, there’s a soak in a caustic solution like sulfur; drying takes place on long, brightly colored lines; and heavy coal-burning irons are used for pressing. Clothes and linens are hung to dry in batches of white, pastels, and type.

Loads are washed much as you might do at home, by color and weight.

Look as you might, you’ll never see a clothes pin on any of these lines.  Instead the lines are made by tautly stretching two lines together and twisting them tightly. A small corner of the garment is then pressed between the twisted segments.

The bonus at the end of a hot work day, there’s plenty of water and makeshift bathtubs around to take a cooling plunge in. Let’s hope he remembered which vats hold that caustic soaking substance.

Nope, everything seems fine! Whew.

The locals are hard pressed to understand why everyday so many tourists come to gape, with cameras in hand, at an ordinary people working at very ordinary labor, but having witnessed it myself I must say it’s quite an impressive sight. Another example of intelligent enterprise passed from generation to generation. And I’ll bet their CEO’s don’t get any bonus at all, just the satisfaction of a job well done at the end of the day and that cool bath.

There’s a Hindi movie, available on Netflix, entitled Dhobi Ghat, that Hubby and I enjoyed very much, especially after visiting Bombay and the dhobi ghats. It’s a story of four people from very different backgrounds whose lives in Bombay intersect briefly, leaving them forever altered by the experiences they share. One if those unforgettable characters is Munna, a dhobi from the ghats who dreams of escaping the limitations of his family’s life of labor in the ghats by becoming an actor. The characters are very real, as are their relationships, their smiles, their tears, their dreams, fears and their tragedies. It offers a decidedly different look at Bombay than the city you might have seen in Slumdog Millionaire.