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Wash Day

Plum Thickets & Field DaisiesPart III
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WASH DAY AT OUR HOUSE was nearly always on Monday. Sometimes if Monday was a rainy day, Mother would defer wash day to Tuesday because she wanted to dry the clothes outdoors in the sun. Plenty of sunshine was supposed to whiten clothes and give them a sweeter smell, so housewives were delighted when there was lots of sunshine on wash day.
Mother was a teacher, and during the winter months a hired laundress came to the house and did the washing, but with the coming of school vacation, Mother would take over the task for the summer. She knew we would save needed money, and at the same time, we would learn how to perform this necessary chore.
A big, round iron pot on short, stubbly legs was in the center of our backyard. This pot had belonged to my father’s mother, and it had been brought to Charlotte from Fayetteville, North Carolina, by my father. It was a family treasure that had been in the family for over one hundred years. We still have this old pot, and although it no longer serves in the washing process, we are proud of the service it rendered for generations.
My older brother was always given the task of providing wood chips for a fire around the big pot. In order to have enough space underneath it for a good fire, the pot was raised on three bricks so the fire would have a chance at better air circulation and not require as much poking. Because a load of cord wood was often cut into stove length in the yard by a woodcutter, chips and brush were plentiful.
My brother would fill the washpot with well water and build a fire under it that made the water boil briskly. The girls’ job was to sort the clothes into piles—a pile of colored clothes and a pile of white clothes—so as to eliminate fading when the clothes were being washed.
After this war was over, the washing process began. Four big tubs were on a long wooden bench in the yard. First, the clothes were washed on a wooden washboard in a tub of sudsy water. Then they were boiled for a while in the big iron pot. Sometimes a few drops of kerosene or a small back of peach tree leaves were dropped in the pot to help whiten the clothes. The clothes stick was usually the cut-off handle of an old broom and was usually kept on the wash bench. Sometimes it would be misplaced and a new stick would have to be found, but one was not hard to find because boys kept lots of sticks around to play with.
Sometimes in our haste to make the fire under the pot burn, we would grab the clothes stick and give a jab or two at the fire. Mother reprimanded us because the soot would be transferred by the stick to the clean clothes when it was used to poke them again.
After Mother had seen to it that the clothes were sufficiently cleansed by boiling, they were again scrubbed on the washboard. Next followed two clear rinses, a bluing water rinse, which was made by the use of a stick of bluing, and then starch was applied to the ones that needed it. By the time we reached the starch application, we were so tired that our tongues were practically hanging out.
Mother usually hung the clothes on the line because she knew how to conserve line space so that a large washing could be hung on it. While she was doing this, we would grab Jack, our little dog, and plunge him into the left over water for his bath.
Jack would squirm and wiggle as we soaked and scrubbed him. The fleas would rush to his face and head in order to escape the soap but we would hurriedly cover his extremities, head and tail with suds so as to exterminate the fleas as quickly as possible.
After he was soaped and scrubbed, we rinsed him very well and then dried him. He would look pretty and white when we had finished his bath, but often to our dismay, he would jump away from us and bound to the ash pile or a sandy spot. Before we could grab him, he would torn over and over and scrub furiously on his back. We would scream, Jack! O Jack! but by the time our cleansing effort would be nil, and he was his old familiar-looking self again.

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Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996