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Times Past: Laundry

As I mentioned the other day, Irene Waters has started a new monthly challenge on her blog, Reflections and Nightmares, called Times Past

Irene says …

I’d like to invite you to join with me in a prompt challenge that will give us social insights into the way the world has changed between not only generations but also between geographical location. The prompt can be responded to in any form you enjoy – prose, poetry, flash, photographs, sketches or any other form you choose. You may like to use a combination of the two. I will also add a series of questions for those that would like to join in but don’t know where to start.


Coming home from hospital. Mum’s laundry nightmare begins!

I fall into the Baby Boomers category, having been born in 1955.

Baby Boomers

Boom Generation/Hippie 1946 -1964 Space Exploration/ first counter culture

Prompt 1: The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.

I missed the first prompt but left a comment. All I remember about eating in a restaurant for the first time is the feeling – I have no idea how old I was, where it was, nor the occasion. I wasn’t a child, though. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin. Luckily, I had a vague memory of which cutlery to use from Home Economic classes. However, for a long time, I thought the fish knife was a butter knife.




Prompt No 2. First memories of wash day.

Was it a ritual in your house. Did you have to play a part. What kind of washing machine did you have? Was it the sole province of the women of the household? What was the style of your clothes line? Any memories of doing the laundry you care to share. I am sure that we are going to find some differences both geographically and generational with this one. Help me prove myself right or show that I am wrong by joining in.


About 1959, a much younger me had just woken from my afternoon nap on the couch, which also served as my bed. I wrinkled my nose. What was that scorching smell?

I looked over at the open fire, wondering if a spark had landed on the floor. On the other side of the nappy-laden clotheshorse, a thin spiral of smoke drifted towards the ceiling. I got up to investigate.

Whoosh! The nappies exploded into flame. I ran across the yard separating this building from the kitchen as fast as my four-year-old legs would go. “Mum! Mum! The nappies are on fire!”

That is my first concrete memory I have of anything to do with the mechanics of the laundry.



Simpson Pope (Australia)


Monday was always the Big Wash day. We kids were kept out of the wash house with its boiling copper, hot suds and irritated mother. I vaguely recall the arrival of a blue-and-white  Pope washing machine (secondhand) sometime during my early childhood, but this was useless in the late 1960s when we went to live in a house running on 32- volt electricity. By then mum had six kids.

The wash-house I write about was set up much like this one below  – without hot water tap. The copper may have been bricked in, with the firebox at the bottom. There was a double concrete wash trough to the left like this.


Ours was much the same set up as this – except without the hot water tap, and the copper may have been bricked in.


One day, when I was about twelve, Mum gave in to my nagging and let me help her with the laundry. I wanted to see what this secret women’s business was about. I was allowed to fill the copper while mum sorted clothes into piles. I gathered sticks and small pieces of wood for the fire underneath. I scrubbed filthy trouser knees on a corrugated washboard before mum lowered them into the boiling water. While the copper came to a boil, I helped mum with hand washing the woollens and the other delicate items. Mum used blue bags on the sheets.



blue bags



wash board

I helped put everything through the mangle, though by now I was sorry I had nagged to help. We hung the clothes out on the double clothesline out the back. This was an arrangement of two sturdy uprights with a swinging arm affixed to each. Enough wire stretched between the uprights to need two or three sturdy clothes props to keep the sheets off the ground.

I’m pretty sure this rented home was also the first place mum had a Hills Hoist. It was close to the house and quickly filled with the smaller items. Dad had imposed some rules about what was allowed to hang with what – for example, nappies and underwear on the line together was forbidden. A chance visitor might think that mum had laundered them at the same time in the same water. As if. Ewww.



my hills hoist has had a few kids swing on it over the decades


After my ‘help’, mum had her wash-house back. I didn’t want anything to do with it! I found out later that was what she had hoped would happen.




Sometimes mum would run out of pegs and she would pay us a bounty for pegs found in the grass under the clothesline. I do remember dolly pegs, but I think we usually had the spring ones.

me 1971

1971 – my summer uniform


When I was fifteen, I wanted my summer school uniform washed more often than mum was prepared to do. I distinctly recall her words. “I show you how to do it yourself.” My younger sister was already washing hers. Eventually, we collaborated and took turns to wash both dresses.

When I left home, I had to do all my own washing. I learned not to put woollens in the dryer. I learned not to rest a hot iron on delicates. I have never hung anything in front of a fire without making sure the screen was in place.

After that day in 1959, I slept in two armchairs pushed together under a window at the other end of the room. Mum showed me how to get out the window and assured me that I needn’t worry about the room catching on fire again.

I vowed I would have French windows in my house when I grew up.  I’ve always had sash windows, except here we do have several windows that wind out. It’s weird how a four-year-old would make that decision. It’s stuck in my mind all these years. As for my  other unfulfilled wish – to have an attic – I think the Secret Seven or the Famous Five were responsible for that.


19 thoughts on “Times Past: Laundry

  1. Christine I loved your recollections. They brought back so many memories for me that I had forgotten although I’m glad to say I don’t have your four year old memory to contend with. I’d be wanting French windows too if I’d experienced that. Enid Blyton had a lot of things she was responsible for. Those cement tubs I’d forgotten about although I had one in the house I lived in around 2003. That laundry set-up is much the same as both my grandmothers had, and those bags of blue. Although my mother had an automatic machine as long as I can remember she still used those blue bags and they were also used on stings that we got in the garden or blue bottles. For some reason my mother would only use the spring loaded pegs and I was so jealous of girls whose mothers had those dolly pegs.I laughed at your father’s sensibilities when it came to what the neighbours might think. Funnily I think it rubbed off on me because I hang things on different lines for much the same reason.
    Thank you so much for joining in and adding extra texture to the washing day stories.

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  2. Pingback: Times Past: Prompt 2 Women’s Work? | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  3. {Apologies to anyone who may have read this one my blog some time back}
    When I was twelve years old, Mum went to hospital for a serious operation and was hospitalised for a month. I was exempt from school, which ended my formal education, as I was needed at home to care for the family during Mum’s absence.
    This was a big ask of a girl of my age and I remember my aunt from next-door coming sometimes on washday to give me a hand. I look at the girls of today of that age and am thankful for the training my mother had given me previous to that time as to how a house was managed. All the tasks were harder then because there were no things such as electric washing machines in our home, or in homes generally, we did not even have a hot water system. Hot water for doing the washing was heated at first in a wood-fired copper, later an electric copper was purchased. All clothes were washed by hand and if they were of boiling material, then boiled in the copper, lifted out with a “potstick”, rinsed twice and wrung by hand, before being hung on the line to dry. When dry, they were ironed with a “flat iron”. This was an iron made from cast iron and with a flat plate on the bottom; it was stood in front of the fire to heat-or placed on top of the wood-heated stove. Two or three irons were used at the one time so that there was always another one heated when one was replaced because it had cooled. Thus washing day and ironing day was a large chore and I have clear memories of my mother doing these things.
    When my mother was seven months pregnant with her ninth and last child we lived in temporary housing while our new home was completed. The temporary housing was a fruit picker’s camp and there was only an open fire for cooking and no clothes washing facilities at all. The camp was situated on the bank of the river so my father or one of the older lads had set up a washing place on the river bank and made a place for the tin tub to sit. It was here that Mum did the washing, lifting all the water she needed from the river in a four-gallon tin and so filling the copper and the tub for rinsing. In retrospect I am not sure if she had the copper set up or if she actually boiled the clothes in the tins [these were tins in which kerosene was purchased at that time, hence they were called kerosene tins]. The tops were cut open and hammered smooth round the edges and a wire handle was affixed. Many women used them on open fires or wood heated stovetops for laundry work.
    The mind pictures are clear, for my duty was to sit in a safe place away from the boiling copper or tins, and keep my two younger brothers and sister occupied. I was nearing ten at the time and so considered old enough to be trusted with this task. The youngest child was my sister, then sixteen months old. And also with watching the new baby when he arrived a couple of months after my tenth birthday until our new home was ready.
    Women of my mother’s era accepted these types of conditions as normal, and indeed, for most women they were. When I recall the hard work they did and their uncomplaining natures I mentally bow to their temperament and patience, their fortitude and courage, and to their plain “getting on with life” attitudes.
    PS I had no washing machine until my fifth child was born in 1970 but that’s another story

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    • Thanks so much for sharing, Effy. We all had much the same experiences, it seems. I forgot to mention the flat irons. Mum used to heat them on the wood stove. We had a chip-heater which created the hot water needed for our weekly bath. The daily wash was in a basin with water heated in the kettle on the stove.


  4. sue says:

    Gosh that brings back memories. I don’t remember how mum’s copper was filled but the 2 concrete tubs full of cold water, pot stick, blue bags and the scrubbing board, didn’t like helping wring out the sheets, they were too heavy for my little hands. Mum got a electric washer with the wringer attachment and I was allowed to stand on a chair and help feed the clothes through. I was told not to do anything until mum came back in from getting something and I couldn’t wait and pushed something into the wringer, promptly followed by my fingers – owwwwwwwwww. Good training for when I was married and the washing machine broke down, remembered what to do and had to wash sheets & nappies in the sink. Very quickly got a new washing machine.

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    • I can remember mangling my fingers on my Stampco washing machine. Gives one a hell of a fright. I’d forgotten about the pot stick until Effy mentioned it. Thanks for sharing Sue.


  5. Holy Moly. What a memory and such detail for a four-year-old. You have me beat. I laughed about the nappies and the underwear side by side a no-no. We live worlds apart but many, many things were the same: the wringer washing machine, blue cubes (what about the starching?), boiling water, the clothes line. Oh my goodness.
    I came to Canada when I was four. I recall giving myself a haircut under the table at which my dad sat and mom was cutting his hair. The rented house we first lived in had no hot water and was cold as if the walls were made out of paper. When we moved, the house was torn down. I wonder if we moved because the house was to be torn down.
    😀 😀


  6. sue says:

    Ooh yes, the pegs – used to hate the spring loaded ones, they would spring apart and you would have to put them back together without pinching your fingers (though better than the plastic ones today that when you try and put them together again that snap in half and fly at you). The dolly pegs you could wrap wool around them to dress them up and ink in eyes & mouth. We had a combustion stove in the kitchen and at night mum would put the damp clothes on the clothes horse in front of it. Mum had a friend who had a private hospital and they had a huge outside laundry which had clothes drying racks suspended from the ceiling.

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    • I guess making dolls out of dolly pegs caused lots of mothers to buy the spring loaded pegs. I still put my old wooden ones together – making a new peg out of two broken ones. I hate plastic pegs and always vow never to get them again. I don’t put them in a peg bag and so the hot sun ruins them. I suppose a peg bag would be sensible. 🙂


  7. Christine, I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane! I share so many similar memories of the old wringer washer, the clothesline, and Monday laundry day.
    I had a vague fear of the new automatic washer and dryer when they arrived around the mid-60s. They were noisy and seemed somewhat threatening to me. I later learned that whenever my mom was hiding something from me, she would put it in the dryer because she knew I would never go near it 🙂

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  8. Interesting and entertaining, Christine. I, too, remember boiling water, hot suds, and an irritated mother. And I, too, tired of putting clothes through the mangle long before the job was done. You brought back lots of memories.

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