Washday In the 1920's
by Katheryn Freeman Fuller
1 Feb 1999
Laundry is no big deal in the nineties. Pick up a load of clothes
in the same general category, throw them into the washer, with detergent,
set the dials for temperature and time, and read a book, chat on
the telephone, or do whatever you wish. When the washer is finished,
shake the clothes out a bit, transfer them to the dryer, set the
dials for fabric and time, and go back to your other occupation.
When the dryer is finished, fold the clothes and put them away.
As I said, no big deal, and you may do the laundry at any hour of
the day, any day of the week.
Washday in the twenties was an ordeal. Monday was washday for
practically the whole population, and in the villages there was
some rivalry among housewives to be first to get sheets on the line.
In our household preparations began Sunday evening when my mother
shaved a cake of yellow Kirkman's Borax Soap into a saucepan, covered
it with water, and put it on the back of the wood-burning kitchen
range. Before going to bed she pumped water from the cistern and
filled the copper washboiler and left that on the range to start
warming during the night.
machine used by Hazel B. Freeman, mother of Katheryn F. Fuller.
Shows the apparatus on cover to agitate the clothes.
machine with no cover showing the ribbed inside to help scrub the
clothes. Note white electric washing machine in background and also
the old scrub board leaning against a discarded kitchen sink.
|Immediately after breakfast the next morning the
electric washing machine was dragged in from the back porch. Ours
was a "laun-dry-ette", purchased from Edwards Mercantile
Company (Padgett's). In the summer the washing was done on the porch,
but during the winter the process was crammed into the kitchen,
leaving little room for other activity. First the hot water from
the boiler was transferred to the washer, then a bench with two
washtubs was set up for rinsing, and well water was added to them;
in the winter some hot water was added to the cold. The soap had
become jelly overnight and was added to the washer, making a good
suds. Our washer had a spin-dry (the "dry" part of the
name) so the clothes didn't have to go through the wringer into
the first rinsing tub, but the next two steps used a hand wringer.
Then the basketful of clean laundry was taken to the line and hung
up, summer or winter. On a cold winter day the clothes were frozen
before the last ones were pinned to the line. In the summer a light
breeze and sunshine dried them quickly.
The same water served for as many loads as there were, getting
colder and dirtier until by the time the barn clothes were washed
last it was not as efficient as for the whites. When the last load
was on the line there was still hard work left. The rinsing tubs
were emptied, a pailful at a time, then the washer, and the equipment
was stored for another week.
Obviously, one washing per week meant that clothes were
not washed after one wearing. The general rule was one clean
outfit of underwear and stockings per week, and usually
one outfit of "everyday" clothes. There might
be two or three aprons, which protected the housedress.
Even one outfit per week made a big washday if there were
Perhaps a few words of explanation about cistern water
and well water might be helpful. Most farmhouses had cisterns,
usually in the cellar, occasionally in the attic. Those
in the cellar were built of concrete or stone, usually square
and 8-10 feet per side, and about the same in height. Eaves
troughs and downspouts drained the rain and melted the snow
from the roof into the cistern. A cast iron pump in the
kitchen, operated manually, raised the water to the sink.
The water was soft (no minerals), made a good suds, and
was used for all washing. Well water, on the other hand,
was good to drink, but was hard (contained minerals), and
in the days before detergents, made soap very ineffective,
forming curds that stuck to the clothes, but didn't clean
them. If there was a long dry spell in the fall, people
worried that the cistern wouldn't provide soft water all
Wringers which were operated by a hand turned crank for
pressing the water out of the washed clothes. Can be seen
in the Edwards Museum.
washboiler used to heat the water for the washing machine.
Also a metal plunger to agitate the clothes by hand.
|Before the twenties and rural electrification there
had been some progress from the "washtub and scrub
board" of our great grandmother's day. My mother had
a wooden washing machine, a tub slightly larger than the
ordinary laundry tub, corrugated on the inside to give a
rough surface, and with a round plate of wood about a foot
in diameter with four wooden pegs. This was connected to
a heavy stick which was pushed back and forth by hand and
agitated the pegged plate. Some machines had a wheel with
a handle to supply the manual power. This was an improvement,
but not exactly labor-saving.
In the late twenties GoldDust made its appearance for
laundry and dishes. It was fine grains of soap and much
simpler than shaving the Kirkman's Borax, but was still
harsh, and women's hands were red and chapped all winter.
Gradual improvements came until now we have mild suds in
hard water, and change our clothes as often as we like.
|A couple of anecdotes have a slight connection to the
topic. In regard to changing clothes infrequently - In the
early 1900's my mother was teaching in a rural school where
there were four boys from one family. Their mother had a
strange custom. In the fall she bought new long johns for
each boy, and sewed them closed. In the spring she cut the
boys loose, to the relief of not only the boys, but the
In the 1880's when my mother-in-law was a child, one
cold, windy night a man stopped at their house, visibly
upset, and talking incoherently about a ghost. Superstition
was quite common, but that ghost was taken care of when
they discovered a man's union suit, frozen stiff, had loosened
from the clothes line, and was "walking around",
driven by the wind.
the inside of the plunger which was used to agitate the
clothes being washed in a tub when no washing machine was