Tuesday, 27 August 2013

... and WASHING clothes.

Australia currently has quite a few interesting female comedians, or comediennes as was once the female term. A little list of some I enjoy is strangely Irish in flavour - Kitty Flanagan, Judith Lucy, Corinne Grant, Michelle Laurie, Julie Morris, Fiona O'Loughlin, Denise Scott, Gina Riley - with Fiona being a favourite.  Her dry-as-dust tales of life with five kids and a husband in Alice Springs actually make me laugh out loud - and it must be funny, not just silly, for me to laugh.

Fiona claims that she escapes to the stage of comedy clubs as a way of coping with family life ... though as I can't imagine there are too many comedy clubs in Alice Springs, in the middle of the desert, her escapes must include a long weekend in Adelaide or Melbourne. Nice.

One of her top tips for surviving the daily grind is - just chop some garlic and onion into a hot pan with oil and stir. When they all come in with stomachs growling they'll smell it and think something is happening - clear out of the kitchen and don't bother the cook - thus buying yourself another half hour to finish your coffee before starting the real meal preparation.  The phrase ' chop up some garlic and onion' is applied to a number of situations in our house.

I've recently realised that washing on the line has become my version of this.  After a 3am session of writing, editing, drawing, sewing etc - activities I really enjoy, I crawl out of bed at 10am and stagger to the washing machine.  If, late the night before, I'd put on a load of washing it would be there in the laundry basket, and I'd just have to peg it out -  giving me half an hour to doddle around the house until I am fully awake. When Big R comes up from the paddock for his 10.30 cuppa the washing line is full and housework seems to be underway. Big grin.

My washing line

And watching the drying process is very relaxing. It's lovely to sit back and admire that line of clean sheets or blindingly white nappies flapping in the breeze.  I was delighted to hear my darling nephew Jos, back in the day his youngest child, who is now 12, was a very little baby, say he thought a line full of clean white nappies was a lovely sight.  Delighted .... because men usually do not fully appreciate that style of domestic art.

J and K with middle child and a line full of nappies
Of course 'washing on the line' can be translated as laundry.  Why we use the verb washing instead of the noun that belongs there is a mystery, but that's Aussie English.  We 'do' the washing, peg out the washing, dry the washing, bring in the washing, fold the washing and put it away. Some of these jobs are done in the laundry - and that should probably be laundry room, where we keep the laundry basket and the laundry soap.

One of my favourite family stories came to me through one of my grandmother's sisters. They lived in a one room house on a dairy farm at the foot of the blue mountains west of Sydney.  The seven children were born between 1883 and 1894 and they were poor farmers - though I have seen, in old newspapers, that they won prizes at the local show for cows and jam etc. 

There was no electricity in the house, cooking was done over a wood fire, the children wore underwear sewn from flour sacks and slept on bags stuffed with straw. With the house full of children the parents had very little quiet time. The children remembered falling asleep to the sound of their parents voices coming from outside, as they discussed the day's work and future plans - mother Annie pegging washing on the line, and father, John, holding the hurricane lantern and helping with the big heavy items.  When people are so busy with hard physical work, simple tasks may seem like a break.

Bush washing line with prop
I don't think Annie bashed her clothes on rocks in the river or scrubbed them with sand to get the dirt out, but washing for a family of nine people would have been hard work and a never ending job. 

First collect the water - from stream, pump or tank, possibly in buckets and carry to whatever tub or basin she used for washing.  To remove dirt from clothes you soap and rub and rub and rub. If Annie was lucky she had a wood fired copper - and that's an adjective turned noun. The copper tubs were on legs, or stands, with room underneath for a fire. When the water reached boiling it melted grease and the bubbling action agitated the clothing, removing the dirt which was trapped by Annie's homemade soap flakes. A long stick, in our house called The Copper Stick, was used to move the clothes around and also to lift them from the hot water. I've actually continued to have a 'laundry' stick for poking things into the machine ... and killing spiders. 

I remember these wooden pegs, often called dolly pegs
because children like me turned them into dolls

Then more water was needed for rinsing before wringing everything out by hand. That requires incredible strength of hand, wrist and forearms. Just imaging trying to wring water from sheets! Two strong men would find it hard work.  Hand wringing hot cloth made incredible wrinkles so good clothes were often ironed before they were completely dry just to get those wrinkles out again.

The wringer, or mangle was another laundry aid. The heavy metal device, with wooden rollers was mounted over laundry tubs and operated by turning a handle. The washing was fed through the rollers, handle turned, fabric squashed flat and the water ran into the tub to be saved and used again. Many fingers were squashed flat, and long hair torn out, in wash houses and laundries. They were even more frightening when attached to washing machines and powered by electricity.

A wringer mounted over concrete laundry tubs

During the 1950's our new laundry had both electric washing machine and a gas powered copper. But, later, as a student I lived in a few old houses where a copper was the only furniture in the laundry (room). I hated the whole procedure and would usually opt for the Laundromat. To me the copper was time consuming, unnecessary, hard work, and I had the alternative. 

The coppers also came in handy for boiling Christmas puddings. My grandmother made about a dozen a year as gifts - that was the number of puddings she could fit into the copper. The puddings were then 'hung' in the laundry for about two weeks.

Boiling puddings

The invention of washing machines set women free. and moved puddings back to the kitchen, but even the first of the 'modern' washing machines were mechanical, and very hard work. But then electricity was invented and that changed the world.

The Hill's Hoist was an Aussie invention and was a great space saver in the backyard
and a play area for kids - we've all been in trouble for swinging on the Hills

My great grandmother Annie Wilmington Morehead was born in 1854 and died in 1940.  During her 86 years she went from hand washing clothes in tubs to boiling them in a copper using wood fire and then gas. I'm sure that even if she didn't use an electric washing machine herself in her later years she certainly would have seen one, and that's amazing.

When my children left home it took me two or three years to adjust - the washing was one thing I found difficult... or lack of it after all those years. I'd go into the laundry and wonder what to do. When I saw this sign on facebook it meant a lot - and I agree, be glad of the washing you do, it means you have someone to care for. 


  1. When I was very little I watched my mother washing/boiling clothes in the copper then electricity came through our rural area and mum got the very modern washing machine with an electric wringer. Some years later she got a twin tub. When I first got married we had a twin tub that was quickly replaced with a large top loader.
    some years later we got a front loader machine. I have seen a few changes in washing clothes

    1. Great memories Jenny and thanks for reminding me about the wringer - I'd totally forgotten those, it may have been unconscious as I was always afraid while using one. I've now added that to the page and even found a photo of one very like my great aunt's wringer - or mangle as she called it. The first machine I owned was also twin tub and it did a great job on nappies for three babies before I finally got a top loader.
      I thought my great grandmother had seen all changes but maybe our generation is aware of even more.

    2. My Mum also had the old mangle with the copper but her electric machine had an electric wringer. This was just so wonderful and helpful to a lady with 4 children

  2. Lovely, really enjoyed this ..... the historical part was very interesting. Also loved your choice of cute photos.

    Great stuff! Wendy


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