Soon after our family moved to Atlanta, we invited Mother (Retilla Miller) up for a tour of the city. We started with the Atlanta History Center, which we knew she would like. She was an avid gardener, and the center had beautiful gardens. It also had the replica of an old farm, the kind she grew up with, and pretty tour guides in hoop skirts. “That is not very authentic,” she said. “Farm women didn’t dress up like that. They had hard work to do.”
She should know, I thought. She was helping with farm work herself when she was pre-school age, helping her father pick cotton, and helping her mother iron when she had to stand on a box to do it. She looked around at the old cast iron pots women used for washing clothes, and even I was familiar with those. I can still remember seeing those black iron tubs outside our house on Pine Street in Marianna, and watching the black woman who came in on Monday mornings to help Mother scrub and wash clothes.
Items used for washing clothes during pioneer days in the South were also on display, but our tour guide was baffled by one of them. It was a waist-high block of wood with a paddle resting on its top. The guide admitted she didn’t know what it was for, so Mother stepped up and provided the explanation.
“That’s a paddle block,” she explained. “Women put a soiled piece of clothing on the block then took out all their frustrations on that garment, beating the dickens out of it with the paddle.” This amused the tour guide, so she asked Mother to give her own story about wash day. She wanted to know why Mondays were always set aside for laundering clothes.
“Probably because Sunday was a day of rest,” Mother explained. Washing clothes took an entire day and many hands to help, so women needed that day of rest first. Clothes were divided into three stacks: one for dark clothes, one for white clothes, and another for lightly colored clothes. There were also three tubs: big, little and medium in size, (or the Papa tub, the Mama tub and the baby tub.) Women fussed at children for getting their clothes dirty, because keeping clothes clean was hard to do. Even the men folk had to help on wash day. They pumped water or drew it from a well, and filled the Papa tub about three quarters full of water, and a fire was started beneath it.
Depending on what they could afford, women used three kinds of soap; homemade lye soap or commercial soap and powdered soap, usually the “Gold Dust Twins” soap powder or” Octagon” soap or powder. Mother picked up a scrub board and demonstrated how the clothes were scrubbed back and forth until at least at least some of the stains began to disappear. Then the clothes were transferred to the paddling block for a good beating. By then, the water in the pot was boiling and the soap added. While the clothes were being boiled, younger children helped by punching the clothes down with a long stick. When all the clothes had been washed, separated and put in piles, dirty water had to be emptied from the big tub and fresh water put in. There were at least two rinses required, and then the clothes had to be squeezed as dry as possible before being hung on the clothes lines.
Just when this back-breaking labor was finished, there were times when the clothes lines broke, fell into the dirt, and everything had to be done all over again. If it rained, clothes had to be taken inside and re-hung later. “If the clothes were already wet, why did they have to be taken inside?” asked one little boy.
“What do you think caused clothes lines to break son? What weighs more, dry clothes or wet ones?” The little boy didn’t answer. He just looked at his feet and blushed.
At home, later, I reminded Mother that the worst wasn’t over once the clothes were washed. I still remembered the old flat irons our Grandmother Cook (Mother’s mother) kept beside her fireplace. Mother agreed. Not only did a fire need to be kept going in the fireplace to keep the irons hot, the irons had to be kept clean. Smoke and smut from the ashes in the fireplace soiled them. Also, irons cooled quickly and had to be changed frequently for a hotter one. If the iron was too hot, it scorched the garment, which was considered the supreme disaster. Most clothes were cotton that had to be starched, which made ironing even more difficult as clothes had to kept damp. Otherwise, the iron would stick to the clothes. The iron itself had to be cleaned with beeswax to keep it from sticking.
Like older people of today, Grandmother Cook didn’t adjust quickly to new technology. She delayed buying a refrigerator until that sad day when the ice man stopped coming. Her grandchildren were sad too. We loved to see the ice man coming, carrying ice in the back of his wagon. On a hot summer day, it was fun to run and jump into the back of his wagon, cooling off in the ice chips slowing melting there.
However, once electricity was brought into grandmother’s house, she had no objection at all to the gift of a washing machine and a new electric iron.