The Price Of Cleanliness

A series of posts about Laundry in the 1950’s by Ibeth at Nutsrok brought back memories for me.

I remember, when I was first married and lived in a flat in Germany in the 1960’s, that we had a front-loading washing machine in the basement, which was shared by all tenants according to a rota. My recollection is that I was allowed to use it once a month, which seems strange as the usual system, still operating today in most of Europe, is that each apartment tenant is allocated a half day every week. Maybe I just used to forget when it was my turn. I know I used it a couple of times, feeding the machine with tokens bought for 20 Pfennig each from the “Hausdrachen” (house dragon or concierge) a ferocious little middle-aged woman who hated me because I was English. One load of laundry cost 1 DM, which bit into my budget and might also be a reason I didn’t use it much.

Most of the time, I did my washing in the bathtub, first dancing on it in my underwear as though treading grapes, before I rinsed and wrung it out by hand, and then hung it to dry on wire frames over the bath. I had the most beautiful soft skin on my feet at that time. When my baby daughter arrived, her cotton nappies had to be soaked in Napisan and then boiled in a very large enamel lidded pot over the gas stove. Eventually, grandmother came to the rescue, collecting our dirty laundry – all but the nappies – each week and bringing it back freshly ironed. Finally, much later, I got a washing machine that did everything except iron.

I was lucky, even in those days of bathroom laundering. My mother had it much harder than I did, when she was a young mother twenty-five years earlier. For one thing, her house was built in 1938. At the time, it was considered very modern. It had gas, used for a gas fire and the cooker, and even electric light, but nobody had anticipated the number of electrical appliances that would become household essentials within a decade. If we needed hot water for a bath, we had to make a coal fire in the living room, which had a back boiler behind it. This was fine in the winter, but who wants a blazing fire in the middle of summer?

Photo credit: Wikipedia. Double lightbulb socket

Photo credit: Wikipedia. Double lightbulb socket

There were no electrical sockets apart from a light-bulb socket in each room, which were double to allow an appliance to be plugged in alongside the light bulb, and there was certainly no fridge or washing machine in our kitchen. There was nowhere to plug them in, for one thing. Not even an electric kettle. We had a lovely whistling kettle instead that sat on a gas ring. You wanted toast? Pop it under the grill, or hold a slice of bread to the fire on a toasting fork. Your hair was wet and needed drying? No hairdryer. Lie on the floor with your head in the hearth – or even in the oven, with the gas on low. Sometimes, my mother ironed my plaits.

But washing was the biggest chore. My mother’s kitchen was very small, about 9 feet long by 7 feet wide, with a door at each end, leaving very little room to manoeuvre. It had a floor to ceiling cupboard with shelves in one corner, then along one wall were a gas cooker with hob, a large porcelain sink and draining board, and a capacious gas-fired tub – the copper – in the corner of the kitchen under the wooden draining board next to the sink, under the window.


Wikipedia – not quite the reality!

The draining board was on a hinge, so when it was raised a short hosepipe could be attached to the cold-water tap to fill the copper. This had a gas ring underneath it to heat the water, and a tap at the bottom so you could empty the used water into a bucket. It also came in useful at Christmas time, as it would hold several Christmas puddings that had to boil for a few hours, thus saving space on the hob.

Opposite the sink was a mangle. This was a clever contrivance with a cast iron frame that folded down onto itself, providing a white wood table top when it wasn’t mangling. That was the only work surface in the kitchen, and had to be scrubbed. I think this is where my fondness for multifunctional furniture comes from.

Tmangletablehe wash began in the sink, where the dirtiest things could be prewashed by hand, and rubbed on the galvanised zinc washboard. Mom had kitchen soap, not washing powder. The copper was half-filled with water, the gas was lit underneath, half a bar of soap was grated into the water, and the washing could then boil away merrily in the suds while the kitchen filled with steam. I suppose this is why the copper was located under the window and next to the back door: theoretically, they could be opened to let the steam out. While the water was getting hot, my mother used a wooden dolly or a copper posher to swish the laundry about in the hot water.

When the washing had boiled enough, my mother fished it out with a pair of wooden tongs and plopped it into the sink or, in the case of sheets, which needed more room, a galvanised tub. It was too hot to touch with bare hands, so she would then run cold water onto it and empty the copper.

Everything was rinsed first in the sink, then for the final rinse the galvanised tub or the copper was filled with clean water. Some things had to be starched, and this was a separate procedure using starch powder that had to be mixed with a small amount of water and boiled in a saucepan first, then added to the final rinse. If it was a white wash, there would also be a “blue bag” in the rinsing water. x

The posher came back into action at this stage, making sure everything was completely clean and full of starch, before each item was lifted out of the tub into the sink again to be wrung out by hand to remove as much water as possible. Then the tub was rolled outside, down the step, and emptied down the drain.

Then came the part that I enjoyed helping with: the mangle. Our mangle had a cast iron frame which was very heavy, but had to pulled away from the wall before it could be opened up. Turning the handle made the wooden rollers rotate, the washing was fed through between them and all excess water squeezed out into the tub. Feeding the clothes through the mangle was also an exciting job, but you had to be very careful not to get your fingers caught. It was also very important to make sure that any buttons were lying flat, otherwise they would break as they passed through the rollers. Some undergarments – like liberty bodices – and pillowcases had mangle-proof rubber buttons.

After that, the washing would be pegged out on the line that stretched the length of the garden, held up in the middle by a long wooden clothes prop to prevent the line from sagging in the middle. On a bright, windy day pyjamas and shirts would dance in the breeze, the sheets occasionally wrapping themselves around the line, so someone had to go out and untangle them. The scents from the garden would mingle with that of the starch, so that when the clean washing was brought in, it was full of the fragrance of freshly mown grass, roses or wallflowers. I can think of few childhood pleasures to match that of snuggling down in a clean nightgown after a warm bath in a bed with clean, sweet-smelling sheets.

Of course, washing day weather wasn’t always bright and sunny. There were days when it started out well, but then the rain would start when the washing was all blowing in the wind and you had to dash out to unpeg it and bring it back indoors. Or the weather was bad for several days at a stretch and the washing simply had to be done, come rain or shine. Then the house would be filled with damp laundry draped on the clotheshorse in front of the fire, across the backs of chairs or anything that could be pressed into service. There was no central heating, so fires would be lit in all the rooms, the steam that rose from the drying laundry would hit the cold glass of the windows, and condensation would run down the panes in rivulets.

Finally, once everything was dry enough, it would be ironed. At least we had an electric iron, not one that had to be heated in the fire. My mother used to do the ironing with the flex dangling from the light fitting, and as she was only five foot two, that meant climbing up on the kitchen steps to plug it in and unplug it each time. The flex was quite short, so the ironing board was put up directly under the light in the middle of the room.

The iron had only one setting – HOT – so she had to be very careful with delicate fabrics, which were left till last after the iron had been unplugged and was cooling down. I remember having a blouse made from “parachute silk” in the 1940s. This was a newfangled synthetic fabric. My mother had washed it and started to iron it, and it began to vanish before our eyes! That was our first experience with nylon.

Larger items, like sheets and tablecloths, were first pulled into shape, my mother holding two corners and I the opposite two, and we would tug them into a proper rectangle before they were ironed. Afterwards they would hang for a while over the clotheshorse to air before being folded and put away. Smaller freshly ironed items would be folded immediately and put away in the airing cupboard, which was above the hot water cylinder in the bathroom. My father’s shirts had separate collars, affixed to the shirt by means of collar studs, and these were stiffly starched then kept in a special round box. I was allowed to iron the handkerchiefs, which were left till last, with the ironing board lowered almost to the floor.

One way or another, this entire procedure must have taken a full week. Washing day was Monday, and I will always associate my mother doing the ironing to the accompaniment of a BBC radio programme called “Friday Night Is Music Night” where we could sing along.

In 1950, a wonderful place called a Laundrette opened up in the next town. Once a week, we would catch the bus with our load of dirty laundry, put some coppers in a slot and watch with fascination as it whirled round and round in the Bendix – even disappearing completely at one point when the centrifugal force reached its peak. Then we would return with lovely clean things that only needed airing and ironing.

The advent of a twin tub washing machine must have seemed like a gift from heaven to my mother. It replaced the gas copper and posher or dolly, and it had its own wringer with rubber rollers so we could also get rid of the old mangle. This left a little more room in the kitchen, and provided an easy-clean Formica counter instead of the old kitchen tabletop. It served for many, many years before she finally got a front loader.

One final comment from my mother on this topic: her mother, with eight children, had it far worse!

17 thoughts on “The Price Of Cleanliness

  1. Thanks for the dose of nostalgia – my Gran’s routine was like that, except the what you call posher was called posser, or a poss stick in London. My Mum had it slightly better – she had a gas fridge and a hoover before WWII. When I was first married in 1960 I had none of those things, my twintub (which I loathed) coming in 1964 when my daughter was born and I had two lots of terry and muslin nappies to wash. In all three kitchens, Gran, Mum and me, an Ideal coke boiler provided hot water, even in summer. On rainy days we used to dry wet laundry on a pulley contraption which pulled up to the ceiling – I still have it, but have nowhere to fix it here.

    • I didn’t mean this to get so long but it just kept going! I do ‘t know where my mother could have plugged in a hoover – apart from the light socket! Those ceiling rails were very useful, but we didn’t have the space for one I had a modern version of it in my house in the Swiss Alps, and it was a blessing. Aren’t they called a Sheila Maid or something like that?

  2. A great account for posterity – we forget what it was like, when we pop the washing into the machine and then the tumble dryer, and moan about the ironing 😮
    I have the posher here and in a bout of youthful nostalgia we had an airer (sold as a Sheila Maid…) in our old house in the 80s/90s but had no real use for its original purpose, despite not having a dryer at the time. I still like hanging the washing out in fine weather, though!
    Granny had a twintub until 1982 and it was passed on; one of those old-fashioned appliances that lasted for years and years, unlike those of today. And of course she didn’t have a fridge until 1973, a phone until 1975 or a freezer until about 2010 – and yet she managed as women always used to do… a real example and role model. These are ideas that are beginning to resurface as some young women question the ecological sustainability of all the common appliances, so it’s good that the information is still there as food for thought!
    Something I have never come across elsewhere is the airing cupboard, and the idea that even something that has been dried and ironed still needs extra drying in there – presumably it has to do with a cool damp climate?

    • I was afraid this was getting too long and boring – but once started, decided to leave nothing out! Yes, mod cons aren’t always essential! I suppose that if the hot water cylinder is properly lagged, no heat should be escaping, but our airing cupboard was always warm. It meant warm towels when you came out of the bath, and keeping nightwear in there meant that was always warm, too, when you undressed on a cold winter’s evening. Certainly no mildew anywhere!

  3. Memories even from one born in 1952. I could smell of starch cooking in your description as I did in lbeth’s. I can remember the iron sticking to nylon burning a hole in the garment and trying to get the melted fabric from the iron. I thought hanging out laundry was fun and remember running out to take it off the line when it started raining. I remember the light bulb hanging from a cord in the middle of the room and plugging things into it, pretty sure it was my grandmother’s house. I remember that sheet were ironed. I, too, was allowed to iron handkerchiefs. My aunt’s mother was blind and she did our ironing at one time. Mom said it was the prettiest ironing you could imagine. Thanks for the memories.🤔

    • The smell of starch – I should have mentioned that! Very evocative. Spray starch for ironing doesn’t come anywhere near it. And yes, we ironed sheets too – my 82-year-old neighbour still does!

  4. Thanks for the memories. I remember when my mother finally got a wringer washer, she was in heaven. Amazing the changes we’ve seen, but how much do we actually appreciate them. ^^’ Glad I didn’t have those kinds of laundry days.

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