How to Do Laundry, 1920’s and Later (Part 2)

"The punishment your clothes get in an ordinary washing is harder on them than all the wear you give them the rest of the week. You can't afford to let the old hard laundry soap wear out any more clothes in the washing." From a Lux ad, Delineator, August 1926.

“The punishment your clothes get in an ordinary washing is harder on them than all the wear you give them the rest of the week. You can’t afford to let the old hard laundry soap wear out any more clothes in the washing.” From a Lux ad, Delineator, August 1926.

Modern Methods of Laundering, article from Delineator magazine, July 1927.

"Modern Methods of Laundering," Delineator, page 40, July 1927.

“Modern Methods of Laundering,” Delineator, page 40, July 1927.

This full-page article described the way to do laundry in 1927, with step-by-step illustrations. I will show the images and text, from number 1 to number 11, with occasional comments or explanations. (Even if you’re hauling your laundry to a laundromat every week, reading this article may make you glad it’s not 1927.)

The horizontal washer used in the “Methods” illustrations is less familiar than this upright “Mangle washing machine,” but the steps would be the same.

Ad for a Thor washing machine, Delineator, November 1928, p. 78.

Ad for a Thor washing machine, Delineator, November 1928, p. 78.

First, Prepare Your Soap

Laundry soap options in 1927. They included grating your own soap from a bar. Fels Naptha soap, in a big bar, was rubbed on difficult stains and rings around the collar.

Laundry soap options in 1927. They included purchasing flakes, chips, or powder; liquifying your soap ahead of time(right); and (left) grating your own laundry soap from a bar. Fels Naptha soap, which came in a big bar, was rubbed on difficult stains and rings around the collar.

500-1-text1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Hook Up the Hose

Filling the washing machine. There wa wide variety in washing machine styles; this one is cylindrical. 1927.

Filling the washing machine. There was wide variety in washing machine styles; this one is cylindrical. 1927. She is filling it by hand with a hose attached to her sink’s faucet, and presumably has a hot water heater. Earlier washers were filled bucket by bucket, with water heated on the stove.

500-2-text-1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Weigh the Clothes

Weighing a load of clothes. The Savage brand washer could handle 10 lbs.

Weighing a load of laundry. The Savage brand wringerless washer could handle ten lbs. With wringer type washers, clothes were constantly being removed from the washer, and others were being added.

500-3-text-presoak1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

In 1927, too big a load could burn out your motor. White clothes were pre-soaked or pre-washed with borax and soap. Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that converts some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide — which is increasingly being used instead of chlorine bleaches.

Adding soap to a 1927 washer.

Adding soap to a 1927 washer. You were supposed to dissolve the soap before putting it in the machine, to be sure it would dissolve completely. Even in the 1950s, laundry soap didn’t always dissolve in cold water.

500-4-text-temp1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Find the Electric Switch (and the Emergency Stop)

This power switch is inconveniently located near the floor. Notice the faucet for draining the washing machine.

This power switch is inconveniently located near the floor. Notice the faucet for draining water out of the washing machine.

500-5-text-switch1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Another article mentioned the importance of having an easy-to-reach emergency shut-off for the electric wringer. Just the other day I met a woman who remembered getting her braid caught in the wringer when she was a girl. Luckily, she could reach the switch before her head was pulled up against the wringer. Serious injury was possible if you couldn’t reach the wringer switch. Since you used your fingers to guide the laundry into the wringer, you had to pay attention.

Watch It Make Suds

You could not trust the soap to dissolve evenly.

You could not trust the soap to dissolve evenly, and women didn’t trust a soap unless it made lots of suds.

500-6-text-suds1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Here, you can see the wringer, in profile, next to the woman’s head. Presumably, this control lever is also the safety switch.

Load Washer, Set Alarm Clock

Adding the clothes while the washer is running.

Adding the clothes while the washer is running.

(The wooden rod was also used for moving laundry around in the washer.)

(The wooden rod was also used for moving laundry around in the washer.)

Uh-oh:  the overnight soak or preliminary washing, and the first run through the wringer, apparently had to be done ahead of time.

Before the kitchen timer.... Once the alarm clock was set, the laundress hurried to do other tasks.

1927: Before the kitchen timer or automatic wash cycle…. Once the alarm clock was set, the laundress hurried to do other tasks.

500-text-8-while-machine-is-going1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Make Starch on the Stove

While the machine was washing sturdy fabrics, delicate silks and hosiery awaited hand washing. And liquid starch had to be made. I don’t know what “tinted” means in this context, but fabrics were not always colorfast. And some whites had to be “blued.” This would  also be a chance to lug a heavy basket of wet laundry out to the yard and hang it on the washline with clothes pegs or clothes pins. In Spring and Fall, the wash had to be hung out earlier in the day.

Ad for Quick Starch, WHC, Nov. 1936.

Ad for Quick Elastic Hot Starch, WHC, Nov. 1936. It was “quick” because you didn’t need to cook it — just dissolve it in cold water and then add hot water. Stir.

“It parallels the advance in … automatically heated irons. Practically self-cooking….. Thin it down to give any degree of gloss or delicate “sizing.” Clothes which needed to be starched were dipped in liquid starch while damp, and wrung out  before ironing.

Tending the washing machine, hand-washing delicates, boiling the whites on a low laundry stove. Fels Naptha soap ad, Delineator, March 1927.

Tending the washing machine (L), hand-washing delicates (C), boiling the whites on a low laundry stove (R.) Fels Naptha soap ad, Delineator, March 1927. Boiling hankies and diapers controlled germs. Boiling long underwear killed lice.

In 2017, I when set my high efficiency, low-water use washing machine, it weighs the load, does the pre-soaking, one or two rinses as desired, and “wrings” out the wash water and the rinse water in a spin cycle — while I leave the room and do something else. In 1927, even with an electric washer — which not everyone had — doing the laundry meant tending the wash constatntly.

Put Through the Wringer

clothes werefished out of the sudsy water and "put through the wringer." In 1950, My grandmother had a special pole, about three feet long, for fishing clothes out of the hot water, or insuring that the load stayed evenly distributed.

Clothes were fished out of the sudsy water and “put through the wringer one at a time.” In 1950, my grandmother had a special wooden pole, about three feet long, for lifting clothes out of the hot water, or insuring that the load stayed evenly distributed.

500-9-text-rinsing-bluing1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Boiling and Blueing

The use of scalding hot water explains the importance of Sanforized, pre-shrunk fabrics in shirts and other clothing.

Ad for Sanforized-Shrunk dresses, Delineator, Sept. 1933.

Ad for Sanforized-Shrunk dresses, Delineator, Sept. 1933. The “Sanforized” process was introduced around 1930.

About blueing:  As explained in RememberedSummers, “Laundry had to be hung out to dry in your yard, in fresh air, which meant that it was exposed to public view. Most back yards contained two tall posts (picture small, square telephone poles) with four or more clotheslines  strung between them from the crossbars…. Of course, in the old days, all of your neighbors hung out laundry on the same day you did (Monday), so there was some competition as to who had the whitest sheets. In the 1940s , my grandmother always put blueing in her final rinse [to get the yellow out.]” (And yes, some “blue-haired old ladies” used it on their hair! Don’t!)

500-10-boiling-1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

500-10-text-boiling1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Ad for Cube Starch, WHC, Nov. 1936.

Ad for Staley’s Gloss Starch Cubes, WHC, Nov. 1936.

Without starch, inexpensive fabrics became limp. If you wanted to keep cottons looking new, you needed to starch them before you ironed them.

But, before you were ready to iron the rest of the laundry, you had to dry it. This is not what I think of when I read the word “dryer:”

A heated cupboard for indoor drying. 1927.

A heated cupboard for indoor drying. 1927.

500-11-text-drying-1927-july-p-40-laundry-step-by-step-page

Hung Out to Dry

I have never visited a house with a dryer like this, but then, I live in sunny California. Clothes were normally dried out of doors …

Dryig clothing in the air, Borax ad, 1924.

Drying clothing in the air, Borax ad, 1924. A solar and wind powered dryer.

Solar and wind powered drying, the laundry line worked well for at least half of the year. But air drying doesn’t get the wrinkles out of modern permanent press clothing. Some modern planned communities even forbid laundry lines as unsightly.

My Texas-born husband tells me that in really cold weather, laundry will freeze dry — or at least, dry enough to be ironed. Rainy weather meant hanging your laundry to dry in the house — a messy and inconvenient necessity.

I have never known life without a washing machine, or at least a laundromat where I could wash and dry three loads at a time and be home within two hours. In 1927, that could take two days. No wonder many women “sent out” their laundry.

However, we ought to remember that, in the nineteen twenties, many American women were enjoying labor-saving inventions that have still not been introduced in many parts of the world. It’s time to remember how lucky I am.

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, 1940s-1950s, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture

12 responses to “How to Do Laundry, 1920’s and Later (Part 2)

  1. Trish

    I can remember a washing machine with wringer, hand powered, that my mother used in the 1950s, in the UK. Later on a spin dryer was the new and efficient piece of kit, or a twin tub, combined washing machine with agitator alongside a spin dryer, that was in the 60s. All were top-loaders. We hung washing out, and I still do, as do many in the UK. When we moved to the US for a few years in the late 60s my Mum was amazed at the size and efficiency of the washing machines. We still mainly have smaller front loading washing machines here, some with integrated dryers, most without. Some busy household use dryers but typically we don’t have separate laundry rooms which limits size. Interesting to see the differences.

    • Electricity was much more expensive (and appliances usually smaller) in England in than in the U.S. in the later 20th century. I used to spend months in England and was always surprised by the cost of doing laundry. When I see European kitchens on TV now, they look very Americanized, with big refrigerators — and small washing machines in the kitchen or bathroom. Having a small water heater near the sink or shower is much more energy efficient than heating 40 gallons all day long, but I’ve never seen one in the U.S. Most of our new High Efficiency washers are front loaders, but I’ve still never owned a front-loading washing machine.

  2. I would think its about 20 or25 years since you can buy the blue (for whites) and the box of robin starch in most stores (I had to look for robin starch as the 20 year box I had ran out – I very rarely used it!), I use spray starch now. I still hang my laundry out (I live in Ireland). Its amazing how the machines have changed. Although I do think that clothes are less well cared for now as people will just ‘toss’ them in the laundry and there is a preference for machine washable. I like to handwash my woolens as I prefer to put vinegar in the rinse (I will machine wash them carefully from time to time) and I do think dry cleaning bills can be drastically reduced if you know how to hand wash, sponge clean, and steam etc.

    • I once joked that, as a theatrical costumer, I have a Master’s Degree in doing laundry. Wardrobe technicians have to maintain the costumes — including hand washing when necessary — and you are right about caring for fine fabrics. With stores like H & M selling a blouse or sweater for the cost of a cup of fancy coffee, people are encouraged to think of clothing as disposable, which is terrible for the environment. Scientists are now noticing that the ocean off the coast of California, where I live, is being polluted by minuscule fragments of synthetic materials, the result of millions of wash-spin-and-drain-into-the-sewers laundry loads. On a cheerier note, Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing can still be purchased — online.

  3. And yet, those new wringer machines were still an improvement over the older more ancient method of boiling the laundry, agitating by hand with a paddle, and then pounding on a rock before laying out to dry on a rock or the grass. (Or the even older method of washing in a stream of running water and then hanging or laying to dry on a bush or grass; surely difficult in colder months with mud and lack of vegetation).

    There is also the change in expectation that comes with better cleaning technology. When women were expected to do laundry out of doors, in a stream of running water, or in a large cauldron of boiling water (that usually had to be tended over an open fire in the yard), laundry wouldn’t have been done once a week–maybe once a fortnight, or when the weather was fine. Bring in washing machines with a mangle that can be done indoors, and drying boxes, and suddenly washing can be done once a week. Upgrade the washers to be fuss-free, and tumble dryers, and then you can wash every day, all day and never worry a minute.

    The other thing to note, however, is that with the rise of automatic washers and tumble dryers, you also get more work for mother (as Ruth Schwartz Cohen and Judith Flanders have both noted in their books). There is no longer a need to send out the washing to the laundress, so now it falls on the woman of the house’s head to do it all. Even if it takes less physical effort to accomplish the washing, it is still task that must be done frequently (ever more so these days, as people have more clothing and standards of cleanliness in clothing are very high).

    As an interesting aside, washing machines are still somewhat unusual in Russia, and tumble dryers are almost unheard of. Everyone washes their clothing in the tub or in a small table top agitator (the hand cranked drum kind that can hold a pair of jeans or two shirts) and then hangs to dry above the tub or on the balcony outside the apartment. The balconies are sometimes enclosed like a little porch, so the clothes still freeze in winter, but at least they aren’t taking up your tub. It is a lot of work and a rather strange intersection of modern and pre-modern living.

    • Well said! I sometimes think the history of what we call progress is the history of unintended consequences. Our standards of cleanliness are very different now that we expect to wear clean clothes every day. I haven’t yet written about my father’s mother, or the huge laundry cauldron that hung on a tripod in her back yard. It was high enough that she could build a fire under it, to boil the washing for a family of ten, circa 1915. In 1960, one of my uncles was still in the habit of putting on his long woolen underwear in the fall and wearing it until spring.

  4. In many countries dryers are just too expensive to buy and use, so laundry either gets hung up outside, inside the house/apartment, or in the basement. I just got back from a trip to India, where I loved seeing the colorful saris hung out on balconies and rooftops everywhere.

  5. Robin Ziegler

    Thank you for the post – it was very interesting. On a side note, in the basement of our 1916 house there is a drying cupboard similar to the one pictured. I have never checked if it works or not (our 100 year old water heater still does), but I’m curious now!

  6. In Britain laundry blue was sold in small cubes. One of my 1930s sewing books mentions that you could mix it with a little water to make a paste, and then use a fine paintbrush to refresh embroidery transfers – ideal if you wanted to make a matching set of something.

  7. Pingback: HAPPY HOMEMAKER & MENU PLAN MONDAY week 13 of 2019 – Chasing MY Life WHEREVER it Leads Me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.