Washday on the Homestead

According to the Laws of Feminine Paradigms, Monday was Wash day long before the prairies filled up with settlers. Homestead wives brought this tradition from their far-off motherlands and planted it into the cultural soil of Western Canada. As Saskatchewan writer Robert Collins says in his book, Butter Down The Well, “To wash on Tuesday, say, or Friday, would violate God’s ultimate plan for the universe.”

My mother-in-law talked of scrubbing clothes clean on the old washboard until after WWII, when they applied for a washing machine. For some years after the war consumer goods were restricted to those deemed most in need and she was crippled, so they got their machine.

Grandma Vance, too, would have done her fair share of scrubbing on the board as a housewife in the nineteen-teens. With Grandpa running a threshing machine, going from farm to farm, there would have been grease and chaff-clogged coveralls to scrub clean. Likely they needed boiling as well. Mom Goodnough told me that whenever her brothers went on a threshing crew they always came home with lice, so all the clothes had to be boiled.

Before the wringer washer appeared someone had invented a washing barrel with a stick agitator. One of the family worked this stick back and forth; this would turn gears that would crank the agitator back and forth to agitate the clothes. Tubs of water were heated on the wood stove and dumped into this barrel together with Fels Naptha flakes that the housewife had shaved off a hard yellow bar.

In summertime clothes were pegged out in the sunlight; this heavenly bleaching agent could be counted on to get diapers and linens extra clean. They came in smelling of fresh breezes, ready for the flat iron — Tuesday being likewise universally decreed as Ironing Day. In winter the laundry was hung out to get the benefit of the sunlight and breeze, then carried in stiff as boards and hung to dry on makeshift clotheslines strung up all through the house.

The gas-powered wringer washer was welcomed heartily by hard-working wives, but you had to be so careful when feeding the clothes through that you didn’t get your fingers too close to those rollers. It happened many a time; I recall hearing of one little girl who got her arm in the wringer right up to the elbow.

One day Mom F told me about an incident from back in her youth when she was brave enough to tackle the washing herself. She’d wet the bed one night and woke up so embarrassed and afraid of the consequences that she jumped out of bed and grabbed the sheets off the bed. She was big enough already that she was able to heat the water and fill the washer. In went the evidence.

I’ve gotten the impression that Grandma was a strict disciplinarian and Mom was seriously afraid of the punishment she’d get for wetting the bed. When Grandma got up she was really surprised to hear the washer chugging away, but Mom told her she’d decided to get the washing started early this morning. I wonder if Grandma ever suspected the real reason?

Hopefully it was a Monday morning.

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