Friday, December 5, 2008

Dirty Laundry

There is a lost-in-time feeling to most laundromats -- and the one in this shopping center on Fair Oaks is no exception. This could have been any coin-operated laundry I used in the 1980s and 90s before I owned a washer and dryer. Same 1970s colors. (Same jarring fluorescent light which was never much fun on bleary Sunday morning after a fun Saturday night...) I was so overjoyed when I had my first washer and dryer. No more hoarding quarters! No more bizarre bleach marks on dark clothes! No more weird guys watching me sort my underwear! Even now, after all these years with a home laundry room, I still feel lucky not to have to schlep dirty clothes to a Fluff n Fold.

But even that is nothing compared to the way things used to be. Our home, like many in our neighborhood, was built in 1900. Laundry for the original owners was far more involved than anything we've ever known. First of all, forget hubby tossing in a load of whites. Victorian wives were expected to not only launder but often make all clothing worn by the family. Laundry had to be soaked, rinsed, boiled, stirred, bleached or blued, starched, wrung out, hung up and then ironed (with an actual iron that had to be retrieved from the fire.) Water often had to be fetched from wells and carried back home. If the water was too hard, it had to be boiled with wood ashes -- or Borax -- before being used.

And soap? Think of this next time you lug a box of Tide from the store. Most Victorian women had to make their own lye soap and use it to scrub soiled items on a washboard. For tough stains? Kerosene. Bleach? Try salt and lemon juice. And sometimes human urine. (I couldn't make this stuff up.) After scrubbing, laundry was then agitated by hand with a "dolly" -- a cute name for a long stick with some wooden pegs on the end that women used to stir, poke, jiggle and otherwise beat the heck out of whatever they were trying to get clean.

No wonder every cookbook had a recipe for absinthe and laudanum was sold over the counter!

Starch was a necessity of Victorian life in an age where wrinkles and limp collars were a sign of a slovenly character. Starch, of course, was made at home. Victorian housekeeping manuals are filled with various instructions on how to make the "best" starch -- wheat? Potato shavings? Sugar? Rice water? Take your pick -- but you had to pick something because only the most unkempt homemaker would neglect this important aspect of clothing maintenance.

After starching, the homemaker commenced to hanging all clothes to dry on outdoor clotheslines. (Hopefully, the above activities could be completed before mid morning as to maximize the sunlight. Victorians wore a lot of velvets -- and velvets not only took forever to dry, but they also tended to grow mold quite easily if left damp for too long.) After the laundry dried, the lady of the house moved on to the ironing -- with not one but many various implements set upon the stove top or into the coal fire. General irons, fluting irons for pleats, "mushroom" irons for puffy sleeves, "tally" irons for bows and strings and flat irons for sheets and pillowcases. (Yup, a proper Victorian lady had to starch and iron those, too.)

And all of this was accomplished while wearing corsets that limited normal respiration by up to 70%.

Needless to say, while I enjoy my home's architecture, and its vintage light fixtures, doorknobs, wood floors, picture rails, wooden built-ins and wavy-glass sash windows... I have no desire to journey back to the year it was built. And if my washer or dryer ends up on the fritz, this retro laundromat will certainly do in a pinch!

19 comments:

Mister Earl said...

My grandmother had one of those cylindrical-shaped tub washers in the 50s. It was electric and plugged in, but it was on wheels, I think, and could be rolled around to different locations. These tubs came with a wringer: two rolling-pin type cylinders that you rolled the clothes through to squeeze out the water before you hung them up on the line. I don't know if dryers hadn't really come into their own yet, or she just didn't have one. As far as I know, she never got her tit caught in the wringer, but that's where the expression came from. I'll always remember that was the expression that Nixon or one of his boys used to refer to the female owner of the Washington post during Watergate.

Mister Earl said...

Laurie, when do you sleep? Or are you one of those people who only need 15 minutes or an hour that I saw on the show Nova once.

Katherine Graham was the owner of the Washington Post during Watergate, and it was Attorney General John Mitchell who said it. Here's a quote from an article Grahm wrote in 1997.

"...Two weeks later, a seminal Bernstein and Woodward article appeared on Page 1 of The Post. They had dug up information that there was a secret fund at CRP that was controlled by five people, one of whom was then-Attorney General John Mitchell, and which was to be used to gather intelligence on the Democrats. Thus the story reached a new level.

In an effort to check it out, Bernstein called Mitchell directly, reaching him at a hotel in New York, where Mitchell answered the phone himself. When Carl told him about the story, Mitchell exploded with an exclamation of "JEEEEEEESUS," so violent that Carl felt it was "some sort of primal scream" and thought Mitchell might die on the telephone. After he'd read him the first two paragraphs, Mitchell interrupted, still screaming, "All that crap, you're putting it in the paper? It's all been denied. Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published. Good Christ! That's the most sickening thing I ever heard."

Can you believe where Mr. Earl took this discussion of doing laundry?

Halcyon said...

Wow! I have enjoyed this morning's history lesson and am glad I am not a Victorian wife and mother. :)

I always hated going to the laundromat. When I was at university, they had a chain that doubled as a bar and pool hall or something. It was a neat idea, but their machines were more costly and it was only really fun if you had friends to tag along.

My washer is less than a year old, so if it breaks down, I'm calling the repair center!

Halcyon said...

PS: I still iron my sheets and pillowcases. They just look better.

San Diego Farmgirl said...

I love doing laundry, and once had a dream in which I was a laundress in a former life. But it only takes one episode of that life in the 1800s show to realize we've got it good!

Excellent job capturing the ickiness of a laundro-mat. I have a feeling they'll become more populated as people lose their homes and move back into apartments or even RVs. I always wanted to own a laundry mat - one of those businesses that will make money while you're not there.

Petrea said...

Your research is fantastic, Laurie. I thrill to reading this history. Like you, I wouldn't return for anything (unless I could be guaranteed untold riches, and even that's a maybe). No wonder even the Victorian middle class had servants. One woman could never do all that in a single morning.

Wayne said...

Ah, those were the good old days.

USelaine said...

It makes me thankful for laundromats, and modern fashion, and textiles, and my own income...

Mary Kathleen O'Looney said...

I can't laundry I have the tired.

altadenahiker said...

You're a fan of pathtofreedom, right Laurie? They use a hand-cranked thingy and a washtub. I've used laundromats, though I never babysat the clothes. Only came up empty once, and it was underwear they stole! Can you imagine?

ben wideman said...

This is a really cool image. I love the atmosphere you've captured here. Dingy, yet full of life!

Susan C said...

Laundromats stir up a lot of old memories. When I first came to California, I made the stupid mistake of running an errand while my clothes washed. Everything was gone when I returned.

I too feel thankful for conveniences after reading this.

Mister Earl said...

When I was in college I lived in Solana Beach in an apartment right next to Del Mar racetrack. The washing machine in the laundry room was coin operated and took two quarters. One time a friend showed me that if you put the quarters in and slid the handle in really slowly, the washing machine would start and the quarters would come back out. He made me swear not to tell anyone else. From then on, I'd always do my wash when no one was around so I could get a free wash. One time I was chatting with one of the women in the building and followed her to the laundry room while she was doing her wash. When we got in there she hesitated, looked at me, and said, "Do you know about this?" I nodded. I'll bet almost everyone in the building knew about it. Finally they fixed the machine so it didn't do that anymore!

What a topic laundry has turned out to be for me. Sexual language, violence, and crime!

Trish said...

i despise laundromats, despite never setting foot in one until I was into my 20's. Sitting there, fighting for machines, hoping that *this* quarter will finally dry the last load of laundry. ugh!

our old family cabin went one better than the rollers to get ones tit caught in. We had a plain washboard and large tub that doubled as a bathtub. Though I admit, somewhere in my 30's I did catch a tit between the washboard and the tub once. OUCH! Can only IMAGINE how painful getting one in the rollers must have been. The good news about laundry at 7000 feet is that is dries fairly quickly!

Great shot and I think little has changed in that store since I was in there in what had to be the late 80's!

Dixie Jane said...

I have quite a few stories in my repertoire refering to laundry. Telling you will surely tell my age. My mother never had a washing machine. I think the reason being that Southern ladies had their washing done. Tradition from her Louisiana background. Despite the shortage of cash, that is exactly what she did. Except for my clothes. When I was old enough to have my own little rub board I washed my things leaning over the bathtub. Then hung them on the clothesline. After I was married I used a washing machine belonging to the landlady of the apartment where we lived. I only used a laundrymat a few times but didn't like it. I had two babies in cloth diapers, by then had a washing machine, and still the clothesline. It seemed like I spent half my life washing diapers, hanging them out to dry.(It gave me a nice tan) In wet weather I hung them wherever I could find room. I even starched and ironed, but thank heavens my iron was electric. No corset, no servants, but I accepted it as a way of life and I was young and full of energy and managed to do it all. I am thankful today for the modern amenities and grieve for my ancestors who died young, perhaps from overwork.

Cafe Observer said...

That looks like a nice business to own & get into.

That reminds me - laundry & weekend ='s ....

Laurie said...

Howdy folks,

Wow, Mister Earl! SPeaking of never sleeping -- looks like you were up late, too! I have a 3 year old who is part robot I'm convinced because she sleeps about a 1/3 as much as other kids her age. Consequently, I'm up at all hours if I want to get anything done. Since she didn't sleep through the night (what's that?) until she was almost 2 and a half, I got used to almost no sleep, too!

Farmgirl -- I love it that you dreamed you were a launderess in a former life. Most people say they were Napoleon or Cleopatra or Marilyn Monroe in a former life! :-)

Wayne, consider yourself bonked on the head...

Dixie Mom, you know, a lot of moms have gone back to cloth diapers. The ones now are so cute -- and much better than what I wore. Also, there are diaper services that compare with the price of disposables. I still remember our clothes line in the back yard. Remember the time we pretended it was a May Pole?

Thanks for all the great comments today, everyone. Until tomorrow...

pasadenaadjacent.com said...

If you had to, thats not the laundromat you'd go to. Instead your choice would be the one across from Trader Joes and kitty corner to Senor Fish. I don't have a washer/dryer. Most of the year I'm able to use a clothes line. Bluing is no longer kept on the shelves and no one wants my underpants.
I've reedited your position in my current opus. Now your "disoriented"

Jutilda said...

When I first looked at it, I thought it looked babies lined up in the nursery of a hospital.

I'm spoiled with a front loader and adore it. i don't mind even doing laundry.