Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Labour of the laundry cycle

Lighter work: A 1954 washing machine advertisement. The new washing machines came as a great relief to most. This is the second in a new series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

I briefly mentioned coppers and the washing cycle in my last column. Today we forget just how much labour was involved in ordinary domestic life.

We also forget just how structured that life was. It had to be to fit everything in.

In many household, Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day, Wednesday was mending, sewing and baking day, Thursday was cleaning day, Friday was shopping day, Saturday was for sports while Sunday was for worship, church and visiting friends and relatives.

Garry Mansfield remembers the washing routine in his own household just before the first washing machines became common. On Sunday, he would have to chop kindling and “second wood” and set the fire under the laundry copper ready for the Monday.

The copper might be found in a laundry at the back of the house or sometimes in a small building separate from the house. The copper was set into a brick surround with a fire box at the base and a chimney to carry the fumes away.

Next to the copper would be two or sometimes three cement tubs, a vital component in the washing process. You will still find these in some of the older houses.

Early on Monday morning the copper had to be filled, usually from the tank, ready for sheets and whites to be boiled first. Soap or soap powder was added to the water. As the water boiled, a smooth copper wood stick was used to stir the clothes around. The sticks became very smooth and whitened from constant use.

Once the clothes were ready, the stick was used to transfer them to the rinsing tub and then as appropriate to the third tub which might contain Reckitt’s blue bag for the whites. In some cases, a mechanical mangle was used to wring the clothes before their transfer to the washing basket.

The whole process was reasonably complex and involved a production line. While the whites were boiling, stained clothes might be soaked and scrubbed in the rinsing tub to be ready for their turn in the copper. Then the first load would be hung out to dry while the second was heating.

With bigger families, multiple washes were required making for a very hot and steamy laundry.

That Australian icon the Hills Hoist was invented in 1945, most washing lines were still strung between poles in backyards. Once the washing was hung, forked sticks were used lift the lines to gain maximum exposure to sun and wind.

As the washing was brought in, another production line began. Clothes requiring ironing were damped down and the rolled up so as to be ready for the Monday iron.

The new washing machines that became more readily available in the 1950s had their own problems, overload the wringers and they would jam or come apart, but they were a welcome relief to the overloaded housewife! 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 


Johnb said...

On our first small dairy farm we had a copper and wash house for our laundry. The washing was hung out on a double line between two strong posts. Going even further back like many a lad, I assume, I swung the mangle handle round for Mum once the sheets were through.
All ancient history now Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not so ancient, John! Just feels that way to us! Its nice to get some of the memories down, though