Writing about my dishwasher adventures last week got me thinking about other appliances and the days before we had them. Long before the clothes dryer was the clothesline. When I was a girl, everyone had a clothesline in their backyard. Laundry was done once a week and you always knew your neighbor’s “wash day” because of the clothing and sheets and towels gently swaying in the breeze on their clotheslines.
I remember many a summer day as a girl, following my mother out the back door of our house to hang the wash. She carried a basket full of wet clothes fresh from the washing machine, and I carried the bag of wooden clothespins. I stood next to her handing her clothespins as she moved down the clothesline hanging piece after piece of wet clothing and linens. As we shared those times together, I learned about the closeness and satisfaction that comes with working on a project with someone else.
Most clothesline structures had two metal (steel or aluminum) posts that were about six feet high and were placed 20 to 25 feet apart. The clothesline, which was made of rope, cord, wire or twine, was strung between these two posts. Some folks had umbrella clotheslines that were circular in shape and took up much less space in the backyard.
Our clothesline had posts made of steel that were T-shaped, and they had three lines stretched between them. That way, things like sheets and towels and pants could be hung on the outside lines, and the more private items like pajamas and undergarments could be somewhat hidden hanging on the inside line. When I was a small child, my brother and I used to point and giggle when we would see the neighbor’s underwear hanging outside on their clothesline.
Since heavy wet items such as blankets and towels could make the clothesline sag, my mother had a 2” x 4” wood board with a notch in the top that she would slide under the heavy line to prop it up and keep the wet laundry from dragging on the ground. I confess that I might have talked my little brother into hanging onto the clothesline with both hands while I propped it up so he could swing from it. I might have done that.
And oh how quickly we would run for the backyard if a sudden storm should blow in when the clothes were still out on the line. My mother and I would run up and down the clothesline trying to grab the clothes before the rain started to fall.
We had an electric clothes dryer too, but my mother preferred to use it only in the winter when it was cold and snowy in the Midwest where I grew up. She said that hanging our clothes out in the warm sun on the clothesline saved us money by not using electricity and “made our clothes smell good.”
My grandmother also had a clothesline in her backyard and hers was between her house and the barn. Much like I did at home with my mother, I would help my grandmother hang the laundry. Later when I became a teenager, I loved to hang the clean laundry on the line for her.
When I was very young, my grandmother would lay a quilt on the ground underneath her clothesline and then she would hang another quilt over the line to make a fun and secret hideout for my cousins and me. We would sit in our clothesline tent and talk about all the things that young girls and cousins talk about. Now and then, a stray chicken or duck would wander up from the barnyard and peek in at us…and then how we would laugh!
I didn’t have a clothesline when my own kids were small, but I used to make a cool fort for them by hanging quilts over the dining room table. They spent many hours playing in those forts, especially on cold winter days when the weather kept us indoors. I think my grandmother would have been proud of my version of her clothesline tent!
*Author’s note: The first version of a clothes dryer was called a “ventilator” and was invented by a Frenchman named Pochan around 1800. It worked by hand cranking a clothes container that was pierced with holes and suspended over a fire. Clothes would either burn or dry and if they did dry, they smelled like smoke.
Later, in the 1930’s, an American inventor from North Dakota named J. Ross Moore developed a design for an electrically-operated clothes dryer. By the 1950’s, many Americans were buying electric clothes dryers for their homes. Today, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are 89 million clothes dryers in homes in the United States. And, if you look for them, you can still find a few clotheslines in backyards across our country.