Back in the day when washing was a fitness workout

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Review

Today at my house its “wash day”. Now that may seem like no big deal but there was a time when it was a great big deal.

With today’s modern appliances it’s a matter of throwing the wash in the machine, pouring in some soap, closing the cover and pushing a couple buttons.

About an hour or so later you take the wash out of the washer and toss them into a dryer, close the door and again push a couple of buttons, pour a cup of coffee and sit down and read or watch TV for an hour assuming you don’t have more housework to do.

Grandma would have been amazed!

Now if you’re old enough to remember how washday used to be (I certainly am) it was a much more complicated task than it is now. In the basement we had our big square tub Maytag wringer washer and a big wooden bench on which stood 2 large galvanized wash tubs.

First of all the washing machine was filled with nearly boiling hot water and soap. But not the soap that we use today. The soap my mother used came in a large yellowish cake, that had a very strong odor and was called Fels Naptha. I wonder if they still make that soap?

Mom had to take the soap bar and shave off small bits into the wash machine so that it would dissolve. Then the two metal tubs had to be filled with warm clear water which was used to rinse the clothes twice after they were washed.

If you were washing white clothes (whites were always washed first) the last tub had a few drops of bluing in it. I used to always put the bluing in the water myself because before the bluing completely mixed into the water it formed beautiful cloudlike images in the water. Why bluing? Because it made the white clothes whiter. Would you believe I checked into a store recently and they still sell bluing, but I couldn’t find Fels Naptha soap.

First you had to sort the clothes, the whites from the colors, then you loaded the wash machine with the sorted wash, turned on the machine and inside the wash machine a large paddlelike agitator swished the clothes back and forth for as long as you deemed necessary.

No buttons to push and nothing was automatic. The washing machine was placed so that when you took the clothes out and fed them through the wringer mounted on the side of the machine the clothes fell into the first tub of rinse water.

After a thorough rinsing by hand the wringer was swung around and the clothes we fed through the wringer again and into the final rinse tub. After the clothes went through the final rinse the wringer was swung around again and once more the clothes were fed through the wringer and fell into the wash basket.

Now the only task that remained in the washing cycle was to dry the clothes. In those days the dryer consisted of a coil of wash line and a basket of clothes pins!

After several hours of fluttering in the fresh air and sunshine the clothes had to be taken down and folded and in many cases ironed.

You remember an iron, don’t you? That’s a thing you had to use in those pre permanent press days to get the wrinkles out of clothing, sheets and pillowcases. About the only thing you didn’t iron was underwear. I can remember my mother spending long hours standing at the ironing board ironing clothes.

We used to own an ironing board but I don’t even know right now if I could find it; and I think somewhere we still have an iron. But ironing clothes with an electric iron was still a lot easier than using the old cast iron ones that you heated on top of the wood stove.

Generally two or three irons were used in the process of ironing. Once the irons were hot the housewife would take one of the hot irons and quickly iron clothes until it began to cool off. Then she would take the iron, put it on the kitchen stove, press a small lever on the handle and the bottom would come out which would then be reheated on the stove.

She would then take the handle which was attached to a metal shell and press it over the iron heating on the stove and it would lock in place and she could then continue with her ironing.

In the old days not only ironing was a laborious task on wash day. Before the advent of running water can you imagine the labor involved in hauling buckets of water from an outdoor pump which were then heated in a large copper boiler on a small basement gas plate.

If you were not lucky enough to have a washing machine, and many people weren’t, the clothes had to be scrubbed on a wash board, which if you weren’t careful took most of the skin off your knuckles.

Take for instance how the telephone has changed. When I was young I never dreamed of a day when at all times I could carry a phone with me that I could call virtually anywhere in the world!

The other day to my horror I left home without a telephone, I was sure that a disaster would befall me and I would have no way to summon help…it did not.

My old flip phone was way behind the times so off I went to a local cell phone supplier. There I found phones displayed in 52 designer colors and with complex features on them that would have confused an astronaut.

I explained to the sales representative that I really did not want a cell phone on which I could play games, watch TV, check the stock market and see what the weather was in Southern California. I explained to him that all I wanted to do was to make telephone calls not take pictures, for that purpose I have a really excellent digital camera.

I could see a look of bewilderment on the salesman’s face. I’m sure I reminded him of one of the cavemen that you frequently see on TV commercials. He rummaged around under the counter and came up with a cell phone that he said even a person of my age should be able to understand.

Yes, it did make phone calls but he explained apologetically that it did have a built in camera which I felt, after due consideration, I could tolerate. Shaking his head and mumbling to himself “Old fogy’s” the young salesman rang up my purchase and I was on my way home with my new electronic miracle.

When I got home I eagerly opened the package containing my new cell phone which I had been told was as simple a model as they had in stock. Much to my surprise an instruction manual 192 pages long and in 3 different languages, fell out of the box of my new “simple” cell phone. It took me three days and six trips back to the store to understand my new “simple” phone.

There have been many movies made depicting the “good old days” and how uncomplicated and simple life used to be, would you really like to go back? Just stop and think for a moment, have you ever realized that 50 years from now these will be the “good old days”?

If anyone has any comments or suggestions for future columns please feel free to contact me, at 920-458-2974 or e-mail me at

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