Earlier in this space I have referred to my ongoing work transcribing my English great-grandfather’s diaries. I have months of work left, possibly something like a year and a half, and that may be optimistic, but expressing concern about that is not my present purpose. No, now it is my purpose to complain about something that should be obvious to any WOMAN who undertakes to make the diaries of a MAN accessible to his descendants. So here is my complaint: My great-grandfather writes his diary entries from his own point of view. Obviously!! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Doesn’t EVERYBODY??
What this means is that he RARELY makes mention of the activities and events of the home front. Here’s an example. There are many others, of course.
The year is, perhaps, 1860. He might mention paying the weekly charge of the woman who does the family laundry. In some entries when his children were babies he even mentioned the number of pieces of laundry, from which one might infer that the laundress is paid on a piece-work basis. But I don’t know if the laundress comes in and does her work in the home, or does it in her own home. Where does she get the water? What kind of soap does she use? Does she do ALL the family laundry or just some of it? Does she do the ironing? What kind of equipment does she use for the laundry and ironing?
These are matters that were unimportant to him, and so did not get mentioned. For myself I would find these details, and a multitude like them - such as everything to do with food preparation – fascinating. And because they impinge insufficiently on his awareness, or at least his writing, I am doomed to frustration.
Thinking about this, I remembered some years ago working on my mother’s book. She wrote at length about laundry day, when homesteading on the Saskatchewan prairie in the early years of the last century. My mother was a granddaughter of Elizabeth Niebuhr Thiessen so I am comfortable in including HER words in niebuhrgathering.com, confident that this is a rightful place for them, while at the same time alleviating to some extent my frustration with my English great-grandfather.
WASHDAYS AS I REMEMBER THEM (Published in Rempel Stories II, privately printed in 2002, editor Roberta Rivett.)
1926 Great Deer, Saskatchewan
Doing the laundry in 1926 was much easier than it used to be. Time was when my older sisters had to melt snow in the wash boiler on the kitchen stove. They carried the snow in, in chunks if it was hard enough, otherwise in buckets. Now in 1926 we were living in the big new house, with a cistern built against the basement wall. We could not get to the lovely soft water from the basement; it was reached through a trapdoor in the back entry on the main floor. The rain fell on the roof of the house and then by drainpipes was led into the cistern from the outside. The cistern thus filled would give us all the laundry water we'd need until spring or later. This water was soft, nothing like our well water, which was hard and would curdle the lye soap, or any other soap.
The large cast-iron cooker stood in the basement on the cement floor. There was a firebox under it made of metal, vented into the chimney stack. You made a fire under the cooker to heat the laundry water.
The cooker was also used to make lye soap. When a steer was butchered, all of the tallow was saved to be used in the making of soap. The lye came in round tins, and was caustic; you simply never let your hands come into contact with it; it could burn your skin dreadfully. Four pails of soft water were poured into the cooker. The cans of lye were put in, and then the tallow. The fire under the cooker heated it all. The lye dissolved the tallow and it all simmered slowly for some hours, until it was of a smooth and even consistency. Then it was poured into pans, where it cooled and became quite firm. It was cut into suitable pieces and stored. It would likely last until the next steer was butchered in the fall. If we ran out of lye soap we would have to buy laundry soap from the store.
To do the laundry after the soap was made was a good idea, as there was much soap adhering to the cooker. At other times, a piece of soap was sliced thinly and put into the cooker when it was full of water for the laundry.
Now we come to Day One of the laundry. The water was drawn from the cistern with a bucket which had a rope tied to the handle. The rear hall was not only a place to enter by the back door; it was a place to hang outdoor garments on the good hooks that were provided, attached to a board on the wall opposite the door.
Below the hooks and in the corner was the trap door into the cistern. You lifted the trap door and leaned it against the wall.
It was interesting, looking down into the cistern full of water, seeing your reflection. We were always cautioned to be careful and not fall in, as that would almost surely mean death. Now and then there was talk about getting a pump for the cistern, but as there were so many other demands on the money, it never came about.
My oldest sister Tena and I became quite efficient at hauling the water up, pouring it into another pail, and then carrying that pail down the basement steps to be poured into the cooker. When one of us came up with the empty pail, the other would have a pailful ready from the cistern, waiting to be poured into the empty pail, and so on until the cooker was filled.
Tena sorted the laundry into suitable piles for the washer to handle. There was a huge pile of wood in the basement, which was used for the kitchen stove as well as for heating laundry water, so that was no problem.
On the Second Day, the first thing in the morning the fire was lit under the cooker, and the washer was placed where it would be convenient to transfer hot water into it from the cooker. Five buckets or so were poured into the washer. The white clothes were done first: white men's shirts, pillowslips which were made from 100-pound flour bags. Aprons, tea towels and sheets also were made of flour bags.
Considering hundred-pound bag of flour we used in a week, there was a lot of this strong white material available. It was quite a task to get all of the printing out of the bags, but soaking them in separate warm water and lots of lye soap followed by a good hand rubbing did wonders. After this they were boiled in the wash boiler on top of the kitchen stove, not forgetting to put in extra lye soap. Now you had new material; even underwear was made from it. The sheets were made of four opened bags together, seams sewn flat, and one more halved, sewn across the bottom.
The washer lid had a dolly. I don't know why it was called that but it would have made as good a job by any other name. The dolly was a round, heavy piece of wood about twelve inches across with four pegs about four inches long fastened into it. When the washer lid was closed, the dolly plunged into the laundry, and when the handle was pushed back and forth, the laundry was swished about in the hot soapy water. This was continued for about fifteen minutes, then laundry was put through the wringer and into the laundry tub. Hot water from the cooker was poured on the laundry in the tub.
The wash board came next. The water must not be too hot, because we had to use our hands to lift pieces of laundry out of the water and onto the scrubbing board, where we scrubbed it, up and down, up and down. We had to be careful to scrub the washing only and not our hands. We made sure the ball of our hands would not get in the way and also get a rubbing. Blisters arose and were very painful, taking days to heal. We learned to scrub only the laundry, and not our hands.
Our hands held the laundry, and piece by piece it got a second washing. This procedure took place with all the washing: washer first, then through the wringer, into the tub, scrub it over the washboard, then another fifteen minutes in the washer and through the wringer. The wringer was made to turn by a handle and a handhold. Around and around, one piece after another. Just watch out and don't let your fingers get caught along with the wash. Right hand turns the handle, left hand feeds the wringer. And then the wash was ready for rinsing the next day.
While I would get another load into the washer and apply womanpower to make it go, Tena would sort out the white things that really were not white enough and must be boiled in the wash boiler on the kitchen stove. And don't forget to put in some lye soap. When ALL the laundry had been through the washer and the wringer and the scrubbing board, it was ready for rinsing in cold well water the next morning. Before that could happen, the washer was emptied again, the water carried up the back stairs and thrown out well away from the house. The wooden washer was thoroughly cleaned and made ready for the rinsing water.
The Third Day, the rinsing water was carried from the well and poured into the clean washer, the lid closed, the handle pulled back and forth until we were sure all the soap was rinsed out of that lot of laundry. Then each load of wash was put through the wringer a final time and piled on the table, covered against dust. In the summer the wash was hung out on lines, but in the winter it was carried upstairs through the kitchen, and up the second stairs in the dining room and finally up into the attic by way of a ladder. The wash hung there on many lines until it was dry. This would take a number of days as there was no heat in the attic.
There were some things that needed starching after rinsing. Some of the men's shirts, dresses, blouses and aprons were starched. The starch was made by putting a mixture of flour and water into a pot of boiling water on the kitchen stove. The mixture was then strained through a twenty-pound sugar bag, just in case there were any lumps in it. When it was cool, the articles that needed starching were dipped into the starch water and wrung out by hand.
The articles that needed ironing were dry before the heavier things, and we might get to ironing them by Friday, but mostly the ironing was left for the following week. The ironing was quite a job by itself. You laid a folded flannelette sheet across the end of the dining room table, and used sad irons. Why sad irons, I don't know. They were made of solid iron with a nice shiny bottom. They were put on the stove to heat. There was one handle made of wood, which would clip onto the iron. You ironed away with one iron until it seemed to need reheating. Then you unclipped the wooden handle and traded the cooling iron for the hot one from the stove.
I remember Mother sitting in the kitchen mending or knitting and being a part of the day. It was a good feeling seeing her there.
The sheets and towels had to be made smooth in the old-fashioned way. You got the five-foot-long bench from behind the table - Father had made it years before and the boys sat on it when they ate. On ironing days there was another use for the bench. A two-foot-long roller made of wood was used to make the sheets and towels lovely and smooth. Towels or folded sheets were wrapped tightly around the roller. Then came an item called a rubble. The roller with the sheet wrapped around it was placed on the bench, and you took hold of the rubble and placed it on the roller, which was on one end of the bench. Now you put pressure with the rubble on the roller and rolled it until you came to the other end of the bench, and then started over again. This was hard work and hard on the bended back, but when you unrolled it, it was a joy to behold. When all the towels and sheets were finished they were taken upstairs and put in the linen cupboard.
The next week there was NO laundry. The next week we had much other work to do, and if we got all the ironing done this week, we were free of the laundry until the week following - it was a big washing every second week. There were eight of us at home at the time I am writing about. Helen and Olga were working as live-in housekeepers. My oldest brother Jack was going to boarding school at Rosthern, Saskatchewan. I was sixteen years old at that time. Now I am past eighty years. When I read this, I can hardly believe it. We are in a push-button age now.
Susanna Rempel Hinde 1990 (Born in 1909 near Borden, Saskatchewan. Died in 2004, in Victoria, British Columbia.)