Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wash Day at Grandma's

Wash day at Grandma's was a unique and exciting day for me when I was a child. Grandma's farmhouse had no modern conveniences, like running water or electricity. This meant we had to either get our water from the cistern, well or spring.

Sometimes in winter the cast iron pump would freeze solid. We'd pour warm water into it and pray it would thaw out. This was a time consuming process and often made matters worse. We couldn't pour hot water into the pump to melt the ice because the meeting of hot and cold would have cracked the cast and the pump would have then been worthless.

If we couldn't thaw the pump, and if the creek and spring were frozen solid, we had only one alternative. We ventured into the yard with buckets, pails and dishpans, filled them with snow and carried them into the house.

On top of the old cookstove, stood a copper boiler. We'd empty our vessels into it and traipse back outside for more snow. Our tired legs and bodies would make trip after trip into the kitchen, to add the snow to that already in the copper boiler. It was then, long before I ever entered a classroom, that I learned it takes a lot of snow to make a small amount of water.

After the copper boiler was full of snow, Grandma would make us cocoa. This was the best part of wash day. She did this by placing a saucepan of milk on the stove until it steamed. In the meantime, she put a teaspoon of cocoa into our cups and added a teaspoon of sugar and about an inch of pure cream. After testing the milk with the tip of her little finger, to make certain it was just the right temperature, she would scald the cream/cocoa mixture. The cocoa was delicious and warmed us after our many treks into the cold, frosty yard.

The copper boiler stayed on the stove all night. In the morning, Grandma would add a handful of homemade soap and a scoop of borax to the water. Then, she would put in the white clothes for about a half-hour, stirring them occasionally with a large wooden ladle made especially for this purpose. It reminded me of a miniature canoe paddle.

Grandma would lift the clothes out of the copper boiler with the wash ladle and place them in a large, blue granite pot. When they had cooled sufficiently, she would wring them out by hand, rinse them out, rinse them in the washtub, wring them again, then put on her coat, boots and gloves and venture out into the bitter, winter weather. She clipped the clothes to the clothesline with long, wooden pegs. Within minutes, the clothes were frozen stiff.

When Grandma came back into the house, she would put the next load of clothes into the copper boiler, boil them, wring them and take them to the line. This procedure would continue for most of the day.

Grandma had two long clotheslines and I remember well ducking beneath frozen sheets and towels, making it a game, as children tend to do.

After the clothes had been on the line for two or three hours, Grandma would bring them into the house and hang them on lines in the summer kitchen. Here, they would thaw and begin to dry a little. Since the summer kitchen had no heat, the clothes never completely dried. Grandma left them there overnight. Early the next morning, she would set three flat irons on the cookstove to heat. One by one she would bring items of clothing in from the summer kitchen. Using the flat irons, she would iron them until they were completely dry, then hang them in the closet or fold them and put them away in drawers.

I will never forget the fresh, outdoor fragrance that filled Grandma's kitchen when she set those flat irons to the damp frost-dried garments.

In summer, wash day was somewhat different. The wash water was pumped and carried in pails to fill the copper boiler. After the water boiled, the women would fold towels and slip them around the hot handles before carrying it outside to pour the steaming water into the old, wooden washing machine. This washing machine was fascinating. Mother had an electric, wringer washer; Grandma had a manual, pumped by hand.

First Grandma would set her glass scrub board inside the washer. Any stained or extremely soiled clothes would be lathered with a bar of Sunlight soap and scrubbed thoroughly. I've seen her scrub socks, as many as forty pair, on that scrub board. Her fingers would be red and raw, almost to the point of bleeding. Then, she would add detergent or a hand full of homemade soap and close the lid that had a large and small gear on the top.

Often, it was up to me to pull the handle on that old machine. Back and forth - back and forth until I felt my arm would fall off. Just when I felt I couldn't pump that handle once more, Grandma would appear, a smile on her face. She'd unfasten the clamps on the lid, take out the clothes and crank the handle of the wringer.

I'd watch as the rollers flattened the clothes, sometimes spraying water from the pockets. Grandma fed the wringer with one hand while cranking with the other. On the other side of the wringer, the clothes would fall into a galvanized tub of ice-cold water. After the clothes were rinsed, Grandma would crank them through the wringer one last time and hang them on the line. The procedure then followed the exact pattern of a winter wash day, except Grandma took the clothes in from the line while still damp and ironed them right away.
Today, in summer, I still hang my clothes on the clothesline to dry. Of course, I have an automatic washer and dryer, but much prefer the fresh smell of laundry that has been dried outdoors. As I fold and hang the clothes that nowadays require little or no ironing, I drink in the fresh, outdoor fragrance and travel back to my childhood - back to wash day at Grandma's.


Renie Burghardt said...


What a beautiful story! Your Grandma had to work mighty hard to get the clothes washed, and so did you, as her helper. And it's so true, clothes dried outdoors on the line have a wonderful fragrance that can't be matched by store bought fragrances.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful remembrance. I enjoyed it immensely.



Thank you for sharing your

Mary said...


Welcome, my friend and thanks for your comments on this story. It was hard work to do a wash at Grandma's but so many beautiful memories. The work didn't matter. I was with Grandma and that's all that counted.


Michele said...

Hi Mary,

This was a wonderful story! I could just picture each scene as you walked me through each step and process, even through the different seasons!

In my opinion, there's nothing quite like a Grandma's love. I use to help my Grandma, too, only when I was growing up there was washing machines. But Grandma told me stories like you've wrote about here when life was so different...

Thanks for sharing!


purple cucumbers folk art said...

Hi darling,having a great weekend,no meds and feeling great,just popping over to see whats going on over here,have a great weekend.xxoo

Mary said...


Mom had a wringer washing machine but Grandma never had electricity. So I consider myself privledged that I saw a part of life that I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I always enjoy your visits.


Mary said...


I'm glad you are feeling better without meds. That is good news. I've sent you an email.


Nan said...

Nice story back in time.

Junebug said...

My mother had a wringer washer when we were little. I was always fascinated by the squishing of the clothes through it. We lived out in the country and our plumbing was out for awhile. I remember we had to haul water and take baths in a metal tub and use an outdoor toilet and of course their was the clothesline. When I grew up I still liked to hang clothes on the line. We don't have one now. The new things are great but the memories of the old are too. At least for me as a child. :D

Mary said...


Thanks for visiting. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story.


Grandma never had any electricity until I was in my teens. Though it was the late 50s, she did all of her work the old fashioned way. I'm glad that I was able to experience those things.

Blessings to each of you.

Greeneyes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greeneyes said...

Hello Mary ,
I loved these last two stories , have you ever published any stories?your writing is wonderful, I enjoyed every word and have some memories of My Nans old wringer washer like that and the stiff clothes in winter , brought it all back reading your stories . Thank you for sharing ,looking forward to more ....and More LOL


Denise said...

This is such a precious story my friend, thanks for blessing me by sharing it. I love you.

Renie Burghardt said...

Hi Mary,

I have a very special gift for you on my blog especially for Treasures to Me. Please come by and pick it up.



Jill said...

Reading your blog has brought back so many memories of my grandmother and great-grandmother. They lived in an old farmhouse in Rock, West Virginia. I'd spend days there in the summers helping with the wash, going to the well to get water, and cooking homemade apple butter in the giant kettle outside her house. I'm so glad I ran into your blog!

Folded Wings said...

Lovely post. I will be back to read the rest. I have tagged you for seven things. See my blog

Tina Coruth said...


What a beautiful story this is! Your write of your childhood memories so vividly, I can almost feel the fatigue from bringing in the snow, but I can smell that hot cocoa. Wonderful!

Your description of the washing machine with the rollers to squeeze the water out brought back the memory of my mother's washing machine. I must have been four or five years old. I remember watching her turn the crank to feed the clothes through the roller. I had forgotten all about that washing maching!

Lovely story! Thank you!


Marcel said...

Another great story!

Mary C said...

Mary - what a lovely and rich experience you had as a child. I'm sorry to say I never had a grandmother as a child, but the closest I had was our next-door neighbors. And if memory serves me correctly, she had a wringer washer - but at least she had indoor plumbing! Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

janie said...

Your story reminded me of the time I chastised my daughter for letting her laundry pile up. She was 15 at the time, and 'didn't like to do laundry'. Ha! We had all the modern equipment, all she had to do was push a button.

I told her of dragging out that wringer washer on Saturday, filling those tubs, having to hang all the clothes on the lines out back; and if a Blue Norther was blowing, the clothes just froze dry.

She was not impressed, I don't think, but I was with your story. At least we had running water and electricity.

Great story. Thanks.