A lost ritual
In the 1950s, when I was growing up, we didn’t have such a thing as a clothes dryer. Our washing machine was a wringer washer and our clothes were hung to dry on the clothesline in any weather except rain. Then we had a wooden clothes horse, and our items were carefully draped over the wooden dowels and dried inside by the heater.
Clothes dried outside on the clothesline had the most beautiful smell, entirely without the aid of fabric softeners or scent products….which were nonexistent back then in any case. The washing was done every Monday without fail. The clothes were hung out as early in the day as possible and left to dry in the sun and wind. The sun was a brilliant stain remover – still is – and our whites would shine so bright they made you squint. In winter, the clothes would be taken off the line frozen as hard as planks.
My mother would sort the clean laundry into two piles, the items that needed to be ironed and those that did not. Those we did not iron were folded and put away in cupboards or drawers. The items ‘to be ironed’ were very specific: my father’s white shirts, our best dresses, all the tablecloths, all the tea towels and most importantly, the pillowcases.
The to-be-ironed pile was treated to a special ritual. My mother would fill a small bowl with water and set it on the table. Then the shirts, tea towels, pillowcases et al would each be laid flat on the table. My mother would dip her fingers in the water bowl and sprinkle drops of water across the fabric with a wiggle of her fingers. It was a learned skill – not too much water nor too little. I know there were shaker bottles for wetting the items. I saw them on TV. But we never had such a thing. Then the item would be folded into thirds and rolled up with perhaps the merest additional sprinkle of water. These precise rolls were stacked in the laundry basket like cord wood for ironing the next day.
My sisters and I all learned to iron very early on, as soon as we could stand at the ironing board and wield the iron. The iron was an ancient black thing, electric but you know, 1950s electric, and it was heavy. It also lacked any of the fancy features, like steam and other enhancements that were to come in a few years. There were only two settings for the iron, on or off. And as it aged…and it was pretty old when I first used it….the on setting got hotter and hotter. Occasionally you would have to unplug it and let it cool down for fear it would catch on fire. The next biggest concern was always that dreaded moment of daydreaming or attention wandering that would leave scorch marks on whatever you were ironing.
We started off learning to iron the tea towels and those we scorched were used for camping. There were always lots of tea towels when we camped. We then graduated to pillowcases. By then, we had somewhat mastered the bloody great iron with its hot spots and quirks and there were far fewer pillowcases in the camping equipment than tea towels.
Finally, we graduated our way to my father’s white work shirts and of course the pressure was intense. A scorch to those garments was near to a catastrophe. My mother instructed us how to press the collars to a perfect point, then the back and sides of the shirt were pressed, carefully working your way around the buttons. Then the sleeves were pressed and the crease had to be perfectly aligned with the shoulder seams. Last was the cuffs, and the shirt was hung up on a hanger. If we managed to iron in lots of creases here or there – and holy cow did we ever in the early days – we had to start over. That meant sprinkling them with water, rolling them up and letting them sit to dampen for another day and then ironing them again. This naturally meant my father might run out of shirts before the week was done. And no one was happy about that.
Table clothes seemed like an easy task but somehow trying to manage the great lengths of fabric was always more work than you expected. And it was far too easy to step on the ends. The linen tablecloths, pressed and folded and pressed again were always covered in crisp squares with little ridges when we laid them on the table. They caused the salt and pepper shakers to topple over if they were placed on the creases.
We also learned the art of pressing a crisp pleat into pants, but until we mastered that we often went around with double creases in our pants that were off center or crooked as a ‘dogs leg’.
My mother was an avid sewer as was my one sister and I. We made many of our clothes growing up. Sewing requires lots of careful ironing between assembling the fabric pieces. The harshest lessons of course were pressing the new wave of polyester blend fabrics, or nylon fabrics, and the speed with which they scorched, puckered or just plain melted, sticking to the iron and smelling terrible. Lovely sewing projects were tortured or scorched far too often. Oh, the battles and disappointments we had with that old iron!
When we got a new shiny fully gadgetted steam iron it was the most luxurious thing in the world. We had used them in Home Ec class and what a treat to have one of our own for my dad’s shirts. And it was extremely hard to scorch things as well. Not impossible though…..!