Ode to the Clothesline

With no warning it died this morning, and it was only 25 years old. My deluxe top-of-the-line 1986 clothes dryer chugalugged, choked, then came to a stop. I was in shock. I had a profound connection with that machine so I needed an hour to grieve. I snapped out of it and lifted the wet sheets out and slopped them into a laundry basket and then to my car. I headed for the High and Dry Laundromat a few blocks away, lugged the heavy basket inside and waited my turn for a washing machine to spin out the water and then kept my eyes open for an empty dryer. A gray metal folding chair beckoned me to sit, so I did while I daydreamed about installing an old-fashioned clothes line in the back yard. What direction should I place it? If it’s the wrong way while wind is blowing the sheets will wind around the line instead of flapping in the breeze. And there are rules about how things are hung. I started reviewing them in my head.

I must never hang laundry outside on Sunday because it just isn’t done.

Before using the line it must be wiped clean with a wet cloth.

Sheets and towels go on the outside lines and underwear hangs out-of-sight on the inside.

Don’t’ use two clothes pins for one item, as one pin can be shared with the next item.

Never leave clothes pins on an empty line because it’s tacky.

If the weather is below zero the clothes will freeze dry and the whites will be whiter.

Before dinner, all laundry must be off the line, folded, and put away.

As these thoughts of a simpler life style flitted through my head I felt self-righteous and honorable. Visions of tribal women washing garments in the creek connected me to my ancestors and I could see them draping wet clothing to dry over bushes and boulders. How strange, feeling bonded to ancient relatives while waiting my turn for an electric clothes dryer.

Drying laundry reminded me of an old-fashioned poem that someone had sent. It stated that the clothesline was a free newspaper because by “reading” the clothesline you could tell what was going on in the neighbor’s house. If the family had been sick with stomach flu there would be extra sheets, nightclothes, and bathrobes hanging there. If they were having company the fancy tablecloths would be flapping in the breeze. If the lines were bare the folks were probably on vacation. If there was no inch to spare they had probably returned. The only stanza I remembered by heart was at the end:

Clotheslines are now of the past for dryers make work less.

What goes on inside a home is now anybody’s guess.

I really miss that way of life. It was a friendly sign

when neighbors knew each other best

by what hung on the line.

“Ma’am, I’m finished. You can have the dryer now.”

A man’s voice snatched me back to the High and Dry Laundromat. I grabbed those sheets and pillow cases, slung them into the dryer and set it on high, glad to be getting this job behind me. The fantasy of installing a clothes line disappeared in a puff of daydreams. I got real and wondered what kind of dryer to buy.

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  • http://www.readerwoman.wordpress.com/ Laura/Readerwoman

    Love this blog! I feel, too, the call to a clothesline – especially since in AZ where I am the only way to do laundry is at a laundrymat or by hand, not enough water or water pressure to justify a washer, to say nothing of a dryer! I found the whole poem btw, author unknown!
    A clothesline was a news forecast
    To neighbors passing by.
    There were no secrets you could keep
    When clothes were hung to dry.
    It also was a friendly link,
    For neighbours always knew
    If company had stopped on by
    To spend a night or two.
    For then you’d see the fancy sheets
    And towels upon the line;
    You’d see the company tablecloths
    With intricate design.
    The line announced a baby’s birth
    To folks who lived inside,
    As brand new infant clothes were hung
    So carefully with pride.
    The ages of the children could
    So readily be known
    By watching how the sizes changed,
    You’d know how much they’d grown.
    It also told when illness struck,
    As extra sheets were hung;
    Then nightclothes, and a bathrobe, too,
    Haphazardly were strung.
    It said, “Gone on vacation now,”
    When lines hung limp and bare
    It told, “We’re back!” when full lines sagged,
    With not an inch to spare,

    But clotheslines now are of the past,
    For dryers make work less,
    Now what goes on inside a home
    Is anybody’s guess.
    I really miss that way of life.
    It was a friendly sign,
    When neighbours knew each other best,
    By what hung on the line!

  • http://www.bettyauchrd.com Betty Auchard

    Laura, thank you thank you for finding the whole poem. The only part I had saved was that last section. I think it’s a wonderful tribute to the early days that a few of us knew well.

  • Renee Ray

    Oh, I love that story, and I love the two clotheline poems! I will copy and keep them and read them when I finally get my clotheline up at our new place. LOVE that drawing!!!

  • http://bloggincurly oscar case

    I remember those days when the clothes were frozen stiff in the ’30′s and even later when I had to take ‘em off the line as part of my Mom-given duties, and also filling up tubs with snow to melt or carrying the water for a quarter-mile. Ah, the good ole days! Enjoyed the post.

  • http://www.bettyauchrd.com Betty Auchard

    Oscar…carrying the water for a quarter of a mile? Ohhhh Lordy. You lived in the country, right?

  • Lee Ambrose

    Love it, Betty!
    I love the smell of sheets air dried on the clothesline and would gladly use one if only I was “allowed” to put one up here at the apt complex!

    Thanks for the reminders on the list – I remember being taught those things at a very early age. And it is true, neighbors knew one another not only by what hung on the line but by the conversations that went on across the fence as the clothes were hung out to dry each Monday morning!

  • Sandi Corbitt-Sears

    Heavens! I learned from reading your list of “do’s and do nots” that I made a lot of mistakes when I hung the clothes on the line as a kid. But you need to add one: check for wasps before removing an item. I came too close to getting stung once, so I never forgot that rule again!

  • http://www.bettyauchrd.com Betty Auchard

    Sandi, another one I forgot about was how hard it was to handle frozen laundry in the winter time. Even though the clothes freeze-dried on the line, we still had to drape things all over the house until they were dry. Whenever that happened, I remember how it changed the acoustics in the house. Everything sounded muffled and oddly cozy.

  • Anita Rowe

    When I was a kid, we lived in this tiny little house outside of town. I honestly don’t remember if we had a dryer in that house, because Mom always hung the clothes out…or had me do it. The house was also heated by a huge wood stove in the kitchen. In the winter, we’d freeze-dry the clothes on the line, then hang them in the kitchen to finish drying. It made the house smell SO good! Winter is my favorite season, and I attribute this memory, and many others like it, as the reason. Hmm. Maybe I’ll put up a clothesline come next spring. After reading your post, I kinda miss it. :)