|Photo Copyright: Janet Cameron|
Many older people still remember the weekly bagwash during the 1940s and 50s, when a housewife would leave out a bag of dirty washing for the laundry to collect. It would be delivered back to her door, duly washed and rinsed, but sopping wet, for her to mangle, dry and iron.
‘It was before most houses had a washing machine,’ explains Stan Dyson, who now lives in Newhaven in East Sussex, but grew up in London’s Docklands. Stan remembers his mother stuffing all those clothes, mixed whites and coloured, into those large, white canvas-type bags.
‘In our area it was collected by either the Sussex Laundry or, I believe, the Co-op, and it was returned the following week. On the odd occasion I had to run after the lorry as it went down our streets because they had delivered someone else’s laundry and Mum used to go absolutely potty when she was short of an item, or had someone else’s piece of laundry mixed up in hers – I wonder if someone just did that on purpose?’
If a housewife couldn’t afford the bagwash she’d put the dirty washing into the old copper boiler in the scullery, using either soap flakes or a huge bar of Fairy Household soap. She also used soda crystals and maybe Dolly Blues or Reckitt’s Blue. The latter were a kind of blue dye which brightened and made off-colour whites appear whiter, working on the same principle as ‘blue rinses’ for ladies, also popular in the middle of the century.
‘We used to curse Mum when she ironed the clothes especially if we were trying to read our comics,’ said Bob M. ‘We had a 3–way adaptor on our light, one was used for the bulb, another for the wireless and the third one to plug in the iron. It was when she did the ironing the light would swing all over the place and cast shadows. She used the Morrison indoor shelter as her ironing board.’
In some cases, though, the laundry wasn’t collected and returned and one of the children would be have to take and fetch it back. Some housewives used a bolster case and it was not a pleasant job for a child of eight or nine, lugging home a heavy bag of wet washing. Children were also expected to help their mothers turn the heavy handle on the mangle while she fed the sheets through the rollers.
Sylvia Kent of Billericay in Essex explains how, with seven children to wash for, her mother had to rise at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning to fire up the old copper in the kitchen. ‘The food had to be easy, so easy that day, so many people had something that would go into the oven, say a stew or rice pudding that didn’t need too much attention.’
My own mother’s washing machine, during the forties and fifties, was a basic affair although I can’t remember its make. She had to fill it up with water by using saucepans and then turn on the heat, finally pounding the submerged dirty linen with a sturdy wooden paddle to agitate it. Then the water had to be drained away and the machine would be refilled for the rinses. Mum was thorough, she always did at least three rinses. But first, my bricklayer grandfather’s detachable working-shirt collars had to be attacked with soap and a scrubbing brush using a corrugated washboard over the sink before being tossed into the machine.
One of my most vivid memories was of the old Acme mangle that reared up behind my mother’s washing machine, a source of great anxiety for me. I could imagine that my fingers might become trapped and then my whole body would slowly be squeezed between the rollers, flattening out like a sheet.
To dry her washing, my mother had a rope line slung between the back of the house and a tall pole, which she could let down and wind up via a pulley. Wooden pegs, simply constructed of two curved pieces of wood joined by wire, secured the clothes. Sometimes the line would break due to a worn rope or strong winds, and a whole line of clean washing would descend into the mud of the backyard and Mum would, understandably, be in a ‘mood’ as the whole complicated process had to begin again.
It’s strange to think that in the United States housewives were actually using the first electric washing machine, with its motorised agitator as early as 1908. By 1920 American housewives who could afford it could purchase a machine with a horizontal cylinder. Technologically-speaking, we in Britain were lagging behind.
As a young wife and mother in the sixties, I also had a rope line, preferring it to the new rotaries. I’d get it up as high as possible by using a forked wooden pole to hoist up the heavy load. I had better pegs than Mum, still wooden but with the spring action we’re familiar with today. However, I was luckier than my mother as I did have an automatic washing machine. The first top-loading automatic washing machines in Europe, swiftly followed by the first computer-controlled machines, were produced in the late forties and early fifties by Upton Machine Co whose name was later changed to Whirlpool.
If it was raining, clothes were dried indoors, sometimes on a ‘clothes horse’ or ‘clothes maiden’, a simple wooden rack which opened out from two central vertical poles joined by hinges. The term ‘clothes horse’ came into use in the 1800s and, of course, the evolution of language has now designated the term to describe a supermodel. Sylvia Kent remembers the trouble her mother had, drying clothes for seven children. ‘It all had to be hung on an overhead dryer, what a business! The whole event seems terrible in retrospect, but I think all working-class people like us did this.’
For some people, it wasn’t so hard though. Sylvia also tells the story of a lady who was asked about how she managed with her washing as a young housewife. ‘Oh, I know nothing of this,’ she said airily. ‘Dorothy the maid did it all – I think it was on Monday.
A Brief Introduction to the Evolution of Washing
A Brief Introduction to the Evolution of Washing