Thursday, March 19, 2009

More Snippets

Speaking of nearly forgotten odors: the smell of hot, soapy water in the pre-automatic washing machine, both at "644" and at "684".  I know it wasn't washing soda or the bluing.  Both my grandmother and my mother at the dates in the 1930s used white bar soap (Fels Naptha only for special purposes and rarely), and I think it was White King.  Ivory, of course, is just as white and could be used similarly, but its odor was (and is) milder.  A bar, about 5" long and about an inch thick.  With a paring knife this was cut on the bevel starting at the end of the bar into triangular-section slivers, first one side, then the other.  These dissolved in the hot water.  The machine must have held about ten gallons, at least (I recall what a 5-gallon can labeled for olives looks like), so the procedure one followed made sense.  First the white cottons, especially sheets and towels were agitated right-left, right-left, in the 140° water for some minutes and were put through the wringer.  A sawn off broom stick was used to fish for them and, when the tip of something had cooled enough to touch, it was coaxed through the wringer, but spreading out the cloth, so it wouldn't be too thick for the wringer (if the wringer had no Safety, too much at once could burn out the motor).  While the whites were in the stationary tub full of cold rinse water, the mixed color-fast pile was put into wash water, now cooled a bit but still hotter than used today.  Then the whites, poked with the broomstick to maximize the rinsing, were put through the wringer in the opposite direction (when needed, they could be rinsed twice).  Given time, they could be hung out on the clothesline while the colored load still washed.  Then the latter were put through the wringer into fresh rinse water.  By this time the soapy wash water had developed the indescribable but still clean-smelling odor that I remember, part human, part soap.  Finally the work clothes and other dark colors, which would bleed color even after a number of washings, took their turn in the wash.  The color-fast cottons, children's clothes, house dresses, and the everyday underwear, came through the wringer and were taken in the wicker basket in their turn to the clothes lines.  My mother or grandmother would shake these well as they hung them to dry, to minimize wrinkles; also, they were mindful that hanging things on the bias put them out of shape.
In California, in almost any week, there was at least one good drying day, not humid and with a slight breeze.  The linens would be dry in a couple of hours.  These were lines strung between T poles at either end of the yard.  We only read about places were you needed to dry things in the cellar.  Of course, there were no laundromats, no heated dryers.  We knew no one personally who sent the sheets to a laundry (though one neighbor had a mangle), but one or two families had diaper service.  Pre-Birdseye flannelette diapers took time to dry, and if you had two at once in diapers you needed an extra wash day.  For diapers you did use Ivory or boxed Ivory Snow and a little bleach.  No one who knew it can forget the perfume of laundry dried outdoors in California.
Cottons had to be lightly starched.  They really did.  Starch (I remember the Linit box) had a slight scent of bluing, not that it made whites blue.  You had to cook it, like thin gruel.  You didn't want it sticky.  You might strain it, if you were fussy.  If you cooked it carefully, however, it had no lumps.  You emptied the saucepan  full of cooked starch into a basin of cold water and, as it were, re-rinsed the dresses, shirts, and blouses in this properly diluted starch, wrang them out by hand, hung them out to dry.
To iron the cottons and linens, you had to sprinkle them and roll them up wrapped in the old towels and old sheets kept for the purpose in the ironing basket.  After a minimum of an hour, better several hours, they were ready to be ironed.  The early electric iron had to be plugged and unplugged every few minutes to keep it at a temperature where it ironed but did not scorch.
To go out of chronological order so as not to need to return to ironing: I learned to do all this before I was ten, because during the War my mother was working, and I was the oldest.  Automatic heat-control irons, ready-made starch, and non-soap detergents were post-War.  As I road the bus to Junior High School, I saw billboards saying What are clotheslines for?  The following week they said, Clotheslines are for the birds; dry your clothes in a Bendix automatic dryer.
Today I keep clotheslines for 'airing', clothespins for all sorts of uses, and the iron (but it is a now-old steam iron) is somewhere.  Ironing is OK for, say, altar linens, but I haven't ironed my own clothes for decades, nor table linens.  Most cloth today does not endure much ironing, anyhow.