I got another blast from the dark ages of my youth the other day when my wife asked me to take some things out of the clothes dryer while she was running errands.
“The dryer is set on ‘damp dry’ so they won’t wrinkle,” she said, “so be sure to take them out and hang them up when the dryer beeps. That way they’ll be ready to wear.”
There were further instructions about putting another load of items in the washing machine and what kind of setting to use for that. “All you have to do is push the button,” she said.
As I stood there looking at those two gleaming white appliances and flexing my finger so it would be ready to push the button at the right time, I was struck by the vision of my mother doing laundry when my sister and brother and I were kids. That was the time when doing the laundry could be considered a dangerous sport.
Her washing machine was made by Easy Company and consisted of a tub with an agitator in the middle and a set of roller wringers mounted on one side. On the other side of the wringer was a platform that held two large galvanized tubs. One was filled with hot water that Mom heated on the stove in the kitchen and carried to the basement one teakettle at a time. The other one was filled with cold water. She also carried that water down from the pump in the kitchen a bucket at a time.
Of course, the washing machine was also filled with hot water, and then soap was added along with a cup of strong-smelling bleach. In went the clothes, and on went the machine. There were no dials or buttons on the Easy washing machine; you started it by pulling on a gearshift lever mounted on the side of the machine.
We were actually ahead of the times in our neighborhood. Our washing machine was electric. Neighbors on both sides had washing machines that ran on gasoline engines. Sometimes it could take half a day to coax the heavily used engines to run.
After the clothes had sloshed around in the tub for the right amount of time (only Mom knew how much time was needed), she would pull the gearshift lever to stop the machine so she could start running everything through the wringer.
This part was kind of tricky because, unlike modern machines, the Easy didn’t dump the water out; Mom had to dig into the hot water to get the clothes. For this job she had a special stick she called her “wash stick.” With it, she dipped into the scalding water and pulled the clothing a piece at a time out of the water and carefully fed it into the wringer.
The wringer was electric also, and you engaged it by flipping the gearshift lever into another slot. With the wash stick, she would fish the corner of a shirt, sheet or pair of work pants out of the washer and feed it into the wringer. The theory was, once it caught, it would feed evenly through the wringer and into the hot rinse in the tub on the other side.
That was the theory. What actually happened more often than not was the article of clothing tried to charge through the wringer in one soggy lump. Naturally, this caused the wringer to bog down and finally grind to a halt.
What you had to do then was smack a release lever on the side of the wringer, which made the whole thing come loose. Mom said the release was actually installed so you could break it loose if you got your hand caught in the wringer. There was only one thing wrong with that. Mom was only five feet tall, and it was a reach for her to even feed clothing into the wringer. It was always debatable whether she would be able to reach over to the side of the wringer and smack the release while the wringer was calmly gobbling up her arm. And, oh yeah, you also had to kick the shift lever into neutral at the same time to keep from burning out the motor.
From the hot rinse, the clothes were picked up again on the stick and fed through the wringer into the cold rinse, and then back through the wringer once more before being dumped into a laundry basket and carted out to the backyard and hung up on the clothesline to dry.
In some cases there was a third rinse in starch solution for Dad’s shirts and khaki pants. All in all, it was a full day’s labor fraught with danger. It was probably the danger more than anything else that prompted Dad to buy Mom a new Bendix washing machine when they hit the market right after World War II.
The Bendix was the actual forerunner of today’s modern washers. It had both a wash cycle and a rinse cycle separated by several vigorous spin cycles. I use the word “vigorous” deliberately. The machine developed such enormous torque while spinning that it actually had to be bolted to the floor.
Dad knew this, of course, and dutifully drilled holes in the concrete floor and set bolts into the holes with mortar. Then he edged the machine into place and bolted it snugly to the floor.
The problem was the instruction manual that came with the machine failed to specify what size bolts were needed to keep the machine in place. Dad simply looked at the holes in the mounting brackets on the machine and guessed.
Apparently he guessed a little too conservatively. The very first time Mom fired up the machine, it roared into a spin cycle, snapped off all four bolts, and proceeded to chase her across the basement floor. By the time Dad got to the outlet and pulled the plug, she was sitting in the corner on the floor staring wide-eyed at the frothing machine.
What happened next was one of those profound moments that mark a family for life. Mom, who never said an unkind word about anything, pointed to the Bendix, and in a clear, unwavering voice said, “If you ever want another clean shirt, you will get rid of this damned thing before sundown.”
The Bendix was gone within the hour, and the next day Dad brought home something called an Easy Spin Dryer. It was a regular agitator washing machine with a spinning drum mounted right next to it. Mom loved it and used it uneventfully for many years. Even in later years when she simply pushed a button to wash clothes, she would sometimes talk about the days when the most dangerous thing she ever did was the laundry.