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Clean Clothes Blowing in the Breeze

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer May 1996

More Utahns seem to be writing or compiling family histories nowadays. Many are full of details usually not found in other kinds of historical publications. The story of the Lewis Leo and Hortense Cope Munson family is one such book. Born in the year of Utah's statehood, 1896, Leo Munson spent much of his adult life as a storekeeper in Escalante, Garfield County. The Munsons, like most families in the early 20th century, worked together at many different chores, one of which was washday:

"Fortunately for those doing the laundry, during the 1930s people didn't have as many changes of clothing as they do now. The boys had one pair of 'good' overalls or 'Levis' which they wore to school every day. When washday came, usually on Saturday, they put on the 'old' pair used for work and chores while the new ones were washed. Nor did they wear a different shirt every day...And you used fewer changes of underwear when you bathed only on Saturday night.

"Although the girls undoubtedly had more variety, and may have changed oftener, still they had limited wardrobes. As the thirties began, chances are that most of their dresses were home-sewn. They usually had a new dress for Christmas...and perhaps for their birthday. The point is that nobody...required the large volume of clothes that each person feeds to the washer [today]. If that were not so, no one could have stayed even with the laundry.

"Preparations for the laundry began when Mother made soap. One of the boys, or girls...built a fire in the circle of the three rocks arranged southwest of the home. One of the black tubs was set on the rocks. Mother then emptied, scraped, or dumped the pork rinds, the waste grease, the old beef fat, or any other fat product into the tub, and heated it until the fat was all melted. Then she dipped out the rinds...and added the required amount of lye...The tub was then removed from the fire and allowed to cool. Then the cooled mass was dumped onto boards.... The next day, it was cut into chunks about four inches by six inches and allowed to dry even longer, then stored in a gunnysack. . . .

"Wash day required two tubs of water on a fire out by the rocks. . . . A spoonful of lye, sprinkled into each tub, caused a scum of hard water to rise to the top as the water heated. This scum was skimmed off before the water was used.

"One tubful provided water for the washing machine. Sometimes the hard brownish colored soap was grated and dissolved into the wash water...[or] agitated with the clothes, if the washer could be started. The gasoline engine powering the washer [had] a cranking mechanism protruding from the motor. Foot power, applied by placing the foot on the cleverly designed end of the mechanism and pushing down, spun the flywheel and, in theory, started the motor. Fortunately, Mr. Hainey or Uncle Forest quickly answered calls for help when the motor wouldn't start, which seemed often. But it beat a scrubbing board. . . .

"The white clothes, including the sheets, pillow cases, towels, dish towels, and tablecloths were boiled in the other tub of water . . . to loosen the dirt and to keep them white. After the proper time elapsed they were carried to the washing machine and agitated.

"...Someone knowledgeable prepared a tub of cold bluing water by sousing a few balls of bluing, tied in a cloth, around in the water, until the water was blue. White clothes taken from the washer were sent through the wringer into the bluing tub. They were dipped up and down a few times and then sent through the wringer into a tub filled with cold rinse water. They went through the wringer again and were carried to the clothesline. Colored clothing went through the wringer directly into the rinse water." . . . At one time our clothes line ran through two pulleys. One pulley was fastened to the top end of the barn, the other to a post near the house. The clothes were spread out and pinned to the line. After the clothes were spread as high as one could reach, a pull on the line moved the clothes toward the top of the barn, thus exposing some empty line that could be filled. It brought a sense of satisfaction, and some elation, to see a line full of clean clothes gently blowing in the breeze.

". . . Fingers and hands soon numbed when one hung cold clothes out on a windy spring or wintry cold day. LoRee and Evelyn once reasoned that if they could hang the clothes out while they were still warm, their hands would stay much warmer. So they skipped the rinse water cycle with a batch of diapers. Fortunately for the baby wearing diapers, Jenny Spencer, who was working for us, discovered the omission. Unfortunately for the girls, they had to take the diapers from the line and give them the proper treatment. Speaking of diapers, it was not a pleasant process to prepare them to be washed.

"Orpha says, 'It seemed we washed and hung clothes for hours, then gathered them in from the clothes line, folded them and put them away, sprinkled the ones to be ironed and put them in the big straw basket. We ironed for hours, each taking her turn.'"

By 1936 Escalante's water system was complete and the Munsons enjoyed the use of indoor plumbing. In 1939, with a new electric system in operation, they put away their kerosene lamps and the gaslights in the kitchen and living room. Then, an electric washing machine lightened the burden of washday.

Source: Munson Memories: History of Lewis Leo and Hortense Cope Munson Family (Bountiful: The Leo Munson Family Organization, 1993), excerpted by permission of Voyle Munson.