Thursday, March 12, 2015

Chapter 2: Memoirs/1930’s Washday

 Following Chapter 2 is an article by the Cavendish Historical Society on what it was like for Mrs. Tiemann, and other rural women in Cavendish, on washday in the 1930’s. To read the prelude and other chapters of Tiemann’s Memoirs go to Coming to Vermont (Cavendish): Memoirs of Philip Tiemann.

I remember that first summer here as being for the most part satisfying but without enough time in the day or in the night. After the long hours of labor I simply had to turn in between eight and nine o’clock and was immediately dead to the world. Rolling out at five in the morning didn’t bother me too much as I enjoyed the freshness of dawn, and fortunately in those days I slept soundly and, tho often not rested, was refreshed. But Isabel never liked early rising and I don’t think ever did get used to it.

Midseason proved a good time to take over. The gardens were far enough along so they required little attention (the children would disagree; they had to weed and pick potato bugs) and it was not yet time to harvest crops other than hay. I arranged with a neighbor to do the haying “on halves” whereby he did the job and put half the hay in my barn, taking the other half himself. This was a practical way to get the work done; it would provide ample for my animals and leave me free for other pressing tasks. Also, while I had the equipment and some experience at haying, I was glad not to have to undertake such a big job immediately.

There was one drawback to this kind of help, as I found both then and later. All the farmers were extremely busy men, with more than enough to attend to on their own places. With the best will in the world they often got behind, and you never could count on just when to expect to help you. This not only made planning difficult but could have an adverse effect on the quality of a crop such as hay.

To have the greatest feed value this should be mowed quite early in the season before it is over-ripe, and then should be cured quickly and gotten into the barn, - not too dry but not too green and, most important, without being rained on. Loose hay (balers were then unknown) could not be put in the mow either green or damp without risking spontaneous combustion (many barns have gone up in smoke because of this) or having it become moldy and unfit to use. So proper curing in the field was important. A farmer had to be a good weather forecaster,-but, as one of my neighbors liked to say, “You can’t wait for it to rain.” On the contrary, once started (hopefully in mid-June but often well into July) you pushed it thru as fast as possible, often taking chances on the weather.

The successive phases were mowing, perhaps shaking out with a fork to hasten the drying, machine raking into windrows, then tumbling with a fork, and hand-raking the scatterings. Then the wagon with a big frame mounted on it to increase capacity came between the rows and the tumbles were lifted on, the driver (on the wagon) helping to place the tumbles and treading them down so they made a firm and even surface for more tumbles to come on. It was quite an art to put on a large, nicely squared load before starting for the barn,-and something of a disgrace if any of it slid off.

At the barn it generally was “mowed away” by hand; but sometimes a big tonged hay-fork was mounted with ropes and pulleys on an overhead track; horse-operated, after the wagon had driven in underneath, this fork could drop down and seize a large bite from the load and transfer it to where it was wanted. Even then, final stowing by hand was required; but it was a big help. “”Mowing away” high up in a hot and airless barn is one of the operations any farmer would gladly dispense with; and of course modern equipment goes far to this end,

Well, after some worry on my part the hay finally was in the barn by mid-August; certainly not in the best condition, nor as much as I expected, as my share came to only five or six tons. Just about enough to see my tow animals thru the winter, with the addition of some chopped corn fodder and grain.

In the meantime, going for the cow was the start of my day. Early mornings were brisk,- very pleasant stepping out of the house into the first rays of sun, but the pasture at that hour was in shade, dipping down to the east across the twin brooks (the third brook runs west and south of the house) and then climbing up a scrub-and wood-covered hill. The knee-deep growth was dew-drenched, -how cold it seemed! Boots were too clumsy. One followed what trails there were as rapidly as possible, hoping Bossy would be behind the next bush but of course she seldom was.

I allowed about twenty minutes for this chore, and as much more to wipe down the cow and milk her. Sometimes this wasn’t enough. Which was no excuse as far as my wife was concerned: having gotten up early to have my breakfast ready, she not unreasonably expected me to be on hand when it was. Despite which she always insisted on my changing my soaked trousers and shows.

Altho they may be hot, summer days here are seldom oppressive before afternoon so I found morning the time to get things done,-except, of course, for haying, which has to wait for sun and breeze to do their work and seldom can be commenced before nine or ten o’clock. Not having this to concern me, I set about improving the place. Everywhere, more things were turning up that needed doing than had at first been apparent. (And looking back, I am astonished at how much got done.)

Early on our second day I asked Isabel, “What do you think should come first?” “Well, I must go to the village for supplies. How much money can we spend?” was her counter-question,- a very delicate one. “How much have you?” “A dollar sixty-three.” I groaned. “I’ll get what I have” and went up-stairs for it. Returning: “Well, here’s a hundred dollars to open an account at the bank in Proctorsville. That leaves twelve to spend. You’ll have to do the best you can. I have about fifteen cents left.” In those days twelve dollars seemed like a lot. At least it would buy a fair amount of stuff like canned salmon and corn meal for mush.

Isabel accepted it without comment. “When I get home, let me know if you need help. Otherwise I’d better go on getting things in shape indoors,” she said. “Certainly there is plenty you can do without me.” She was right about that.

The approach to the house looked rather unkempt, countless horse-drawn conveyances having worn a track thru the front yard from road to door-steps and on out again, taking a large part of the shallow lawn which recently had been uncared-for. Also, despite gay geraniums in boxes, and bushes across the front, the house stood rather high on tis knoll. Something more was needed to compensate.

“Hi, Issy,” I called as she was going out, “If you want a couple of maples here in front let’s decide where to put them. Then they can be growing while we’re doing other things.” She was pleased with this so we measured the area and drove a couple of stakes. “When do you think we could start a terrace?” she asked. “That would make a great improvement.”  “Wel-l,” I replied doubtfully, “That will be a really big job. But if you’d rather, I’ll begin collecting stones instead of getting the trees. Of course, it might better to wait until spring to do that anyway.”

So while my wife started for the village by the back way (”Don’t get lost!” I called after her) I brought old Dan from the pasture and hitched him to the long, narrow “lumber wagon,” a strongly built vehicle which could be put to many uses. Then I mounted to stand precariously on the wagon bed, clutching the reins and hoping Dan was as sedate as he looked. He was,-proving then and later willing to go as slow a pace as I would let him.

It has puzzled me a good many times how hard it is to find stones,- that is, stones suitable for your purpose. If there is something Vermont never will lack, it is stones: how our predecessors must have labored-doubtless using ox teams-to clear the fields, all of which are bordered by stonewalls. So are the roads. Stonewalls wind thru the woods, enclosing large areas of what once must have been cleared land. In a corner of the mowing is a great pile of boulders too large for practical use, while loads of too-small stones have been dumped here-and-there in the edge of the woods bordering the fields. To these we have added a good many more, “picked” after plowing. But find stone for the terrace was to prove quite a problem. Building a sustaining wall to the required level to hold fill required much material, time, and labor; and then it took more hunting to find large flat stones with which to surface it. So it proved a prolonged job on which we worked when there was nothing more pressing; we made a good start that summer, but it was late the next year before it was finished. It has been worth the effort, making the house seem lower, and giving us a nice place to sit outdoors. A semi-dwarf MacIntosh planted in the outer corner gives pleasant shade, as well as fruit.

That first day we had little trouble: a couple of moderate loads were all Dan or I were equal to. And then anyway it began to rain. Not much, but when Isabel asked me to help her in the house I was glad to do so.

While much of Tiemann’s Memoirs deal with farm work, what about Mrs. Tiemann’s responsibilities? She had just moved from a suburban neighborhood with electricity to a part of Cavendish that wouldn’t have power for another 14 years. Yet, food needed to be prepared using a wood stove and there was always the dreaded washday to be followed by ironing day.

In 1933, if you lived in one of the areas of town with electricity, and had the funds for an electric washer, you still had to run your clothes through a ringer before you hung them out to dry. It wouldn’t be until 1937 that Bendix introduced what we view today as the automatic washing machine that combined washing, rinsing and spinning.

Dolly Stick
In many households, Monday was washday. Clothes were sorted, pretreated, soaked in large tubs and agitated using a “dolly stick” or something similar. Particularly dirty clothes were then scrubbed on a washboard. Many homes had a system where the washtub would be set in cement or brickwork, with a firebox underneath and chimney to take away the smoke from the burnt wood.

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) was used to clean clothes that had stains or grease or oil on them. Because of the coarse nature of the crystals, they were rather harsh on clothes, to say nothing of being hard on skin.

Wringer or Mangle
Depending on how dirty the clothes were, they may need to go through the washing cycle twice before heading to the rinsing tub. Lifted by a stick, clothes would be rinsed with cold water until clean. Either using their hands or a “wringer,” also called a “mangle,” the clothes were rung out and hung on lines to dry.

Whites would have been done in separate tubs and a bluing solution would have been added to help whiten them. 

If a family could afford it, there were rotating drum devices that could be operated by hand, which were more effective than the dolly stick and scrub board. These initially were wooden drums but as the technology improved, metal drums, that could be heated, replaced the wooden drums. Stop by the Cavendish Historical Society Museum (open Sundays 2-4 pm from Memorial Day to Columbus weekend) to see an example of a drum cleaner and many other laundry devices used throughout the years.

Washing clothes was an all day affair, so clean clothes were often ironed the next day.  Flatirons were filled with hot coals, and when hot, ironed out the wrinkles. Another way was to heat up “irons.” Because these would quickly cool off, the 1930s housewife would have 2-4 irons on their stove or fireplace to help speed the process.

Household laundry starch was added to the washing process not only to stiffen clothing collars, shirt-cuffs and women’s undergarments, but starch also protected the clothes from stains and sweat. Dirt sticks to the starch, not the fabric and therefore washed off more easily when the clothes went through that exhaustive wash-cycle again.

While large houses would have had a special room for the laundry called the “scullery,” for many homes, the kitchen would do double duty as the laundry room.

Because it took so long to clean them, people wore clothes much longer than people do today. It wasn’t uncommon for men to wear their shirts for one week, two weeks or even up to a month, before having them washed.

To read the prelude and other chapters of Tiemann’s Memoirs go to Coming to Vermont (Cavendish): Memoirs of Philip Tiemann.

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