Let us consider the humble clothespin. The first clothespin was just a simple piece of wood with a knob on top, and an opening carved between two prongs that held clothes to a drying line.
Then some clever 19th century American inventors perfected the clip-style clothespins with a spring mechanism, to prevent wind from blowing clothes off the line. The invention of automatic washers and dryers should have brought an end to the lowly clothespin, but it survived, mostly because it was remarkably versatile in crafts projects. Show a clothespin to a kid under 18 or 20 these days and s/he will probably recognize it only as something to make reindeer with – if they know what it is at all.*
Like clothespins, the lowly laundry basket originated ages ago. Wicker baskets were woven and used for things like grains, fruits and vegetables, and yarn and sewing items, which by the 1800s they were called “hamper baskets ” in the Southern United States. By 1900, the Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalog was selling wicker clothes hampers in three sizes nationwide. Nowadays there is a design and style for virtually any use imagineable. Built-in to bathroom cabinets, hidden in chests of drawers, molded into plastic shapes like cars and turtles for kids. It seems American ingenuity is unlimited when coming up with fresh ideas for the modern laundry basket.**
Evidence suggests that humans have been “doing laundry” almost from the beginning of time. Mixtures of charcoal and sulphur or ashes and silicates improved the results of beating fabrics against stones by rivers. Soap shortages during World War I led to discoveries of chemicals that eventually became what we call powdered detergents today. Americans were using them routinely by the late 1940, and the 1950’s brought melodramatic daytime “soap operas” that were sponsored by detergent manufacturers vying for attention with modern housewives. The lastest holy grail of the laundry detergent industry is to make their products 100% phosphate-free, biodegradeable, and environmentally friendly. Spending a little more on these products will be a big help to Mother Nature.***
The next time you start a load of laundry, spare a thought for your great-great-grandmother. She very likely used a bar of hard soap, rubbing it with the clothes against a metal washboard over a tub of steaming hot water. Water she had to heat after she built a wood or coal fire….after she hauled the wood or coal into the kitchen.
Yet even Great-great-grandmother had it better than our ancestors, who didn’t have soap for eons. One of the first leaps forward in laundering added “washing bats” to beat the fabric on flat wood “wash boards” easier. Some enterprising soul discovered how to make a kind of harsh soap from lye to de-grease and whiten cloth. Soap didn’t become sudsy until the 1900s, when chemists found ingredients that foamed in hard water. Small wonder doing the family wash was, at best, a monthly affair and a team effort until the mid- 20th century. Early washing machines were primitive, but promised legions of housewives and washer women a new era of relief from their heavy labor. With microprocessors and automatic everything, today’s washers and dryers bear little resemblence to their predecessors. Doing the laundry is hardly the tedious chore it used to be and everyone in the family can pitch in.****
One of the great things about the internet is industries, teachers, and everyday historians are leaving no stone unturned to record the history of everything, even the minutae of humans and their laundry. How awesome is that?
Do you have a historical tidbit to share about laundry?
[*New York Times Magazine, 5/11/12]
[**Los Angeles Times Magazine, 5/14/94]