One of the most popular hands-on programs for children visiting the museum is “Chores of the Past.” It is offered to schools in May during end of grade testing.
One chore that especially captures their attention is “Wash Day.” We give students a chance to wash on the washboard with lye soap, “ring-out” the clothes, hang them on the line and iron them with a flatiron on a wooden board.
So much fun! So much learning!
Some of you may remember this chore. Wash day was almost always on a Monday. Perhaps because the homemaker had leftovers from the Sunday meal, she didn’t have to prepare a proper meal on Monday.
Before machines were invented, washing had to be done by hand. Washing clothes and linen for the family required strength and stamina.
Water had to be ‘drawn’ from a well and heated over the fire in cast iron pots. Clothing and linen had to be sorted. Lighter and delicate articles were washed first in a tub of cold or warm water.
Stubborn dirt and heavily soiled garments were put to soak in another pot with lye soap then taken to the scrub board. No spray stain remover for this chore!
Most articles were washed in hot water and spun in the tub with a wooden paddle. Another tub of clean water was required for rinsing. Everything had to be “rung out” by hand and hung on a line to dry in the wind.
The line was made of string this strung up between two poles. Sagging lines were propped up by a forked pole. Articles were hung on the line with pegs then later clothes-spring pins.
Bad weather made wash day practically intolerable. Washing had to be done on a porch and draped inside to dry.
Once dry, the clothing had to be ironed. Before electricity ironing had to be done with a heavy, solid iron that was heated on the fireplace or on a wood stove. The ironer could test to see if it was hot enough to use by tapping a finger on the heated surface.
If you possessed more than one iron you could keep one on the stove to warm while you used the other, “having several irons in the fire.”
The handles had to be wrapped with strips of cloth to keep them from burning their hands. Wooden handles that were detachable were invented and could be removed while the iron was being heated.
A heavy board covered with old sheeting was placed on a table to provide the surface for ironing. Later legs were added to ironing boards.
This simple but totally captivating chore offers students a glimpse in the past and gives them appreciation for the present. A woman that explained this process was asked “Wasn’t it a lot of work?” “Yes,” she replied, “but no one told us that there was anything wrong with work.”
Visit the Museum’s main gallery and the “Our Story” exhibit to view a wash pot and a circa 1900 washing machine.
Charlotte Patterson is Education Coordinator for Museum of the Albemarle