When I was growing up in the 1950s, my mother had one of those old Maytags. The washing machine agitated the clothes in the soapy water until she turned it off.
Then each garment would be passed through the wringers to squeeze out as much water as possible. Finally, the damp clothes would be put out on the clothes line, our “solar-powered dryer.”
One time there was a hurricane headed our way (generally they blow themselves by the time they get to Queens). My mother went ahead and put the clothes out on the line anyway, rain and wind slashing at her face, as if she didn’t know what else to do with them still wet. (I don’t remember we lost any in the wind.)
Typically in cities, the clothes line went out from a rear window or the back porch. The other end of the line could secured to a pole, a tree, another building, sometimes to another part of the same building. Often a pole was erected for any number of clothes lines.
For those new for this, the line was normally on a pulley creating two somewhat parallel clothes lines. A line without any weight on it describes a parabolic curve, same as a suspension bridge. The lower line got the clothes and this weight pulled the empty ends of the line taut. Small devices – spacers or a spreaders – attached the lower line to the top line and kept the laundry from sagging to far.
Some homes had a less-common free-standing clothes umbrella in the back yard. In other cases, it was a single fixed line, reached from the ground and supported by upright sticks at intervals.
Even in the mid-20th century most clothes were white. Working men had dark blue overalls and light blue shirts. White collar men wore suits and only the shirt, almost always white, was washed at home. Color dyes tended to bleed in hot water, so the colors and the whites were separated. So clothes on a typical clothes line would have stretches of all white and stretches of dark colors.
Shawn Purcell says
In our Jamaica, Queens apartment building in that era (I was just a baby but heard this story), a neighbor slipped an unsigned and quite rude note under our door complaining about our squeaky clothesline. My father patiently wrote out 23 or so responses explaining that the problem had been taken care of, minus details such as our apartment number, slipping them under all the other doors in the wee hours, and no doubt causing the critic to wonder how we knew who s/he was. I visited this building two summers ago and snuck through a narrow access alley to find many clotheslines still in use.
Editorial Staff says
Great story. Thanks for that.
Debra Ethan says
I grew up in Perry, Ohio in the 50s & 60s. We dried our laundry on a clothes line in the backyard. Once the line was full, we’d take a large, sturdy branch that was lying around, & push it up against the line, settling the branch into position on the ground, to allow the clothes to be dried slightly higher & catch more of the breeze. Nothing smells better than lying on sheets & pillow cases dried in the fresh air & sun.
I dry mine the same way now !! I love the smell!!
NALINI GOPALAKRISHNAN says
Very true,in India now too we do the same.
Dennis O'Regan says
Your father was THE MAN! Great idea!
Richard L. Daly says
Picture this: Brooklyn, 1940s/50s. Mom’s Mom was the upstairs tenant at 124 E 3 St. (North of FtHamiltonPkwy, ImmaculateHeart Parish) There were two windows out the rear kitchen. One had the above-described pulley clothes-line, with no laundry left after sundown and NONE at all Sundays. The other window had a straight back chair in front. That was PunishmentCentral. We lived on McDonaldAv about 3 blocks away. If I misbehaved while visiting, it was off to be seated, confess and recite why I was there, glance at the clock and learn how long I would be considering the error of my ways. Prior to being sprung, I had to recite my error again … Rest in peace, Grace+ Thanks for the memory jog, John!
Richard L. Daly says
Re the above comment: Just realized that yesterday 25JUNE1955, we departed from that apt for BrooklynArmyTerminal to sail on our first ‘tour’ of Germany as an Army family. By then were were my younger bro, baby sis and me. rip+Linda2018.
Linda Beardsley says
Remembering the wringer washer & the clothesline very well. We had a stoop attached to our enc’d back porch which our short Mom or my Sister or I stood on to hang the clothes. There was a cloth bag w/hanger that held clothespins & hung on the line. Also, a 1×2 w/a cut @the top for the line in order to keep long things off the ground i.e. sheets pants, dresses, etc. A neighbor who raised pigeons nearby usually let them out when he saw clothes on lines…so, yes alot of re-washing. TY for the memories.
Gerald Chance says
I remember my Grandma in the 1970s still used a square clothes line umbrella that was on a metal pole over a concrete square in the backyard at our house in Annapolis. I miss the old days
I grew a up in the Projects in Brooklyn and we went to the Laundry downstairs or across the street so we didn’t have the “traditional clothes line” to dry our clothes.
David J Juhasz says
Nice but incomplete article…
I’ve been using a clothes line most of my life, where ever practical.
I like the way clothes dry in open air. Plus it saves me about $20.00 to $30.00/ month on my electric bill .
Smarty Riddlebop says
Can you give more details on the old Maytag washer? Was there a rinse cycle or did you just ring out sudsy laundry and then hang it up?
Barbara Harvey says
No cycles of any kind. It simply agitated then you had to engage the wringer, each piece was plucked from soapy water then wrung into a laundry tub, then you drained the washer (if you didn’t have a load of dirtier things to wash) filled it with rinse water with usually a little bluing in it, turn the agitator on, and when rinsed I’m about ten minutes you put them through the ringer again and go out to clothesline. You could use the rinse water for another load of wash. It went like this: fine and delicate, then whites then good colored then work colored then rags, small rugs etc. It was efficient.
Wally Elton says
I remember it well from my grandmother’s house in the 50s.
U could drain the tub an refill with fresh water but they yust rinsed them the way they were because the ringer was spring loaded an pretty strong an could squeeze it all out I was born in 55 I helped a lot to hang clothes online an still today do it once in a while not me first time I said it
Yes, those were the days. I was born 1952, grew up with those spring loaded wringer washers. Spring, Summer and Fall were great for putting out wash, but can anyone remember putting wash out in the Winter time and having it as stiff as a board? We had to peel the wash off of the lines take it back inside and let it unfreeze. It was very hard work. The wash froze to the lines most of the time and when removing it from the lines sounded like it was breaking.
Also, does anyone remember taking the sunken in washer lid and using it to go sledding down hills? It didn’t work all that good and when we got home, boy, we’re we in trouble..My mom was not very happy that we ruined her washing machine lid, but hey, it still fit the washing machine, but it sure was dented..
The most memorable story about those old washers was the time that my youngest brother was helping my mom with wash and forgot to let go of the wash as it was going through the wringer. His arm got sucked in that wringer up to his elbow..My mom had to turn the knob on top of the wringer as fast as she could to have the wringer pop up so we could get my brothers arm out, while he was screaming the whole time. After a doctor’s visit and no broken arm, just badly bruised muscles and an arm in the sling we went home. My brother was told that he couldn’t help with laundry ever again. Oh, by the way he was very thin and that is what saved his arm.
They worked for wash very well, but those wringers could be deadly. Some times they wouldn’t pop up when they were over stuffed with wash to be wrung out.
So yes, there are fond memories connect to that type of life style and sometimes I wish that those days were still here..We all worked together to do house work, we had our chores, we helped one another and for the most part knew our neighbors. (Not so much anymore.)
This Is A TOTAL DELIGHT To Read, Thank You All
We had a dedicated pole in place a good ways from our window so it was a long line by traditional line standards. I remember in winter we would sometimes pull the line in and the clothes would be frozen stiff. We’d just leave them out, they would thaw and then ultimately dry out as the day warmed up. I also remember two types of wooden clothes pins- the one piece which would spread apart as you pushed them on and then, later the two piece with the metal spring that you pinched to place over clothes. 1970s Ozone Park, Queens, NY.
LaVerne Hall says
I too remember those days. I played around with the wringer seeing how close I could get my fingers to the rollers without getting them caught. The silly things kids do. Got them caught one time, of course I lied about how it happened.
In the winter the clothes froze u removed them hung them on hangers, over the door over kitchen chairs. While slightly damp you rolled up the pants laid them in bottom of refrigerator until u pressed them that next day, u had no wrinkles either.
I agree there was nothing like sleeping on sheets that hung out in the fresh air at bedtime. I hung mine out on lines in my yard until about 15 years ago, had washer and dryer but I liked the fresh air smell on sheets and towels. Those were the good old days.
Jamie VanHorn says
I have a Maytag wringer washer and dry my clothes on the line in summer.