Gone are the clothes-lines with their litany of veiled messages?

By Bernard Heydorn

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Whatever happened to clothes-lines?
Will wash day Monday ever come again?
In a recent road trip to Eastern Canada, I saw a number of homes with washing hung out on clothes-lines. It brought back to me memories of growing up in the Caribbean, my mother washing and scrubbing clothes on a scrubbing board in a tub of water, working her fingers to the bone. At hand was Bomber or other blue laundry soap which helped to take the dirt out, and Reckitts’ Laundry Blue, called Dolly Blue in England, a small, caked cube block, wrapped in cloth, which was put into the water to make the white clothes whiter.

Incidentally, laundry blue was also used in witchcraft, doing double duty.

In those days, salt soap (yellow) was used for clothes and dishes. Sweet soap, which included Life Buoy (red), Palmolive (white or green), Zex, Rex, and Lux for the babies, were used in bathing. Strong, carbolic soap provided man and beast with instant cleaning and healing.

Clothes that were to be starched were dipped into a starchy mixture after they were washed and rinsed. Starched clothes, which included people’s "Sunday best", were then put out with the other clothes to dry, becoming as stiff as a board.
Dried, starched clothes had to be treated specially, for they were sprinkled with water and rolled into a ball, and put into a basket or cool corner, to be ironed later with a coal-pot, or electric steam iron. I hated starched clothes for my stiff shirt collar kept rubbing on my already sore, sun-burned neck, making Sunday church service a double imposition.

In those days, unlike today, the front yard of a house did not tell you much about the residents inside, but the backyard, well, that was another story. The clothes or washing lines, some criss-crossing, all stretching end to end for all and sundry to see, told a lot more.

"She sailor-man, like he come home."
"Mistah Jones wife must be sick."
"When dat lazy good fuh nuttin’ boy next door gun find some wuk?"
"Myrtle up duh street, like she drop".
"Duh nosey people opposite, like dey step on some money."

All the above and more could be gleaned from looking at a neighbour’s clothes-line. The sailor-man was known to be home because a man’s dungarees were on the line. Mister Jones’ wife must be sick because Mr. Jones himself was hanging out the washing and not doing a good job of it. The lazy lad next door had no work because his clothes were always fruit stained, as he spent idle days, stealing and eating fruit. Myrtle must have had a baby, ("drop"), because a row of flour bag cloth diapers suddenly appeared on the line. The people opposite must have got some lucky money because they had hung out some clothes or bedding that looked like nylon or silk.

Clothes-lines displays were often a starting point for gossip. This perhaps led to the saying, "Don’t wash your dirty linen in public" Compare that to life in the great metropolis today when our neighbour next door could be dead for days, and we are none the wiser. Wash day, quite often a Monday, was a big day. When you moved into a new house, the first thing you did was get the clothes-line strung up in the backyard, between two trees or whatever was available. The clothes pegs or pins, wooden in the early days, later plastic, were all waiting patiently in an apron-like bag carried by the washer-woman, ready to do duty. The term "washer-man" has not yet been coined.

First of all, the clothes-lines had to be cleaned, just in case there were some heavenly droppings from the early risers, the birds. Clothes-lines were often made of strong cord which later came in handy as skipping rope. If you were fairly well-off, you had a wire line and pulleys. You had to be careful not to overload the line or all the washing would come crashing down on the dirt which meant "wuk done an’ labour loss". The dog or children running around playing could also bring the clothes and line down which would mean instant "cut ass" for both! Those people who did not have the space or could not afford lines, hung their clothes on fences, bushes, bannisters, or anywhere that would offer support at no cost and not complain about the dampness or wetness. After the clothes were hung out, the rest was up to the sun and wind.

But not so quick! The washing had to be hung out in a certain manner and sequence, which told you right away if a man had hung out the clothes. There is an art to it: big items first - sheets, pillowcases, blankets, trousers, towels, then smaller items - underwear, hankies, vests, and finally socks in pairs. If you hung them right, you could cut down on ironing. Clothes had to be matched. Also, care had to be taken to prevent clothes from running. Underskirts got pinned by their size tabs, and most important, socks were to be hung by the toes, whether they complained or not.

If you wanted a really clean wash, you boiled the water first. You enjoyed conversation and gossip over the fence with your next door neighbour when you hung out the washing, for wash day was an all day affair. You started early to catch the sun and you always kept an eye out for the rain, especially rain that fell out of a clear blue sky as happens in Barbados. If the sky "set up" and it looked like rain was about to fall, you had to be ready to rush outside and put the clothes in a wicker or plastic clothes basket. If you had the more sophisticated "pulley line", you could pull in the washing in record time while standing on your back porch at that.

If there were a lot of people in the household, as was quite often the case, you needed several lines. When the clothes were dry, you had to shake and fold them neatly, before putting them in the basket. The shaking was important to get rid of insects - bees, marabuntas, butterflies, bird droppings, leaves, twigs, or burnt cane ash. It’s a most unpleasant experience to be sitting still in church or school and feel a creepy crawly inside your pants, or worse yet be stung by an insect which objected to the confinement! After the clothes were taken in from the line, they were then made ready for ironing day, which was usually the next day, Tuesday. If you did not take the clothes in the same day, you were considered a lazy housekeeper.

I liked to stand by my mother and hand her the clothes pegs as she was putting out the washing, pretending to be useful. I also used to play a trick on her when I wanted to skulk from school, by pouring water from a standpipe nearby, on my school clothes drying on the line, and telling my mystified mother that the rain had fallen and the clothes were too wet to wear. In those days, we didn’t have too many clothes to fall back on but my mother soon caught on to that trick.

On dreamy afternoons, I use to lie in my hammock under a tree in the backyard and stare at the washing gently swaying in the breeze. I knew that at the end of the day, I would be happy to crawl under clean linen, with the smell of the summer breeze, fresh air and sun. How can you ever get that smell from a clothes washer and dryer? The white clothes were also whiter, bleached by the sun, and your electricity bill was saved a dent.

I miss the sound of the friendly flap of sheets on the line. The clothes-lines tied our homes together, poor, humble folk that we were, uniting the families of the neighbourhood, showing that we shared the same sun, wind, and make of shorts, those of us who had shorts. Today, many of us live not in homes but in unspoilt showrooms.

In many neighbourhoods in big cities, to hang out anything resembling a clothes-line is to invite the wrath of the Neighbourhood Watch. Some complain that clothes-lines cheapen a neighbourhood, bring down house prices, are a sure sign that an immigrant lives there, and make people wonder where you came from. No need to ask where have all the clothes-lines gone? They’re blowing in the wind down memory lane.

"Courtesy of Indo Caribbean World, October 7, 1998"