Babies go through a lot of diapers, gowns and towels. Mother never had enough diapers to last more than a couple of days, and there were always diapers on the line or soaking in a tub of water.
On wash day, Daddy would draw water from the well that was located a short distance from the house and fill the large black kettle that was used to heat water out of doors. The well was hand dug and was several feet in diameter. The inside was lined with large rocks brought in a wagon from a nearby hillside. These were extended to three feet or so on top of the ground and a wooden lid covered the top to keep animals from falling into the well where they might drown and contaminate the water. When this occurred all the water had to be drawn out of the well, sometimes more than once, until enough fresh water flowed into the well so that it was again usable. The water was drawn from the well with a two-gallon water bucket that was attached to a rope and connected to a pulley. The water table in southern Oklahoma is quite close to the top of the ground, and most wells were only about twenty feet deep. Drawing water for the multitude of household uses was a chore shared by everyone strong enough to carry it into the house.
When the kettle was filled a fire was started underneath to heat the water. While the wash water was heating, Mother would shave some of her homemade lye soap into the pot to start melting. She would then add the white or light colored clothing so that they would be easier to finish washing on the wash board. A short bench sat next to the house and it held two galvanized wash tubs. One was filled with cold water for rinsing and the other was filled with the hot water and clothing. Mother kept a piece of broomstick handy to fish items of clothing from the pot and move them to the other tub. Next, each piece was scrubbed up and down across the wash board to remove all of the dirt and grime. After rinsing and wringing out every item, the clean laundry was hung on the clothesline to dry. This was time consuming and tedious work. The baby had to be tended during all of this routine, and an energetic little boy needed frequent attention.
Water that was hand drawn from the well was not wasted. After the washing was done the soapy water was used to scrub the floors. The living room was mopped first, and then the kitchen, and finally the front porch which was an important room of any farm home. When anyone came to visit or inquire about something it was necessary to cross the porch to reach the front door. The strong lye soap that Mother added to the wash water cleaned the wood floors and made our house smell fresh and clean on washday.
Lye is a strong alkaline solution that is rich in potassium carbonate. It is leached from wood ashes and is used especially for making soap. It is very caustic, therefore, should be kept out of reach of children. Perhaps my earliest memory involves an incident when Mother was doing the wash. I was a toddler, about eighteen months old, and we had moved to a house that had a front porch. In order to keep an eye on me and make sure that I did not get close to the open fire, she had left me there to play. Although Mother was always very attentive and careful, she made one big mistake. She often added a teaspoon of lye to the first wash water to help remove stains from the clothing. After swishing the spoon back and forth in the kettle, she set the can of lye that was tightly sealed, and the teaspoon on the edge of the porch. While I was playing I noticed the spoon, picked it up and put it in my mouth.
The instant Mother heard my screams she immediately knew something terrible had happened. She picked me up and I can still remember her running with me in her arms. The ground was rough and I was jostling up and down and somewhere behind us the screams kept coming. She came to a barbed wire fence, quickly pushed me underneath and then crawled after me. Mother knew that Aunt Esther would know how to treat this kind of injury. When mixed with liquid, such as water or saliva, lye immediately starts destroying the flesh or whatever it touches.
Aunt Esther had mother put beaten egg whites in my mouth and ever so gradually my screams became little sobs. From a distant place in my mind I recall that I’m in my mother’s arms and she is holding me close, her gentle warmth comforts me. A small scar in the center of my tongue has been an ever present reminder of this event.
To my knowledge, we never had a decent clothesline. Ours was usually attached to a pole in the corner of the yard and stretched to a corner of the chicken house to hold it up. On sunny days the clothes would wave and flap in the wind and would soon be dry, fresh and sweet-smelling. In freezing weather the clothes would be hung out briefly, and they would instantly freeze. After they were taken off the line, or gathered in, they would be hung about the house to finish drying. As one might imagine, the laundry being such a labor intensive activity, clothes didn’t get tossed into the dirty clothes basket until they were really dirty. On nights when we did not bathe, Mother insisted we wash our feet before getting into bed. Sheets were changed only once a week, so clean sheets were special and we looked forward to them as we got ready for bed. Once in bed, oh, how pleasant! The sheets were crisp, even a bit stiff, as there was no dryer to beat them into softness. They went straight from the clothesline to our beds, and they still carried the wonderful smells of sunshine and fresh air. Surely nothing can duplicate the fragrance of sun-dried sheets.
My Mother’s first washing machine was a Maytag. It had a gasoline engine which had to be started with a foot pedal. My brother, Donald, perfected his mechanical skills working on the engine when it proved difficult, if not impossible to start. After the water and clothes were transferred from the big, black pot to the tub of the washer the machine was turned on and allowed to agitate. A few minutes later Mother would fish them out, piece by piece, with a short piece of broom stick. She lifted each piece up to the wringer and ran it through into the galvanized washtub that held the rinse water. She poured a small amount of bluing into the rinse water to “brighten up the whites.” Bluing was a handy compound; we sometimes applied it to wasp stings. After rinsing, the clothes were again put through the wringer, this time into a container waiting beneath. The clothes were now ready to hang on the clothesline to dry.
After the laundry was washed and dried, next came the ironing. Mother used flat irons that were heated on the woodstove until 1948 when REA finally brought electricity to the rural areas of southern Oklahoma. These old heavy irons had been her mother’s and had handles attached which were also made of iron. A pot holder was used to hold the iron when in use because the handle got almost as hot as the iron. Later, irons were made that had a single wooden handle that latched into place on top. The wooden handles did not get hot, and they were more comfortable to use, but Mother used the old sadirons that had belonged to Grandmother Hartwick.
Mother’s ironing board was a wide piece of lumber shaped like an ironing board, but without legs. The wide end of the board, which she had covered with several layers of old sheet blankets, was placed on the sewing machine, and the tapered end extended across the top of a chair. She ironed with one foot on the rung of the chair to make sure it did not tip over.
We didn’t always have a lot of clothes, and usually wore them more than once before laundering, but everything was always ironed to perfection. She always ironed our pillowcases and pretty embroidered scarves that we placed on dressers and chests, as well as the clothes we wore.
Before ironing most of the clothes were dipped in Faultless starch. This was a powder mixed with water and heated on the stove until it was the right consistency. Starch added a slick coating to the fabric making ironing somewhat easier, and clothing that was starched did not absorb dirt or grime as easily. Clothes were dried, and then they were sprinkled with water and rolled to fit into a basket. After sitting for an hour or so they were ready to iron. Sometimes it would take a couple of afternoons to get the week’s ironing done.
It is easy to understand why Mother purchased a new electric iron when we learned we were moving into a house that had electricity. It is difficult to imagine the tedious job of ironing with sadirons. Keeping them at the correct temperature would have been no small task. I recall how she would put a bit of spit on her finger and quickly dab it onto the iron to see if it sizzled just right. This meant the iron was sufficiently hot to place it on the piece of clothing to be ironed, but not too hot so that it would scorch the fabric.
Looking back on those days now through the lens of time and perspective, I am amazed at how our daily routines have been changed so much by today’s technology and just how hard it was back theneven if we didn’t think of it as being hard; it was just the way things were. In those days, even something as simple as doing laundry was a serious chore. And, the memory of the accident with the lye is just one reminder of how our very lives could change in a single instant.
Billie Martin Dean Buckles is an Oklahoma writer who enjoyed a 24-year career in banking and finance. Her book about growing up during the Depression is called “Changing Seasons” and is available through Tate Publishing. This story is an excerpt from “Laundry and Lye Soap,” a chapter from her book. Used by permission from the author & publisher. ©2015 Billie Martin Dean Buckles. All rights reserved.