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VIDEO: The labour of laundry

A load of laundry was anything but a load of fun as display of old-fashioned 
irons and washboards depicts at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum at Austin

It’s a job and an era those who remember would probably rather forget.

But a small exhibit at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum (MAM) reminds us again about the sort of work women did to get the farm laundry done in bygone days.

All kinds of sad irons, plus washboards, sock stretchers, galvanized tubs and mangles are included in MAM’s new ‘Drop Your Pants Here’ laundry exhibit, a pre-electrification era display of tools of a woman’s trade, when she had to wash clothes in cramped kitchens, sans plumbing, or anything else remotely labour reducing.

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Forget cutesy clotheslines and oh-so-charming washtubs seen on Pinterest; drudgery ain’t something to get nostalgic over.

These are the donated artifacts from Manitoba families whose grandmothers knew all too well the mind-numbing and exhausting wash-iron-repeat job it was keeping kids and dad in clean clothes for school and Sunday.

Before the new-fangled stuff came along — electric irons, washing machines and dryers, perfumed laundry soap — moms spent an entire day, and often several days, hauling and heating water, bent over said washtub, scrubbing with soap made from lard and lye.

Then she’d tackle the ironing.

Once done, it was time to start over.

“I think after you’ve seen this exhibit, you’re not going to complain about doing laundry again,” says Tanya Wiegand, curator at MAM who created the display from artifacts gathered from the Austin-area museum’s extensive collections.

The display includes washboards of glass, possers, which were used like butter churns to agitate clothes, and steel and tin and square tubs that doubled as the family bathtub coupled with old-fashioned, finger-crushing mangles.

There’s a contraption you’d never guess by looking was even a washing machine. The bulky, hand-agitated Hamilton, Ontario-built Eclipse Washer is made of wood and dates to the mid- to late 1800s. A rarity among early washing machines still around now, it was a one-time status symbol for a homemaker, says Wiegand. It, too, was physically demanding to use.

Then there are the sad irons. Most think these old irons, that have reincarnated mostly as doorstops, are so named because the chore they performed made everyone depressed, says Wiegand.

“Actually, sad is an old English word for heavy or solid,” she said.

woman with antique ironing equipment

“I think after seeing this exhibit, you’re not going to complain about doing laundry again.” – Tanya Wiegand
photo: Lorraine Stevenson

But, yes, ironing could make you sad. Unless the weather was fine on washday, clothes, towels, or sheets, seldom dried enough to iron (and early housewives lacking polyester would attempt them all). After you’d soaked, scrubbed and wrung everything out, it all got hung on the clothesline, and fence, and bushes in the yard and you just prayed it wouldn’t rain, says Wiegand. In the winter, it was hung on racks in the basement or attic.

An American woman devised the iron displayed that has a detachable wooden handle. It didn’t get hot and eased by a modicum the labour using a household device otherwise unchanged from the Middle Ages, says Wiegand.

“Even some of the smaller ones weighed 20 pounds,” she said. “Can you imagine ironing with a 20-pound iron?”

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Other advancements in household irons in the display are even larger, but hollow; these held charcoal to stay hot, and good luck not getting a mark on whatever you’d just painstakingly washed and dried. Another iron in the exhibit has an asbestos handle that stayed cooler. The gas irons are just scary. Then there are the electric irons, whose advent, along with washers and dryers, would reduce the labour of laundry.

(Is it any wonder that farm women led the charge for farm electrification in the last century?)

Drop Your Pants explains soap making or “saponification,” as the exhibit explains, which is the chemical reaction occurring when fat is mixed with alkali. This time of year farm families, butchering livestock, would make their household soap, notes Wiegand. And no one expected it would leave their dainties sweetly scented either. There’s a chamber pot in this exhibit too. Human urine was once used as a stain remover, and that’s no word of a lie.

“It was called chamber lye,” says Wiegand.

Schoolchildren visiting the Manitoba Agricultural Museum in spring do some laundry the old-fashioned way, along with other fun stuff like writing on slates in the one-room schoolhouse and bartering for candy in the site’s General Store.

They’ll never know the fresh hell Monday was, or however long it actually would take moms of the past to get the blessed thing done.

Those with fleeting memories of wringer washers, and handling wet laundry, especially in cold weather, will look on these artifacts in awe of what she accomplished, says Wiegand.

“We can all relate because we all still do laundry. This was women’s work. And they were doing lots of other things every day too. This gives you an idea of all the work the women had to do.”

Drop Your Pants Here runs until May of 2015. To check museum operating hours please call (204) 637-2354 or email.

Note: Lorraine’s mom had a crooked baby finger from a bone break never set. She entangled it in the pulley of her clothesline sometime in the mid-1950s.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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