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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

A look at wash day
from early to modern

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Many of my columns originate from a casual inquiry from a reader.

David Bowerman of Amarillo asked whether I knew some of his relatives who operated a laundry or "wash-a-teria" in early McLean. When the question was presented to our coffee shop locals, we heard some interesting facts and stories about this most important local institution.

The earliest laundry site recalled is still standing as a wooden building near the alley across from the Methodist Church. The equipment included Maytag washing machines with wringers and rinsing tubs.

Since this was before the advent of affordable clothes dryers, the back lot of the laundry was filled with clotheslines.

Most laundries of the time had a shallow trough built into the concrete floor and covered with wooden slats to allow for dumping of tubs and machines of dirty water. Most people brought their own homemade lye soap to use.

Laundries introduced and sold commercial soap flakes, improved starches and bluing to their customers as extra income for their businesses.

Most laundries offered self-service, bachelor service and commercial services along with contract ironing.

This convenience was especially appreciated by the single workers and cowboys of the rural area who often rode to town horseback, dropped off their bundles of dirty clothes and retrieved their clean clothes the next week.

A certain lady in town, who had a large family, brought her basket of dirty clothes to the laundry in a little red wagon she pulled while it was pushed by whichever child was of age at the moment. Since drying clothes at the laundry cost money or time, she pulled her wet clothes back home to hang on her own backyard line.

There was no hot water where she lived except that heated on the stove.

A brief search into laundry history reveals Chinese immigrants operated most of the commercial laundry businesses in the West.

The U.S. Cavalry kept its uniforms clean by paying troopers' wives a fee to wash clothes down on "washer-row" each week.

Many early hotels and tourist courts ran their own personal laundries in a special room located behind the office.

Rub or scrub boards were invented in 1797, making the old "poke-stick in a boiling pot" method less desirable.

Mechanical-powered washing machines appeared in 1851 with the wringer added in 1861.

Maytag manufactured wooden rocker-type machines for years, then introduced the pivoting agitator machine in 1922. The first "top-loading" washing machine was introduced in 1947. Amazingly, more than 145 patents have been issued for clothespins alone.

Eventually, coin-operated washing machines and clothes dryers were invented and perfected.

Entrepreneurs coined names like Laundry Mat, Washateria, Automatic Laundry and Auto-Wash to attract customers. Large laundries, serving commercial customers, bought trucks to "pick-up and deliver" the weekly supply of laundry items.

If you are politically inclined, be aware that legislation is being introduced to allow homeowners to hang clothes on their backyard clotheslines even though their local homeowners' group says it is against the rules.


Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew"
April 25, 2006 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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