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Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

WASH DAY:
DRUDGERY THROUGH THE CENTURIES

by Robert G. Cowser
When I read Letitia Barbauld’s poem “Wash-Day,” written in the eighteenth century, I was struck by certain similarities between the plight of the laundresses in the poem and my mother’s struggle to provide clean laundry for our family of five. Barbauld lived in England;. my mother lived on a farm near Saltillo during the twentieth century. Though each of these women lived on different continents and at different times, there were several similarities between the tasks of both.

Because World War II had delayed rural electrification, our farm had no power until 1947. Washing had to be done once a week, summer and winter. There was no holiday from the chore. My mother did the laundry for our family without benefit of machine. After she sorted the clothes, she had to put water in the blackened pot in the backyard. In the early days of my childhood, she drew water from an underground cistern, but after my father bought a metal tank, which was placed on a platform under one of the rain spouts, she used water from the tank.

After the pot had been filled, she tossed a bar of lye soap into the water. Then she placed firewood around the pot, ignited the wood, and waited for the water to come to a boil. Next she put the sheets and other linens, along with white clothing, into the pot. She used a broomstick to stir the clothing.

Besides carrying pails of water to fill the washpot, my mother needed to carry water to fill two tubs. She had to carry the water-soaked sheets, towels, and all the other laundry from the pot to the first tub. For some of the stained or soiled overalls that my father wore to the field my mother had to use a rub board made of corrugated metal in a wooden frame. The second tub of water was used to rinse the soap out of the clothing and other laundry. Beside the second tub was a pail of water laced with starch. The Sunday shirts and trousers were placed in the water and then squeezed before they were hung on the clothes lines.

For drying the clothing my mother used a wire stretched between two posts securely placed in the ground. Unlike the women in Barbauld’s poem “Wash-Day,” she never spread any of the sheets and other linens over shrubs. Rarely did she drape any of the clothing over the wire fence, though some of the neighbors who could not afford to buy the special wire for clothes lines draped their laundry over bushes in their yards.

After reading the poem by an eighteenth-century British woman who dreaded doing the laundry and recollecting my mother’s washing the family’s clothes, I realized that women on two continents whose lives were separated by two centuries experienced the same kind of drudgery.


© Robert G. Cowser
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
Guest Column, April 1, 2010

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