Robert G. Cowser
DRUDGERY THROUGH THE CENTURIES
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
shoe horses, don't they?"
Guest Column, April 1, 2010
Columns by Robert