I was content for quite a few years to be a stay-at-home mom (working , though -- all moms are working moms, right?) so was able to indulge in cloth diapers and for our first year with our oldest, we had no dryer, so I hung many loads of laundry out on the line, often hauling them in before they were dry because it had started raining. I have to admit that, young as I was, rather idealistic environmentally, and still besotted with the novelty of independent domestic life, I could be caught sighing happily over the sight of those diapers flapping in the breeze.
And sometimes I'd think of my maternal grandmother. She had ten children, and although mothers toilet-trained early in those days, she would still occasionally have two in diapers at the same time, and they lived in Manitoba where many months of the year were only good for freezing clothes board-solid on the line. While my grandfather always worked hard to keep the family adequately, even comfortably, housed, their residences were never expansive, and these spaces were often decorated with laundry festooned from drying lines inside the house.
No wonder, then, that when a travelling salesman stopped by one day in the difficult 30s, my grandmother's heart would have beat faster at his description of the oh-so-useful washing machines he was selling. Just think of the hours she could save if the machine would agitate the clothes for her, instead of having to stir them and scrub them with her own tired hands, sometimes rubbing the knuckles raw. Imagine being able to feed them through the wringer to rid them of all the excess moisture, instead of wearing out her own wrists and finger joints wringing them out one by one. . . .
But no, Grandma would almost have snapped at the salesman, pushing down her silly excitement, how could she possibly afford such an item. Did she look as if there was money to spare on such foolishness? She was probably already shutting the door impatiently, getting back to her bread dough or scolding a curious child back to its chore of setting the table, when the clever salesman made a suggestion. What if she could buy the washing machine on credit? That was an easy suggestion for Grandma to resist, but his next one gave her pause: What if she washed clothes for some of the neighbours, earning enough money to pay for the washer herself?
And that, dear readers, is how my Grandma got her first washing machine, and left the washtub behind her for ever.
Perhaps what surprised me most about this story when she told me it many years ago is that when I told her how proud I was of her hard work and initiative, a domestic entrepreneur at a time and place when opportunities were few and when life was a constant struggle, she found my pride hard to credit. All Grandma felt, when she remembered this period, was shame. Doing domestic work for others was an abasement, a betrayal of the class movement she was committed to, the upward trajectory that her husband's hard work and their home ownership was meant to achieve. Caught between her upbringing in a French-Canadian farming family and the dreams encouraged by the 20th-century's carrot-dangling media (in effect decades before Mad Men, really), Grandma's shame stayed with her even into her comfortable old age in a house with her own washer and dryer and freezer and stove and fridge, all well-maintained, all paid for with cash, in advance . . . I could only hug her, a bit sadly, a bit wiser about the role class played in my own family history. I thought of Grandma's story a few weeks ago when we walked through several villages in Portugal's Beiras and noticed these communal washing facilities, decades if not centures old.
These "modcons" include a grooved or textured surface -- ribbed, not "for your pleasure," as certain ads promise, but for cleaning efficiency. Of the two we spotted, each scrubbing surface
was differently configured but with the same obvious purpose.
The water is apparently diverted from the ingenious irrigation/aqueduct system that is ubiquitous through this region. Once we were alert to it, we were constantly aware of culverts and gutters and pipes, often equipped at strategic points with very simple (often just a piece of wood) levers which allowed water be switched from this pathway to that. Here a simple switch would move water to fill up this cistern, and nearby a pail or a bottle could be filled with cool potable water.
While I was quite sure I'd figured out what these facilities were for, I was pleased to have my guess confirmed by this hard-working woman, apparently quite content to be washing her laundry and happy to pose for this photograph. This "laundromat" has more features than the other, with separate tubs and what looks like easier access to clean rinsing water.
And it's covered, which would be a welcome feature on the rainy days when you really need to get that piri-piri sauce out of your husband's best shirt so that he looks decent at the dinner with your visiting cousin tomorrow night . . .