Thursday, July 22, 2010

Laundry Day and a bit of Portuguese Style

With a little person in the house this week, the washing machine has been very welcome, even though said little person's mother brought along a stack of disposable diapers. Darling little peach-and-pink gingham cropped pants dotted with tomato sauce, just-as-cute army-green cargos trimmed with polka dots rimed white with dried saltwater, a whale-appliqued pink t-shirt with enough blueberry splotches to make a small pie, all these make me happy to have a machine that can do a small cycle, on "Delicate" in ten or fifteen minutes. With the sunshine we've been having, clothes are dry on my little rack outside in a few hours, and we can start again, perhaps this time putting the blueberries on a yellow shirt, trying for tomato on the green. . . .

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 . . .

In fact, while I'm hardly going to wax nostalgic about the prospect of washing clothes by hand, I can see the communal aspect of this making the task easier in comparison to my Grandmother struggling through load after load at home with only crying babies for company.
I suspect the sunny climate helps a bit as well, and I can imagine that, in the past at least, clothes might be laid out somewhere nearby for the sun to bleach out stains.
Another benefit of the communal aspect is that, with the water diverted from a nearby river and, presumably, the drained and dirty water eventually returning to the same river after being filtered through surrounding soil, the launderers might be more conscious about what their cleaning products do to their drinking water. We were certainly impressed by the cleanliness of all the streams and rivers we walked along which, even in their very slowly-moving backwaters, showed no obvious influence of the slime-encouraging phosphates -- this is only a superficial impression, of course, and I hesitate to generalize from such anecdotal evidence, but I suspect we'd all be reading laundry-product labels more carefully if we knew how quickly they could end up in our drinking water.
And, of course, people are much more practical about what they wear when they know that they have to wash their clothes by hand. We saw this "style" on 80 or 90% of the women in the villages during the daytime. Very practical. Probably quite comfortable. I could have picked one up at one of the travelling market days. I passed. . . .

What do you think? If you had to wash all your clothes by hand, could you be persuaded to adopt this practical garb? And perhaps you could explain to me the mystery of the tights worn in 30 degree weather, weather that is at least acknowledged by the hat and the short sleeves. . . Or perhaps, instead, you'd like to tell me a family laundry anecdote. . . or what items, if any, you like to dry on a line . . . . I'll check back later. Meanwhile, my daughter and I are off to get pedicures, do a little shopping, have a mom-and-daughter lunch. Grandad/Pater will be at the beach with Nola. Have a lovely day.


  1. So fascinating. I always forget that parts of Europe are still so close in many ways to what I think of as the 3rd world. And that said, they may have no desire to trade places, to trade commutes and washers for walking to communal hand laundries. The story about your grandmother is amazing. I often think that women are redeemed by the next generation, men, often, condemned. Just from holding positions of power vs. being subordinate maybe.

  2. Fascinating story about your grandmother, and especially your differing perspectives on it. (I remember even in my mother's day, it was a point of pride for men when they did well enough that their wife didn't have to work.)

    One of those "mod cons" that I appreciate still, more than any other, is a washer/dryer in the house. (With our cooler temps and damp air most of the year, laundry can take *days* to dry on a line.) It's the thing I've missed most when I've lived without it. I'm quite happy to not have to do washing by hand, even among such charming environs!

  3. My grandfather bought my grandmother a washing machine. My grandmother was outraged and NEVER used it. Can you imagine? I love my very fancy washer/dryer. It has a sensor. My washer talks to the dryer. My grandmother would be horrified. That said, there are LOTS of things I do that would be horrified by.
    Great post!

  4. Your grandmother sounds like a very resourceful woman...I can only imagine how challenging it would be to maintain laundry for 10 children plus a would be a never ending chore.

    My family didn't own a dryer when I was living at home. My father rigged up indoor lines downstairs and some outside. It took days and days before my jeans would dry and then they were stiff as a board.

    Lovely that Nola is visiting you on the island...quality grandma time.

  5. What a wonderful, evocative post!

    (And I want Bel's set up. I've had the same appliances since I moved into this house - they weren't new when we moved in so they're all pushing 15 years now. I'm grateful that they all work because they improve the quality of my life so definitively. I can easily do without a car, but a washing machine or dishwasher - don't want to even think about it. Mind you, my next appliances are all gonna talk to each other at night and decide how to make my next day more enjoyable :-))

  6. LPC: Yes, Portugal surprises me until I think of how recently (the 1970s) Salazar still held sway . . . and we go back and forth on the contentment issue -- when we visit in the summer, the lifestyle holds huge appeal for us. But we can leave, back to our comforts and "things."
    Your comment about men vs. women and generational attitudes is interesting, food for thought.
    Pseu: Absolutely! I'm so glad to have a choice re washing/drying by hand. What a luxury to be able to clean and dry dirty clothes in a couple of hours.

  7. LBR: What your grandma doesn't know . . . But now you've made me jealous for a chatty laundry set.
    Hostess: So like me, I'm betting you have a wringer washer in your memory.
    K: I know! I was feeling quite satisfied with my laundry set-up 'til I heard I could get communicating appliances -- um, LBR, could they do some dream analysis while they're at it?

  8. Wonderful story about your grandmother. I grew up in Asia, and I can still remember the early years when our amah used to wash by hand on a wooden board, as many people there still do.

    When I made my first trip to the US a few years ago I was stunned by the ubiquity of the clothes dryer - friends (very 'green' friends at that) dried everything in their dryer, even when it was 28 degrees C on a sunny winter's day in Tempe, Arizona.

    Here in Sydney we line dry everything, unless we have days of rain and I have school/sport uniforms that MUST be ready. Our climate is such that our dryer is very infrequently used ...

    As for that outfit, I'm glad you mentioned the peculiarity of the tights - is it modesty, do you think?

  9. I think there is a lot to be said for those comfortable, practical garments and perhaps with a different lifestyle we might be more willing to adapt that look. But I don't know. My grandmothers both had washing machines and I don't think I ever really thought about it except when we lived in Spain and Josephina (the maid) washed everything in a big tub out by the well with a washboard. We were the last house in town with a functioning well, and when the town water died, which it did frequently, I remember all the neighboring wives and maids gathering in our backyard and doing their wash together, gossiping and laughing.

    My maternal grandmother had a dryer which she only used when it was raining, much preferring to hang the clothes outside. I remember when my mother finally got a dryer because she was so happy and never hung the clothes outside again. I also seem to remember that the machines broke frequently and we had to go to the laundromat which was deemed "lower class" and a source of great shame.

    When I was young, after age 9 or so, my father would pay me to iron his shirts as the cleaner that ironed them the way he liked retired. I would line up my dolls and pretend that I was a poor woman who had to take in laundry and ironing to feed my children. I would ask my mom to make me beans with salt for lunch and I would tell my dolls that all we could afford was beans and salt, but if they were good and let me do more ironing perhaps we could have a chicken on Sunday. I don't think my mom was really happy with this game but I loved it, I would volunteer to do the ironing just so I could play ironing woman. I have no idea where I got the idea.

    I still iron. I also still do some hand wash, although not quite as much since my 25 year old washing machine died last fall and my new machine has an ultra-gentle cycle. I still also hang some things to dry when the weather is conducive to line drying. I don't think my machines talk to each other though.

  10. Amazing. When we were in Burgundy last summer we saw a wash house in a small village on the Cote d'Or - it looked a lot like that except it was inactive - the residents all had running water and modern fixtures. Amazing to think of having to wash by hand.

    I think folks in those situations tend to wear their clothes several times before washing. We could certainly help the planet if we didn't wash our jeans after each wearing unless they were actually dirty.

    I am not one to talk, though - I have a washer and dryer and use them unthinkingly. I don't iron - and my husband's shirts are pressed at our dry cleaner's. As a young mom, I too used cloth diapers, but I had a diaper service.

    Reflecting on my own unthinking privilege in contrast to those women at the washboard is somewhat unsettling.

    That's why I like reading your posts, you always give us something to think about.

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  12. Tiffany: We're at least as bad up here as in the US, but I've been trying, ever since I was in Portugal two years ago and inspired about the clothes hung out to dry everywhere, to rely less on my dryer. Even though we're in a grey, rainy climate here on the West Coast, I'm surprised to find out how easy it is to manage with only a dryer load every week or two -- I've got a collapsible rack for inside and I find most items dry within a day. Couldn't have done this when the kids were home, but with just Pater and me, it's not bad. Plus the dryer's lint basket is a clear sign of just how tough the dryer is on clothes!
    And yes, I guess it must be modesty, 'cause there's no way it's style or comfort, those tights!

  13. Mardel: I didn't know you'd lived in Spain! Was that as a child or an adult?
    So much in your comment reinforces what my Grandma felt about domestic work, especially laundry, and class -- so interesting that you'd absorbed that so young -- and the beans and salt bit is precious -- was that inspired by something you'd read?

    I'd be much more willing to do without my dryer than my washer, I must say, and I love that the new ones have such great "delicate" cycles.

    Aunt Snow: that's another good point, that if there were more of our own labour involved, we'd be more careful about how often we washed -- and then our clothes would last longer as well as our planet!
    I felt that same discomfort about my washing behaviour vis-a-vis the Portuguese women's, and it's inspired me to shape up a little -- still a long, long way to go!

  14. Great post and reminds me to count my blessings, even the more "mundane" of them like a washer and dryer.
    We traveled to Romania and the airlines "misplaced" our luggage. For the first two weeks, all we had were the clothes on our backs and a white tee shirt the airlines gave us to help out.
    A few days into the trip, we asked to be taken to the laundromat and were told Romanians thought doing laundry in the same "bucket" other people had placed their dirty laundry was disgusting. Romanians, at least in the rural areas, did their laundry in the river where the water was freshened every second.
    Every day I wear an apron over my clothes to help keep my clothes cleaner longer. That saves on water, detergent, labor and I always have, at the minimum, one large "pocket" at hand.
    Ah, the work of women's much is taken for granted, so much is overlooked...until someone is hungry or has no clean clothes. -grin
    God's blessings on you, yours and the work of your hands and heart.

  15. Thanks, Sandra, for a v. interesting comment -- I love the flipped perspective provided by the Romanians on our use of laundromats!

  16. I found this recently and was just re-reading ahead of our Portuguese hols. Many years ago on holiday in deepest southern France, staying in a village off the beaten track, I found similar one hot afternoon when out for a wander. It took me a while to work out what it was and then I went and used it for myself. Most pleasing. Came across another a few years ago but this one now unused, which is a shame. I really enjoy doing laundry and, when my children were babies and we were a bit hard up, used cloth nappies myself. The only thing I didn't like was emptying the overflowing morning bucket...something very soothing about drying nappies on a huge fireguard over the crackling mother had a large twintub and I can smell the hot suds even now, radio on in the background as she worked all morning with wooden tongs to move the clothes from the hot water. And it appears that some of my forebears also worked as laundresses. Good for them.


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