Topic: The Wonders and Worries of Washday by Patricia Simpson

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Washday in the days when I was a child was, for some unknown reason, usually on a Monday. In the 1940s and ‘50s most housewives still used a copper to boil up the washing and this required some time and effort. Perhaps washing day was Monday to ensure that during the weekend prior, a husband or son had found the time to perform the task of cutting the wood for the copper. 


I was always fascinated by the little door where the wood went in, not so much to do with the heating of the water, but more because I was able to check my developing language skills with the writing on the cast iron door. I would lie flat on the floor, from which position I could carefully scan the writing which had been cast into the metal. The door must have made in Tauranga because the word Tauranga was the point of interest as I struggled to become proficient at writing my name and address.

However, the washing process was also of interest to a small girl who would thankfully later own a washing machine.

Our mothers worked hard on washing day, first of all hoping for a fine day. This was the day to change the bed sheets and it was done on a rotational basis, bottom sheet in the wash, top sheet became bottom sheet for another week – no fitted sheets in those days.

For my mother, with five children in the family and a husband in the building trade, washday was hard work. Dad’s dirty working clothes were always last to be washed.  First the water in the copper had to become hot enough to do the job. The use of cold water soap powders was a long way off.  Persil or Rinso soap powders were most commonly used and their merits were frequently advertised in the daily papers where it was claimed your whites would emerge from the wash ‘whiter than white’.

Delicate items and hand-knitted garments had to be carefully washed by hand in Sunlight Soap and tepid water to preserve the shape and size as time and effort had usually gone into the making. However, even with careful hand washing, by the time these garments were passed down to the youngest  - me! - they were well past their best. Somewhat shrunken cardigans and knitted skirts were my lot.

The accompanying photo was not my favourite as can be seen by the cut marks around the edges. My siblings were attending a school fancy dress party, and because I was not school age I was excluded, but had my photo taken outside the hall dressed in my ‘best’ clothes.  I was not impressed and later used my plastic scissors on the photo to register my disapproval, though I was not brave enough to completely destroy the photograph.

Nowadays a pre-school child would probably be included in the festivities or at least be dressed in some sort of fancy dress as a compromise but in 1947/48 when the photo was taken many families were still struggling financially after the war years and even my older sisters and brothers were lucky to attend the party.

Back to washday!

After the boiling and stirring with a wooden paddle the washed  items would be lifted out with the paddle into the tub for rinsing while the next load went into the copper. The whites were done first and rinsed with the aid of a Reckitts Blue bag to keep them pristine. From there they were coaxed through the hand wringer which required a bit of elbow grease and care so the items would not become entangled in the wringer as this event would cause much muttering from an exasperated mother as she rectified the problem.

It was at this point when even a five-year old was a handy little person to have around. Keeping a little bit of pressure on whatever item was emerging from the wringer and gathering it up often prevented an entanglement and at the same time gave the little helper a sense of satisfaction. Sheets proved  a challenge for small hands and you dare not let them drag on the floor or the sense of satisfaction would be gone in an instant and you would receive a telling- off.

It was necessary for the washing basket to be strategically positioned to catch the items as they came through the wringer. In our case the washing basket was in fact the tin tub which had been used as a baby bath.

By 1950 our family was lucky enough to have a rotary clothesline. Our neighbour still had the old ‘prop’ clothesline consisting of a pole at each end of the lawn strung with wire on which to hang the washing. The line was then propped up in the air with a long pole sited roughly in the middle of the line. This worked well as long as the wind was reasonably gentle. A stiff wind would sometimes dislodge the prop resulting in the washing dragging on the ground, which caused more exasperation.

Our neighbour was barely 5ft tall and to be able to get the prop back up under a line full of wet washing was taxing. If the washing had to be rescued from a shower of rain running up and down the length of a prop clothesline, swiftly unpegging as you went, added to the day’s exercise.

The pegs used were wooden grip pegs. New pegs were boiled up in a saucepan before use to ‘condition’ them so that they would not break so easily or mark the clothes.

Handkerchiefs were boiled up in a separate saucepan (kept for this specific purpose) on top of the wood-fired range. Thank goodness for the invention of disposable tissues as this could be a most unpleasant task.

After careful hand washing the delicates were laid flat to dry or in some cases depending on the garment, old nylon stockings knotted together would provide a ‘hanger’ so the garment would not carry peg marks.

If the weather was wet the washing was draped over a wooden clothes horse in front of the open fire in winter or on the drying rack above the multi-purpose wood-fired range. The range was also used for cooking and heating.

As can be seen from the above description, doing the washing could be a long and strenuous job. Our mothers would have expended quite a bit of energy on the task – no money, time or in fact any need for ladies to attend a fitness gymnasium even had the option been available.

Most mothers in those days would get an early start on this task and by the time the washing was done it was time for a rest and a cuppa. The wireless provided some welcome relief in the form of a weekly radio play, usually a serial. One I remember was the housewive’s favourite: Dr Paul, which would instantly transport the listener to days of intrigue and romance.

Another ‘must’ was sage advice from Aunt Daisy on anything and everything to do with maintaining a clean and happy household.  Then it was back to work to put some of Aunt Daisy’s advice into practice.

Other days of the week saw our mothers on their hands and knees washing and polishing the floors. Electric floor polishers and wall to wall carpet were not yet a reality, which meant loose floor rugs had to be shaken or beaten outside. My mother was house-proud, and in spite of our father telling her polishing was not necessary; in fact, downright dangerous - there had been a few falls - she still insisted on polishing  the linoleum till it shone.  Boots and shoes had to be taken off at the back door and walking on polished linoleum in socks was done at your own risk.

These tasks kept most mothers at home in those days and I can remember coming home from school shouting, “Mum, I’m home” as soon as I walked in the door.

I’m sure there must have been times when she would have thought ‘Oh no, not already!’ but we always received a welcome and a snack before we had to change out of our ‘school clothes’ and she would have to start once again preparing a meal for seven.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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