The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Maw's Wash Day

By Martha Cockrell Robinson © 1990

Issue: September, 1990

The sun rose slowly over the horizon on the sultry July morning. Already Maw and Aunt "Pheelie," her sister, were stirring in their bed (which they shared). Very soon they would be dressed and head for the kitchen to cook for the household of eight. After the table was cleared and the dishes washed, there awaited them an entire morning of scrubbing clothes on a washboard, boiling them in the washpot, transferring clothes from the washpot to the first rinse tub, and from there to the second rinse tub where the clothes would then be wrung as dry as Maw and Aunt Pheelie were able to wring them by hand, then hung on the long clothesline that stretched all the way across the upper end of the yard beyond the vegetable garden on one side and the flower garden on the other.

First, a fire had to be built under the black iron three-legged washpot so that the white sheets, men's white Sunday dress shirts, and anything else that was white could be boiled until they were snowy white. Maw prided herself on having the whitest wash for miles around. No tattletale gray wash was ever hung on her clothesline! No way! That would have been a disgrace. The first step to starting the fire under the washpot was to gather a supply of wood chips from around the large stump where wood was chopped. That was a chore for a young child to do - in our household a little girl's job, since the older brother must chop wood and perform other more difficult tasks. Since my sister was as yet too young, it fell my lot to pick up chips. After Maw got the fire started with old newspapers and the wood chips, larger pieces of wood were laid on the fire. Soon a roaring fire was going under the pot and it wasn't long until the water was boiling. Maw would then cut up a bar of Octagon laundry soap into it. It was my job to keep adding sticks of wood as long as the boiling water was needed - until the last shirt was snowy white enough to pass Maw's inspection. Like the hefty woman in the Hanes underwear TV commercial, they weren't white until Maw said they were white.

It definitely was not my idea of a fun thing to do, this wash day ritual. My bare toes got burned when I forgot and stepped too close to the pot and into the hot ashes. When replenishing the supply of sticks of wood under the pot, I would sometimes forget to be careful where I stepped, and when that happened there was aloud yelp of pain and quick retreat.

The sun rose higher and perspiration dripped from Maw and Aunt Pheelie's faces as they labored on. Even though the three large No. 3 tubs had been placed on the long wash bench under the shard of a tree, doing the weekly wash in the summertime was just a hot job - no two ways about it. They labored on methodically and unhurriedly and at long last all the white clothes, colored clothes and the heavy work clothes were on the line. All that was left were the socks, and the men and women's handkerchiefs (no Kleenex in those days!). There were left in the second rinse tub for me to rinse, wring as dry as I could, and hang them on the fence. When my sister was deemed old enough, it became her task also to help with this part of the wash day. In those days, as each child became old enough to perform simple tasks, he or she was assigned chores to do.

By early afternoon the last piece had been hung on the line, the tubs emptied, and the fire under the washpot doused with water to put it out. After a cold mid-day meal of leftovers, referred to by Maw as "going through the motion" (no cooked meal on wash day), Maw and Aunt Pheelie would take their large glasses of iced tea to the front porch where they would sit in their rocking chairs and rest after their hard day's work and sip on their tea. By mid-afternoon the Birmingham Post newsboy would pass on his bicycle and throw the paper on the porch. Maw would then sit and enjoy her daily newspaper; thus ended the weekly ritual of wash day.