As the commentator for the Costume Museum of Canada’s Historic Fashion Review, and we have done over 750 shows to date, I try to give the audience a sense of what it must have been like to live in and wear the clothing of a century or two ago. Few things epitomize everyday life of the era more quickly than showing a beautiful turn of the century white summer outfit, or child’s voile dress with my reminder to them of the old-fashioned “wash day” needed to keep that clothing clean!
Today we simply throw a load and a bit of detergent into the washer and then on into the dryer. Voila! clean clothes are available in a matter of minutes! For even our recent ancestors, the job was much more difficult and time-consuming.
Since the majority of Manitoba’s population was rural, rather than urban, and widespread electricity for household use in rural areas didn’t become a practical reality until after World War 2, washing the family clothing was a “hands on” proposition. In the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, on a Monday wash day, wash water had to be hauled into the house from a well with a bucket. Family division of labour usually meant that this chore was taken on by the boys of the family. Wood would need to be chopped and brought in to feed the fire in a stove, which would heat the water in a copper boiler. That water then went into a tub, originally wooden, later metal, and clothing was plunged or stirred, and scrubbed on a washboard with a square of soap. After rinsing, the clothes were wrung out and taken to a clothesline to be hung out to dry, held in place by wooden clothespins. Winter was no exception, and I recall as a young person in the 50’s and 60’s bringing the “stiff as a board” frozen, and partially dried clothes into the house to finish drying on a clothes rack…preferably in front of the stove or heater. That took care of low winter humidity!
Even after electricity made washing machines a reality, it was the wringer washer which was most often used. My own mother used her wringer and rinse tub until the early 1970s!
Permanent press fabric was unknown until relatively recently, so the flat iron, or “sad” iron was heated on the stove for clothes pressing. Although I’m sure many women were not thrilled to be doing the washing, the term “sad” was only an old English term for heavy.
Although we have less than kind things to say these days about polyester double-knit, the introduction of this easy care fabric was a boon to the average housewife, since it required no ironing and it quickly gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s.
Perhaps this summer as you slip on simple summer outfits, made of easy care fabrics, and then toss them in with the rest of the wash, you’ll remember your Grandparents who needed much more effort to stay looking fresh!
–Margaret Mills is the commentator and co-ordinator of the Historic Fashion Review for the Costume Museum of Canada. This article was originally published in the Headingley Times.