She lights the fire in the wash house. It is a cold November day so the room will be comfortable. She used the hand pump to fill the pots of water on the stove which heat slowly as she goes through the clothes on the table, sorting them into piles. She'll start with the whites. Julia dumps water into the wash tub and adds some of the soap she made last week. Hash for supper she thinks as she adds the bed sheets to the hot water. Julia reaches for the scrub board and begins wash day.
This fictional account could apply to any of our foremothers but is based on the life of Julia Lawrence, my husband's great grandmother, of Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Julia had a wash house attached to the side of her house where she had a stove, table and chairs, and space big enough to work at the clothes. Most women did not have a separate place for washing clothes as Julia did but washed in the kitchen.
Julia's granddaughter Sylvia, gave me a little washboard or scrub board which belonged to her mother, Classie, Julia's eldest daughter.
The little board was a replica of a larger board used for bigger, heavier items of clothing. This one is called Pearl, and was produced by the Canadian Woodenware Co., Montreal. It is made of textured glass held in place by wood to allow the user to scub items over the rough glass surface.
The days are long gone when women hauled water from wells, brooks and streams to their kitchens where they scrubbed every item of clothing on washboards in wash tubs, items such as long johns, socks, dresses and overalls. Can you imagine the mess and smell from the clothes of a fisherman? A lucky few, like my grandmother O'Brien, had a hand pump connected to a well which eliminated the carrying of water. The women spent all day cleaning clothes.
Washing was just the beginning because clothes were hung on the line to dry, winter and summer, although lines often hung across the kitchen as well to take advantage of the wood stove. In Julia's case, a line across the wash house dried clothes during bad weather.
Ironing was a huge chore as well because clothes were high maintenance so as to look presentable. Women spent hours heating an iron on the stove to give the clothes that well-turned-out look.
Wash day was Monday and it affected the rest of the woman's day. The kitchen was the center of wash activity so space and time for cooking were unavailable. Women cooked extra food on Sunday so there were leftovers for wash day. The root vegetables from Sunday dinner usually appeared as hash, which meant everything was cut up in a frying pan and reheated. Some Newfoundlanders called the leftovers "couldn'ts" instead of hash, because they were the things you couldn't eat the previous day.
There was a time when our foremothers made soap as well. Sylvia remembers Julia making soap. Women took ashes from the stove and boiled them in water to get lye, which was combined with rendered animal fat. The soap making process was messy but necessary if you wanted soap to clean your clothes.
Today in many families, men and women wash the clothes. Two working adults in a family have made the automation of the washing and drying process essential. In our neighbourhood there are only a few clothes lines. Young parents do not have time to hang clothes outdoors. Nor do they iron much any more as perma press and wrinkle-free clothing are common.
Many families wash clothes every day or do multiple loads of washing and drying in one day as part of numerous other chores. Washing alone does not fill a person's day any more. Maintaining the clothing for a family is a big job for anyone but our foremothers did it without any of the modern conveniences. The little scrub board is a reminder of their hard work on wash day.