Laundry Day Blues

Laundry Day Blues – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – June 2012

By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell, The Halloween Queen®

After Eve was expelled from the Garden of Eden she was forced into doing all of the laundry. Every Monday she would trudge down to the lake and wash all of the fig leaves they had worn that week. She would scrub them against a piece of wood and there wasn’t a piece of soap to be had and that was no lye! Wash day was never easy until the invention of the washing machine and even then, with its perilous wringer, it wasn’t much fun. Today, many people enjoy decorating with the old soap powders, washboards, wringers, washing machines, irons, and advertising products.

Time, the most precious thing we have, according to Ben Franklin, was finally given to women to pursue other tasks and even for leisure because some of the scrubbing and washing chores became automated. No longer was water to be lugged, carried, heated, lifted, or wrung out of the clothing. No longer were clothes to be scrubbed on a wash board or starched. Who ever heard of clothing that did not need to be ironed? Ironing, using a heavy flat iron (heated on a hot stove), must have been great fun doing during the hot summer months. Times have changed and many of the products that were sold over the past hundred years no longer exist. The wealth of advertising these companies produced were interesting and well designed, and often artistic.

The idea was not only to instill the idea that “cleanliness was next to godliness” but also to make people identify with a particular brand and purchase it, because of its superior performance and stellar reputation for integrity. Today, integrity is the last thing one will find in most advertising. It is not to say that the truth wasn’t manipulated back then or that there wasn’t a lot of hokum and mistruths, but at least the commercials and advertising were not as offensive. Everyone couldn’t be 99.9% pure like Ivory soap!

The process was as follows: sort the clothes, wash them, put them through the wringer, starch them, put them through the wringer again, and hang them on the line to dry. After they dried, you would still have to iron and fold them. That included sheets, towels, underwear, and even the dusting rags! If your husband was a blue-collar worker his pants had to be taken out and shaken to make sure all the asbestos was off of them before they were washed. Then, the pants would have forms inserted into the legs, and hung to dry. Today, we throw everything into the electric washer with soap and softener. Presto! It is all done. Of course, some of us prefer to be “green” and are careful with what we use in the wash and then try (depending on the weather) to hang it on the line. The dryer consumes electricity but is much quicker. No one today worries about “ring around the collar” or dingy, gray washes that are not as bright and white as your neighbor’s. The washing machine gave women extra time to do other chores, keep a garden, can foods, or possibly take a job even if it was part-time. Those who want things to go back to the good old days when women didn’t have the vote and woolen and delicate items had to be done by hand, should pause for a moment, sell their car, and buy a horse and buggy!

Washday collectibles are in a way a symbol, a graphic history of the emancipation of women. Porcelain, tin, and cardboard signs were made to appeal to women as they are the major consumers of the products. The type of wooden or glass washboard you used to scrub the clothes might not have made a tremendous amount of difference in the amount of scrubbing you had to do. However, when you didn’t have to make your own lye soap over a boiling kettle and could purchase a box of powdered soap that had everything in it, that was progress.

Starch? Who uses starch today? When we do it can be sprayed out of a can and right onto the fabric. Ironing has become so much easier, too. Back then, you had to heat the iron on the wood stove and then carefully iron everything without leaving scorch marks on the material. If the iron was too hot or you left it on the material a few seconds too long, scorches were inevitable.

Posters, broadsides, and signs were everywhere telling you to buy specific products as if theirs was the only one that would whiten and brighten, clean, and make you the envy of your entire neighborhood. How times have changed. The drudgery of washday blues may have ebbed but what you were left with was a pleasant memory of an appealing, pretty, or even comical sign and the hope that you really were as brilliant as the ‘sparkling clean laundry’ they said you would have after purchasing the product.

Advertising has changed a lot since 1900, when you did your major shopping in a store the size of today’s ‘convenience’ stores. Before 1900 they gave you a free advertising trade card showing products available at the store with a pretty picture lithographed on the front. Post Civil War days were the heyday for everyone and their neighbor to sell products that they claimed to be incredible for reasons often left unjustified. This doesn’t seem too different from today; even when there are so many rules and regulations, there are just as many loop-holes. From the trade card, to the calendar, to radio and TV jingles, the evolution and stagnation of salesmanship is interesting. The advertising of an era reveals much about the times; often it is a large portion of the social history of the times. Today, it seems to convey more negative qualities. Modern advertising is often abrasive, loud, demeaning, sometimes threatening. It also says something about the likes and dislikes of the prejudices and mindset of the people who are being targeted to purchase a product.

Most people love cats. Anthropomorphic images of cats doing ‘people things’ have been popular for years, starting with Louis Wain, the most famous cat artist of all-time. Women were viewed as laborers and were often described in feline terms. In pre-suffrage times, women were the property of their husband or father and their wealth or property did not belong to them but was transferred to whoever was the dominant male in their lives. Women like Susan B. Anthony fought against this as being almost more important than the right to vote. If you had a drunken or sadistic husband they could spend all of your money, leaving you destitute. Or, they could send you to an insane asylum and therefore get rid of you. It was a very prevalent fact of life and not an isolated incident. Women were barely treated as more than slaves and depending on how low on the economic and social scale made a tremendous amount of difference.

Laundry day, showing a bunch of adorable well dressed cats slaving away was fun to look at (Thiele Cats postcard, $25) and a woman could enjoy seeing them at work but was also hoping that her washday could look as easy and enjoyable. Reality is a harsh mistress and fantasy often soothes the pain of rough chapped hands, aching backs, and tired legs. Of course the Swift’s Pride Soap and the washboard did most of the labor not the old woman in the shoe who had to do what she had to do. The Monday image (Crane postcard, $35) shows a happy mama bear scrubbing away in her clean white apron with her cub happily emulating mama. It was okay for Mother Eve to wash her and Adam’s fig leaf on that First Wash Day, but as more clothing came and so did children it was a very different story. (Mabel Lucie Atwell signed #799, $20) But what of real life? Life in caricature is not reality.

The Chinese were treated in this country worse than blacks, Native Americans, or any other ethnicity. They were not even considered human and were not allowed to own property. They opened laundries because menial work was all they were allowed to do and in many places where Caucasian males dominated the population they needed someone who was so low on the scale that they would perform one of the most hated tasks. One seldom sees cards with Chinese where they are not shown with a rat, which is what most people thought were their basic diet. Sounds like Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. The Tuck postcard was a valentine…now how romantic can you get? Servitude and for the times no woman had ever heard of a male doing such things but then how many Chinese did they know? This was not a card sent by anyone of that ethnic background.

Black women were usually portrayed as humongous in proportions and even with a new-fangled wringer washing machine they were just menials or household slaves. Women were not given more time for leisure; they were given more time to work other jobs, some of which were out of the home. Technology gave women more time to work more on other jobs. This was a boon for big business, especially factories.

World War I might have given us some of the best caricatures of all-time and a glimpse into life as the soldier knew it when they were not fighting the war. The English certainly had a grand time making fun of themselves and trying to make light hearted the cruelties of what they had to go through. Give ‘Em Socks (#3064 by Tuck, $12) shows Tommie’s scrubbing away with merriment. Certainly doing laundry beat being shot at, digging trenches, and having hand grenades thrown at them. Even the German soldiers helped with the laundry according to the Arthur Thiele depiction ($22). It made washday a pleasant experience when it was in a lovely pastoral setting such as an orchard and the women were so sweet and pretty. One large community vat to fraternize over; a bright spot in war!

Looking at some of the pin back buttons and mirrors one sees an attempt to show that certain products could ease the chores and lighten the burden. Perhaps one of the most famous of all-time is the Gold Dust Twins. The concept was that the soap would turn the children white. Of course, just like today, products and the flag were one and the same. Use the flag as part of your advertising and people are unpatriotic if they do not use your product. “Sunny Monday Bubbles will wash away your troubles.”

The “Sun Bonnet Baby” became a favorite of many so it is not surprising that she shows up on advertising. Sawyer’s Crystal Blue 1907 had been according to them the people’s choice for 50 years ($15).

The coupon and saving money became popular and Colgate-Palmolive sent out a government postal worth 20 cents so you could purchase their products. One of the most interesting items of laundry collectibles is the actual soap boxes. An exhibit of these is wonderful to see especially the variations as not only size and design but so often they had all types of premiums in them from tea towels and wash clothes to glasses and dishes. How times have changed.

Laundries such as the Brighton Laundry in Brooklyn, New York would prove to you that they could provide the brightest laundry you ever had or it would be free. With this double-sided fold over card you could get four shirts, or 10 pounds of laundry done for free. They claimed to have 30 years of experience. All you had to do was fill out the card and send it in and it was postage free! Times were changing and as women joined the work force and another unforgivable war occurred. Inner city people relied more on others doing their laundries.

A pair of photos of Williams Laundry and Dry Cleaning show a very happy driver and his delivery van. The horse and buggy had gone along with the washboard and scrub tub and the modern era had begun. Automation and technology have given us much and emancipated men as well as women and in many ways it has been liberating. Certainly it has given us some incredible signs and products that show the progression of both advertising and the beginning of the emancipation of women and acceptance of them as equals. We still speak of “Blue Mondays,” perhaps for a good reason. It is nice they are not quite as blue as they used to be and we can do the laundry whenever it needs to be done and is convenient for us.

To quote the great radio comic Fred Allen: “Duz [soap] doesn’t do everything…you have to use water.”

For more information, see Washday Collectibles, Schiffer Publishing.

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