A famous economist once said that the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet. His argument was that it, plus some other household appliances, freed women from the drudgery of housework, in particular freed them from the huge chore that was the weekly household wash. This enabled more of them to go out to work, play a more direct role in the economy, and enjoy more fulfilling lives. There was nothing fulfilling in the work that my mother put in, mainly on Sundays, in keeping all of us in clean clothes and bed linen. All done by hand, with no detergents or washing powders.

Dolly tub picture from Peter Halton. A bit smaller than I remember

Dolly tub picture from Peter Halton.
A bit smaller than I remember

Her Sunday started very early, lighting a fire under the boiler in the cellar. The only heating in the house was from coal fires, and so the water for the wash was heated this way. The wash would have been separated into coloureds and whites, and maybe put to soak overnight. The details that I have are hazy because I never got involved, so what I know comes mainly from being a spectator of the process.
There were two or three tubs, each about the size of a water butt, and the process began with the clothes going into a tub with hot soapy water. This was agitated, intermittently, for some time, with a long handled thing with a flat round attachment on the end. Most pictures show a three legged end to the agitator, but ours was a simple round attachment.
After a while, the clothes would be taken out and worked on by hand at a shallow sink that my mother called a slopstone, a word I can’t find in the dictionary. This involved scrubbing using a coarse scrubbing brush and a big block of plain soap. Shirt collars and cuffs would be scrubbed and the rest of the clothes would probably get dealt with on a washboard, a corrugated metal thing with a wooden frame. The clothes were rubbed hard up and down this to knock the dirt out.
Then into the rinsing tub (tubs? would one have been enough?). At some stage around here the whites would have been rinsed in water containing a dolly blue. This was a little bag of something that went into the rinse and whitened the clothes. Presumably the same stuff they put into present day detergents to give the “whiter than white” finish.
She never starched any clothes that I am aware of. Dad’s shirts were all the detached collar type, and these were of a fairly stiff material anyway, and presumably didn’t need starch. Nothing else that any of us wore needed starch.

Mangle. Picture from Mavis Pendleton

Picture from Mavis Pendleton

Finally the clothes went though the mangle. The only contribution I occasionally made to this process was to turn the handle of the mangle. As a small boy it was interesting to see how squeezing the clothes removed so much water, and I was happy to help. I have to say, though, that my interest declined with age.
Then the still damp clothes had to be hung up to dry. In summer on dry days they were hung on washing lines strung across the close behind the house. If the weather wasn’t being kind, they went onto a drying rack in the kitchen by the fire. This hung from the ceiling, but the clothes hung down to below head height, so the kitchen was an obstacle course. Any clothes that wouldn’t fit on the rack because it was full went on to a portable drying frame, a clothes horse, also in front of the fire, making it even more difficult to move around.
A damp clothing smell hung around for a long time, and even when they were dry, a lot of stuff stayed on the clothes rack as a convenient place to keep them.

The whole process took from about 7.30 in the morning, the lighting of the fire, to around mid afternoon sometime. There was a break from the washing late morning, but that was only to make Sunday dinner for us all. I can’t imagine that my mother looked forward to Sundays at all, it was a long way from a day of rest.

Clothes drying rack

Clothes drying rack

It was hard work and heavy labour. Shifting wet sheets and such from tub to sink to tub must have been back breaking. And hands in hot soapy water for the best part of a day couldn’t have done much for her skin. And while it’s true that we didn’t change our outer clothes as often as we now do, the family wash on a Sunday morning must have made an impressive pile.
And where were the men of the house? Well dad worked shifts at Gorton Tank, and was often away at work or about to go to work. If he was on one of his days off, he might have gone to the Locomotive Working Men’s club for a couple of lunchtime pints, and we boys were not expected to contribute, and in truth would have been no help at all.
Getting back to the original statement about the liberating consequences of the washing machine, looking after a house and family was a full time job, with very little in the way of household automation and no convenience foods. Few married women worked at jobs outside the home, and this was the accepted arrangement, men went to work, and women did the housework, so men were not expected to contribute in the house. And they didn’t.

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  1. My mam and aunt used to go the Wash-house next to Crossley’s Lads Club every Thursday night after work, with all their washing in pillowcases piled up in my old pram.

  2. Thanks, Helen.
    I’d forgotten about the bread making–it wasn’t a regular in our house, but occasionally mother got out a very large baking crock and mixed the dough in it and put it in front of the open fire, rotating it from time to time to even the rise.
    Shopping was frequent, I think trips to the shops were treated as a social event to some extent, and as we had no fridge or larder, going over the canal bridge to the shops was almost a daily chore.
    It was a very physical life in those days, before widespread car ownership, and with loads of shops close by. Kept us all healthy, I suppose.

  3. Hi Derek, What a treat to read your comments of by gone days. Your house sounded just like double of my Nans and my Mums, except that the washing was always done on a Monday. Ironing, on a Tuesday, downstairs on a Wednesday, bedrooms on Thursday, Baking with bread making on Friday, Saturday was shopping day and Sunday going to Sunday Church. Talk about organised! I can’t imagine anything ever changing Nans strict routine. It was also interesting to read about the Ironing Press. Nan and Mum used flat irons and Mum never lost the habit of banging the iron down on the clothes as she ironed. As a child I always knew when Mum was ironing and I was in bed, because, even though she had been using an electric iron for years you’d still hear ” the bump bump” as she ironed!

  4. Hi Derek, It was just a large chunk of iron shaped like an electric iron of today. It was heated on a stand in front of the fire. Mother had a wet / dry cloth which she put on the clothes to keep them clean before the iron. The pressure came from stamping it down with a bang. (same as in Dr Zhivago scene) My mother made clothes and it gave trousers a crease or pleats in dresses.

  5. We used a Posser which was a copper dome with holes in it on the end of the stick. Mum used to press the clothes with it in the tub and the water squeezed through and agitated it.
    I can well remember the sound of the ironing press which was heated by the fire. Thinking about it reminds me of Dr Zhivago and Laura doing the ironing on the battle field.

    • John, I don’t know what an ironing press is. It sounds like something that presses large items in one go?

  6. All of the above is a copy of our house. The long handle with a round base was called a Ponch and I had to ponch the clothes in the tub the use the mangle. I have had a finger caught in the mangle a few times. And yes we also had the drying rack hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen. Just 2 up and 2 down at 14 Barn Street Higher Openshaw.
    What a difference today, i moved to Australia in 1975 and at 70 years old I spend my time traveling the Australian outback doing bird photography. I have a Toyota Land cruiser Troop Carrier and sleep in the back of it and just enjoy my travels. Have a look at my web-site
    and have a look at what I get up to. I was at St Clements Svhool and worked at B & S Massey in the 60s

  7. How very true is this article, we were lucky in that there was only the three of us so how the women with big families managed god alone knows

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