September 20, 2014

Clotheslines Bring Back Pleasant Memories

I’m not old enough to remember the time when a clothesline was the most common way to dry the week’s washing, and I don’t plan to give up the convenience of my washer and dryer, but I do use a rack outside on my deck to dry delicate clothes.  Preserving energy (and fragile fabrics) is one reason to use a clothesline, but as Jacques Kelly at the BaltimoreSun.com will tell you, there are others.

When will the green movement embrace the outdoor clothesline that stretched along so many of Baltimore’s backyards and alleys? Last week, I arrived home with bags of laundry from 14 days at the beach. After about an hour in my gas dryer, when a beach towel refused to dry, I declared the appliance all but dead.

No panic. I could, after all, handle the situation the way my mother did. Hang it outside to dry. Hang everything outside. Look, for the past few weeks we enjoyed sunny days with low humidity. Let the sun – not my natural gas supplier – do the work.

I have never owned a house with proper outdoor clotheslines. But I needed something to wear and figured I could improvise something with the help of poles that support my side porch awning. Before long, I had a dozens shirts and several towels out. In the hot afternoon sun, they dried as fast as the would have in my gas-fired dryer. I didn’t have to use fabric softener, and the clothes came inside with a clean, fresh smell.

My mother always claimed that doing laundry calmed her nerves. I can see her point. She never gave up on the sun and often swore that in the household art of spot and stain removal, there were few blots the sun’s rays could not lift.

She actually transported clothes from Baltimore to her summertime beach apartment, where she believed the sun would be more intense.

The laundry facilities in the old house – still there, still working – consisted of the well-used Kenmore washer and a pair of soapstone laundry tubs. There was also a ribbed washboard, scrubbing brush and an ample supply of homemade bars of super-tough laundry soap, which by family tradition was the secret agent for stain removal. That laundry soap was full of rendered fat and lye – all made atop the kitchen stove one flight up.

Grass stains, dirt and other annoyances were given a rigorous scrubbing with the lye soap and bristle brushes on the washboard. Oh, yes, we also used commercial soap powder, but we employed it sparingly.

We had two sets of laundry lines – one inside and another out. The inside set, strung along the cellar’s length, was used on rainy days or times when the temperature dropped below freezing.

The outside lines had to be strung on the days when clothes were put out to dry. They stretched across the length of our little garden and had to be supported with wooden props so the weight of the wet linen (bed sheets were the worst) would not pull everything down.

Baltimore once earned a nice reputation as having block after block of scrubbed marble steps. I often thought this was only half the story. You needed to check the backs of these houses on wash day.

In the days before the mechanical dryer was the household norm, brilliant, white sheets and pillowcases caught the breezes of Canton and Highlandtown. They resembled billowing sails.

I often wondered as I walked along these alleys if the launderers owned dryers or just believed in the sun’s power and refused to change their ways.