The Washerwoman’s Genes

July 26, 2006

A Washboard World

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 6:09 pm

Sometimes I get hunting-and-gathering fever. Googling some word or phrase of pertinence is often my cure. Recently I searched for washboard. Who knew? Several billion hits ensued, with lots of them new to me, despite my extensive searches for washerwoman and laundress.

Because the physical washboard is an antique, you wouldn’t expect much action. But washboard is also a metaphor: I had to go to Advanced Search and eliminate abs, stomach and belly; also, topology and geology, to cut out references to land formations that look like, well, a washboard.

And then there’s the music: bluegrass, country, folk, blues and also band, group, and festival had to go to prevent a hit parade of washboard music pages. In passing, I learned that not only are antique washboards in great demand as instruments, but these days new washboards are marketed for just that purpose.

Another, and not insignificant, use of washboards is in historical re-enactments. Whether military or cultural, re-enactments require a demonstration of how the humbler side of history went forward: how the wool was spun, the pigs roasted, the candles dipped, and the laundry scrubbed. There is at least one company that manufactures historically accurate colonial and civil-war-era washboards and tubs. They are carved of wood and burnished to a deep glow, more objects of art than folk craft, and they are pricey: washboards go for upwards of $90, and a tub can set you back $200 or more. (The small washbasin for only $160, or $110 with steel instead of sapling hoops, is on my birthday wish list. I could put plants in it—with a very protective liner of course—or use it to serve chips or bread.)

The search for washboard also turns up numerous depictions of washerwomen, ranging from artistic to comic—pages that often lack the actual term washerwoman and therefore were hidden from my previous searches.

Beyond products and pictures, googling washboard also brings up memoirs of home washing. These usually put a washboard in the hands of a housewife or servant, rather than a professional. Typically, the writers are people raised early in the twentieth century, often in rural areas, where old-fashioned ways persisted into what we think of as modern times. Hearing the voices of average folks set out the daily routines of long ago is touching—though their memories of endless washday rigamarole are larded with vehemence and humor.

I particularly enjoyed the memoir of Ruth O. Richards of Emmitsburg, MD. She recounts how “devastated” she was to discover, on moving with her husband to the town in 1940, that there was no washing machine in her house, rather only a wash tub with faucets over it–and the requisite washboard. Her solution was to send her laundry out, and her story conveys what it was like to be on the other side of the washerwoman transaction, to be the housewife paying another woman to take over her work. Of course, in the forties, her washerwoman had an electric washer, not a wash tub, but by today’s standards, the equipment was primitive: a machine which agitated the clothes in a tub hand-filled with hot water, adorned with a manually turned wringer on top.

In yet another metaphor, I discovered that people sometimes name their laundry business The Washboard. In fact, I was amazed to find the Rondout Washboard as a real estate listing in my results. Just off Route 9W in Kingston, the business is up for sale for a very reasonable 58K. A picture shows a small, houselike building with only the word Laundromat on the sign. 9W goes over the bridge from Rondout to Port Ewen, where my own ancestral washerwoman had her home-based business.

Perhaps the most unexpected place the search for washboard took me was to a “dream dictionary.” There I learned that

To see or use a washboard in your dream signifies embarrassment. You may be feeling emotionally and/or physically drained.

Dreaming of dirty laundry—of course. But as for the symbol: how many dreamers today, in a world of designer Maytags, ubiquitous cleaners, and indeed, laundromats, would have a washboard in their subconscious, ready for use in a dream?

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Sites in order of mention (all accessed July 25-26, 2006)

“Catalog,” Beaver Buckets Authentic Reproductions.

Richards, Ruth O., “The Mulberry Bush.”

“Rondout Washboard,” Century 21 Cherrytown Associates.

“Dictionary,” Dream Moods.


1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for sharing your research. I enjoyed it, and also your listing of sources. It’s going to save me precious time.

    Maybe few dreams these days are of washboards, etc., but am expecting to have a dream like that any day now. Here in Northern California, USA where the 49’er Gold Rush began in Coloma, there are Living History re-enactments of Pioneer days.

    This year’s California State Fair beginning next week, there will be an old wagon in the Agriculture area where trained volunteers will portray a family of pioneers living out of their wagon as they build their new home, till the soil for a garden, etc. On one of those days, I get to play “washerwoman”. Although I’ve done it before at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, it’s been a few years so need to “bone up” on the methods. I’ll only demo one day, but learned that sometimes after the wash is done, you can soak your feet in the tub! Not sure I’ll be doing that, but it’ll be a happy thought. Thanks again, now back to checking your appreciated sources. Grandma in Placerville, CA

    Comment by Mary Ann Jones — August 9, 2006 @ 10:58 pm |Reply

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