Childhood Home: The Wash House

As I was loading sheets into the washing machine this morning, I was reminded of my childhood home and the washhouse. Nowadays we would call it the laundry but names were simpler then. At our house, if you walked along the path from the back gate, you came to the back verandah. This was not a large area but big enough for a couple of cats and family members to sit there and remove wet or muddy footwear. On the right side was the kitchen door and directly behind the sitter was the washhouse door. On the wall beside it was a cage where Tweetie our neurotic yellow canary lived.

The washhouse was primitive by our standards today. Mum washed our sheets and towels in a large copper. Every Monday, she’d light a fire in the little grate under the copper before breakfast and run cold water into the copper. By the time we had eaten, the water was boiling and ready for the linen and soap to be added. Soap slivers were shaved from a bar of yellow soap. Next to the copper was a row of hooks for our jackets and raincoats. On one very exciting Monday the door to the little fireplace must have opened. Flames shot out to devour our coats and the fire brigade was called. My sister and I ate breakfast at a neighbour’s house. We had a good story to tell at school and were happy to get new raincoats.

When the linen had been boiled, Mum used a stout stick to pull it from the hot soapy water into the first tub for rinsing in cold water. There was a wringer between the two tubs to squeeze out the water. The second tub held water coloured with Reckitts Blue to keep the sheets and pillow slips white. Then the wringer was used again and the linen was ready to be hung on the rotary line in the back yard. How I miss hanging out my clothes in the fresh air. Dryers are not the same.

Since my mother as short, Dad built a little platform under the line for her to stand on and hang out the clothes comfortably. There is something very satisfying at regarding a line full of clean clothes flapping in the breeze. My daughter insisted on having a clothesline installed at her new house even though the builder grumbled that it spoiled the look of the side of the house. She obviously has kiwi genes.

Mum ironed on a table covered with an old blanket and sheet. I can’t remember people having ironing boards then. We’d come home from school and sit on the verandah to talk to her while she ironed. She drilled my sister in her times tables from that spot. My grandfather who lived with us bought her a commercial presser which she used sitting behind the table on her kitchen stool.

The linen was folded and placed in the linen cupboard inside the house at the end of the hall. Mum grew lavender which she dried and placed into little bags to scent our clothes in drawers and wardrobes. These stayed fragrant for years and she gave me some bags when I married to use in my house.

Doing the laundry was a lo of hard work before washing machines and dryers. My mother’s system seems really old fashioned and time consuming now but it was modern compared to the way pioneer women had to do laundry. No wonder clothes were not washed as soon as people undressed.

Next week, I will describe my childhood kitchen.