Monday, October 09, 2006

Cleanliness is next to godliness


I didn't write this, and don't know who did -- I got it as an email forward. It stirred up a lot of memories, though.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness is an adage that you don't hear much today. Almost everyone unconsciously has cleanliness high on their list of priorities. However, cleanliness was not so easy to achieve in generations past. Whoever did the wash, women and Chinamen mostly, can thank Nikola Tesla for inventing the generator that produced AC...transmittable electricity, which took the worst of the drudgery out of washing and ironing clothes.

Before electricity became commercially viable circa 1915, wash days were real bummers. Water had to be heated on the stove, and poured into wash tubs to mix with cold water...too much and you were in hot water, too little, and dirt persisted. Some homes had cisterns; underground brick and mortar tanks which held runoff rainwater, which was soft water that dissolved dirt faster and better when the washer woman, usually the mother or older daughters, scrubbed them by rubbing them up and down on a scrub or wash board after soaping them with a bar of home made lye soap. The small cistern pump was an innovation and when some one thought of putting it in the wash room which some other innovator thought up, labor was saved and Mondays made easier.

Washing for the family was such an ordeal that Mondays were designated wash days, the original bad hair days...don't mess with Mama on Monday. Clothes lines were outdoors, and in the winter the clothes froze. If they were gray or still dirty, you didn't hang your dingy clothes on the line for the neighbors to see. Hanging and taking down the clothes could be done by anyone...even boys. On rainy days, if the family was lucky, they hung in the basement...unlucky, the kitchen or anywhere in the house where there was room. Needless to say, in some families, clothes were worn longer and dirtier than today.

On Tuesday, there was ironing to be done, after sheets, pillowcases, shirts, dresses, pants, even handkerchiefs had been sprinkled and rolled on Monday night. They were first ironed with flat irons heated on the wood stove, and the temperature tested by the ironer touching it with a saliva moistened finger. Ouch? Too hot and the clothes were burned, too cool and wrinkles persisted.

For many farm families, with no electricity, these days lasted until the 1940s and even later.

Yankee ingenuity was always at work trying to make these jobs easier, and the person doing the dirty work...happier, or a least less harried. Many innovations plugged away at it, including washing machines, which had a reciprocating washboard, called an agitator in the center which was turned back and forth by a handle which was a lever attached outside the machine and thus dispensing, with the scrub or wash board. Wringers consisted of two rubber rollers held fast in a frame which were turned by an attached handle. Clothes were fed and drawn into them and the water was squeezed out as they passed through, thus saving the effort of hand wringing (hence the warning to amply endowed women).

Cleanliness was not a fun enterprise. Those who could afford it, hired help. Those who couldn't or didn't, found incentives to inculcate it as a rewarding thing to do. Godliness was the carrot and the fear of the neighbors gossip was a stick, but there was also the reward of looking and smelling nice and feeling good. Frumpy was not good. Body odor was not good. Pride was a motivator. Scrubbed clean and in clean, starched, unwrinkled clothes, kids were a source of pride.

After electricity took much of the labor out of heating, washing and wringing, innovations were accelerated, as wage earner husbands wanted to please, and although it just occurred to me, and I have no verification other than the obvious, I suspect that Mondays begat Monday nights and the phrase, I'm too tired. Whatever, whole industries arose that catered to making cleanliness easier. Scores of irons evolved, always toward making them lighter and more efficient. The steam iron was a biggie. Then wash and wear and permanent press liberated moms somewhat.

In our home town, the Dexter Washing Machine Co. came out with a sure winner: a double tub machine, and clothes were washed twice and rinsed twice in rinse tubs. When the automatic washer was invented, Mondays lost much of their negativity. With dryers and electronic controls washing became still easier, and cleanliness had become an unconsciously accepted central part of our lives. Every supermarket has aisles full of soaps, softeners, bleaches, spot removers, etc. The man who thought up the dryer sheet is now a millionaire several time over.

However, all that is prologue for the central message of this essay. Our generation was raised by mothers and fathers who had seen the worst of the drudgery of washing and ironing. Relatively few women were employed outside of the home. Our fathers did their best to provide our mothers with the latest labor saving devices. Women were proud of their double tubs, steam irons, and water heaters, many of which were bought during the depression when money was very scarce. You might say they were expressions of love and concern for their wives. There could have been other motivations, but lets stick with love and concern.

So, when kids, especially girls, saw their mothers with the latest labor saver, they saw happier mothers and evidence of a good father was imprinted also. Mothers on the other hand, found it helpful to have compliant daughters. Besides doing the dirty work, it was their job to shape their daughters' attitudes. Many hands make light work, they said, and added the mantra: Cleanliness is next to godliness. They even let their small four or five year olds help iron and wash out undies...starting them out on handkerchiefs and progressing to white shirts, the hardest.

They admonished, showed by example and the wisest sang a cheerful tune, knowing that, among other things, their daughters' family's cleanliness and reputation depended somewhat on her. So, it was a lucky girl who grew up washing clothes with her mother on Mondays and ironing them on Tuesdays, and who never hung dirty laundry, real or metaphorical, out to dry.

You who take cleanliness and neatness for granted because laundry does not steal your Mondays and Tuesdays, and because cleanliness seems good, might thank your lucky stars that your great grandmama was an excellent teacher, and that your grandma, and mama were imprinted with such lessons. Last but not least, you might consider and realize that when your grandmother was washing those clothes and especially when she was ironing them when your parents were kids, she loved doing for her kids, and she loved seeing them looking good, and I suspect that she loved thinking about them as she ironed their clothes, some of which she or her mother had hand made.

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward. - Margaret Fairless Barber

1 comment:

Lily said...

Also, lack of cleanliness leads to typhoid! :-(