How do you wash and iron? Do you find these tasks tiresome? Spare a thought for your mother or grandmother in the 1950s.
Washing and ironing prior to the 1950s were time-consuming, labour-intensive chores for most Australian households. These tasks were almost always performed by women. Typically they set aside a couple of days each week (Monday and Tuesday) to wash and iron for the family. The following advertisement, published in 1950, was meant to attract such women.
During the 1950s, acquisition of “modern” appliances helped bring about changes to many long-established laundry practices and traditions for some Australian families. For others, little changed, at least not until the 1960s.
To illustrate, I’m going to take you to two different 1950s settings.
The first is that of my immediate family. As a child, I lived with my parents and brother in a post-war progressive Queensland provincial city. Our home was supplied with electricity, sewerage and town water.
The second is that of my grandmother, uncles and aunts. They lived in a small town in country Queensland. Their homes had no electricity supply, no sewerage and their water supply was rainwater stored in galvanized iron tanks.
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#1: My family home, in the city, late 1950s
It’s Friday night. My mother is in the laundry, preparing for tomorrow morning’s wash.
Mum’s sorting our family’s dirty clothes into piles: whites, colours and those that need soaking or hand-washing. She’s tired. I can tell. She’s sighing a lot. My mother’s been at work all week, helping my father run the family business.
Our laundry is a fairly large, well-equipped room. It’s located between the kitchen and bathroom of our lowset 1940s dwelling. On one side of the room, just inside the back door, there’s a set of three concrete tubs and hot and cold water on tap. A small washing machine stands next to the tubs.
On the other side of the room, there’s a wooden ironing board covered with a folded blanket, hinged and (when not in use) fastened to the wall. A large wicker clothes basket with a flip-top lid stands beside it. Next, in the corner of the room, my mother stores her brooms, mop and electric vacuum cleaner.
Saturday dawns fine and sunny. It’s a perfect washday.
Mum gets the washing machine ready. It’s a 1950s model Hoover Hand Wringer Washing Machine with a small stainless steel tub and side agitator, tiny hand wringer and aluminium tray. The tray serves as a lid when the machine is not in use.
(I’ve learnt since that this machine was dubbed the “Poor Man’s Washing Machine”, because of its price and affordability.)
I watch as Mum fills the washing machine tub with water, via a hose attached first to the cold water tap then the hot water tap. Before putting in the first load of clothes (whites), she adds a measure of Rinso washing powder. Once switched on, the machine does its work by a simple tumbling action.
My mother fills the concrete tubs with cold water. Here she will rinse the clothes once they are washed. Twice. Mum lets me help by squeezing and jiggling a Reckitt’s blue bag in the water in the third tub. It will be used for the whites’ final rinse. Mum explains, “The blue water makes the whites even whiter.”
It’s plain to me that doing the weekly wash is a wet, messy, long-drawn-out business. It takes hours.
Mum uses the tiny wringer on the Hoover machine to squeeze water from the wet clothes. I think this is the hardest part of my mother’s washday routine. She puts the clothes through the wringer as she transfers them from the machine to the first rinse tub, from one rinse tub to the other, and finally to the clothes basket.
I notice Mum wrings some items by hand. She says these are either too bulky or too delicate to put through the wringer. After washing, rinsing and wringing the clothes, my mother takes them to the clothesline to dry.
The day is warm and sunny, so it’s a good drying day.
We have a large rotary Hills hoist in the middle of our backyard. It’s used not only as our family’s clothesline, but also as a plaything by my brother and his friends. Of course, my parents put a stop to my brother’s and his friends’ antics (swinging on the hoist’s rotating arms) when they discovered the arms were bent and the hoist was seriously lopsided!
Mum uses wooden Dolly pegs to attach the clothes to the clothesline. She hangs them in this manner: sheets and towels on the outside lines, smaller garments on the inside. It’s very orderly. She pegs all the same kind of garments (such as shirts, singlets, underpants, socks) together, side by side. I hand my mother the pegs from the cloth peg bag. I’m not tall enough to reach the clothesline, so I can’t help by pegging the clothes to the line. “When I’m older I’ll be able to do this,” I think to myself.
When the clothes are dry, my mother “brings them in”. She sorts them into two piles – folding and ironing. Mum teaches me how to fold towels, singlets, underpants and socks. Clothes that need ironing she puts aside for another day.
It’s Sunday afternoon. Mum is getting ready to iron tonight.
My mother has to iron my brother’s and my school uniforms because we need them tomorrow. She’ll do some of the family’s ironing tonight. Mum has to go to work tomorrow (she works Monday to Friday), so she’ll do the rest of the ironing another night during the week.
Mum is doing the “dampening down”, as she calls it. She dampens clothes before ironing them. She lays each item flat on the kitchen table, then sprinkles each one lightly with water by hand, from a bowl. After dampening a number of items, my mother rolls them together to form a tight bundle and stores the bundle in an air-tight space (such as the empty washing machine tub) for an hour or so. By the time she finishes, there are numerous bundles. Clothes that are dampened and stored in this way iron easily and look terrific when pressed.
I’ve noticed there are some clothes my mother doesn’t dampen. For example, she doesn’t dampen my father’s woollen trousers or her lace-trimmed dresses. Instead she places a damp “pressing cloth” over the garment when she irons it. The pressing cloth – a large square of clean white cotton fabric – is an indispensable tool in my mother’s laundry.
Mum starches some items before ironing them. For example, she starches linen doilies, our school uniforms and the collars of my father’s cotton shirts. Mum says the starch makes the fabric stiff and helps it stay crisp and smooth when ironed. She uses Silver Star Starch.
Our family owns a Hotpoint De-Luxe Featherweight Electric Iron.
It’s small, lightweight and has “automatic” heat control. An adjustable dial allows you to choose the correct temperature for different fabric types. Mum says she is happy with this iron, adding: “It does a good job – it’s all that I want from an iron.” According to the manufacturer, using this iron saves 20 minutes in every ironing hour!
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#2: My relatives’ homes, in the country, late 1950s
I’m on school holidays and staying with my grandmother (“Nan”). She lives in a small Queensland country town. Uncle Harold and Auntie Dulcie live in the house next door. For as long as I can remember, I’ve visited them with my parents and brother. Now I am older, I’m allowed to come on my own.
Life here is so different from what I am used to in the city.
There is no electricity supply, so my country relatives “make do” in other ways. They use 32-volt generators to provide lighting in their homes at night. To keep food cold, they use kerosene-fuelled refrigerators. They have wood-fired combustion stoves for cooking and heating. (Read Kentish Cake and Slice of History, May 21, 2016.)
My grandmother and uncle and aunt wash and iron in the same ways they’ve followed for decades. As a “city kid”, I find their laundry practices a novelty.
They iron using old-fashioned Mrs Potts’ irons.
Mrs Potts’ Sad Irons, which come as a set of three, are solid, heavy and have a detachable wooden handle. To heat the irons, they are placed on a hot combustion stovetop. The irons must be changed regularly to ensure the one in use is hot. Unlike my mother’s iron, these irons have no adjustable temperature control!
Unlike my mother, my grandmother has no ironing board. Instead, she uses the kitchen table, placing a thick woollen blanket covered with a white cotton cloth on the table and fastening it with large safety pins.
My country relatives use a “copper” to wash their clothes.
The copper is a large copper-lined cast iron pot with a lid. It is filled with water, which is heated by a fire lit underneath the pot. Nan’s copper sits on a three-legged iron stand; my uncle and aunt’s copper rests on a brick base. The coppers are located outside, in their backyards.
Today is a typical washday for my uncle and aunt.
I’m an inquisitive eight year old, so I’ve come to watch what they do. My uncle and aunt have no children of their own, so they love having me around. (Read Auntie Dulcie and the Bung-in Cake, April 14, 2016.)
Uncle Harold tells me he got up early, filled the copper with water (via a long hose from the nearest tank) and chopped wood for the fire. I watch as he lights the fire under the copper. I’m surprised to learn that he helps my aunt do the washing. I’ve rarely seen my father helping with the washing.
Auntie Dulcie collects and sorts the dirty clothes. First, she sets aside clothes that need soaking or scrubbing. Next, she separates whites from colours (as my mother does) and items for the copper from the hand-washing. She tells me that cotton garments, sheets, tablecloths and towels can be safely boiled in the copper, but those made of fine cotton, silk or wool, or with embroidery or lace, have to be hand-washed.
The copper is ready to use when the water comes to the boil.
Before adding the first load of whites, my uncle cuts small pieces of soap from a bar of pure Sunlight soap and adds them to the boiling water. He uses a long wooden stick to immerse the clothes in the hot soapy water. He stands by the copper, stirring its simmering contents from time to time until they are ready to be extracted.
After about 15 minutes, Uncle Harold removes the steaming clothes from the copper. He takes great care. “I’ll be in big trouble if I drop any of these on the ground!” he says with a grin. He places them in a metal tub to cool a little before carrying the tub to the laundry. Here, Auntie Dulcie rinses them a couple of times in cold water, finishing with the obligatory blue water rinse. I say, “My mum does that too.” She smiles and nods, knowingly.
Their laundry and laundry equipment is very basic.
My uncle and aunt have a highset house, so their “laundry” is located under the house. The laundry has no walls – it’s an open space with a concrete floor. Besides the outside copper, their laundry equipment comprises a set of three fixed concrete tubs (like my mother’s), cold water on tap, metal buckets, two large circular galvanized metal tubs, cane basket, wash board and scrubbing brushes, mechanical wringer (mangle) and wooden clothes trolley. The laundry is furnished with a small wooden table and cupboard.
Once all boilable clothes are “washed” in the copper, my uncle uses a bucket to transfer the hot soapy water from the copper to one of the concrete laundry tubs. By adding just the right amount of cold water, my aunt can use the warm soapy water to wash the rest of the clothes by hand. After she washes, rinses and puts the clothes through the mangle, she places them in the wooden clothes trolley, for wheeling to the clothesline.
Their clothesline is not at all like my family’s.
Instead of a rotary hoist, their clothesline consists of four lengths of galvanized wire, extending almost the entire length of their backyard. The wires are strung between two fixed wooden posts with cross-arms. As the wet washing is loaded on the lines, the lines begin to sag. The problem is easily solved: My uncle props up the lines using one or two long forked saplings, which he positions strategically at various points along the wires.
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What changes came about in the 1960s?
By the mid-1960s, my parents replaced their small 1950s Hoover washing machine with a new Hoover product.
They purchased a Hoovermatic Twin Tub Washing Machine. For my mother, this new semi-automatic top loading machine drastically changed the way she did the family wash. It was a God-send. There was no wringer or need for handwringing. The Hoovermatic Twin Tub (as its name suggests) consisted of two tubs: the left side tub for washing and the right side tub for spinning and rinsing. No rinse tubs were needed.
The new machine was both efficient and economical. You had to be present to fill (and top up) the wash tub with water, transfer clothes from the left to the right tub for spinning and rinsing, and fill the right tub for rinsing. However, the wash, rinse and spin cycles were very quick and my mother was able to wash, rinse and spin clothes at the same time. It made washday less demanding. Water-wise, the process used very little water and the water from the spinner could be re-used.
I loved using Mum’s Hoovermatic Twin Tub washing machine. So much so, I purchased one (a later model of course) when I married and my husband and I set up our own home in the mid-1970s. It served us well for the first 10 years of our married life! Oh, how well it cleaned all those cloth nappies!
In the mid-1960s, my mother bought herself a new iron.
The new iron, a General Electric Steam-and-Dry Iron, made ironing so much quicker and easier. There was no need to dampen or starch clothes. The steam-and-dry iron heated up rapidly and, after you added water, it was soon ready to use. According to the manufacturer, it had 39 steam holes! You pressed a button on the top of the iron to produce a shot of steam if you needed it. The iron had “automatic” temperature control (you set the temperature for a particular fabric type by moving a dial) and it could be used as either a steam or dry iron. Mum still used her pressing cloth for some garments, but for many it was no longer needed.
In the 1960s, I helped Mum do the family’s ironing. From the age of 10 or 11, I ironed simple things like handkerchiefs, tea towels and pillowcases using Mum’s Hotpoint iron. By the mid-1960s, I was able to iron anything – shirts, blouses, skirts, pants – and I readily adapted to using the new iron. The steam-and-dry iron was a pleasure to use. Believe it or not, I liked ironing! And I still do! (I can hear my daughter sighing as she reads this!)
During the 1960s, even my country relatives acquired the latest “modern” laundry appliances.
Uncle Harold and Auntie Dulcie bought an electric Simpson Roll Stop Washing Machine. The machine consisted of one large cylindrical wash tub, central agitator and top wringer. It was modified to operate via their 32 volt generator. They also purchased an electric iron (I don’t recall the brand), similarly adapted for 32 volt usage.
I’m not sure when my grandmother acquired an electric (32 volt) washing machine, but I know she had one by the late 1960s. But she didn’t replace her iron(s). Nan lived until she was 94 (she died in 1981) and I don’t think she ever dispensed with her Mrs Potts’ irons.
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So, how do we wash and iron today?
Technological advances in the 21st century have revolutionized how most people wash and iron today. For example, my husband and I own a fully automatic electric washing machine, electric clothes dryer and fully automatic (self-regulating) steam iron. With these appliances, we do not find washing and ironing time-consuming or arduous. Moreover, my husband and I share these tasks (as well as pegging the clothes on the outside clothesline to dry when the weather is fine and sunny), which also lessens the workload.
When I recall how my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts washed and ironed their clothes in the 1950s, I am convinced our lot (today) is a breeze.
What about you? How do your washing and ironing practices compare with those of your mother or grandmother (or other family members) in the 1950s? How much better off are you today?
In sourcing images for this story, I was assisted by Mr Ian Hobbs, of the Tamworth Powerstation Museum. Ian went out of his way to help me, providing many suitable images from the museum’s large collection of washing machines and irons. Thank you, Ian, and the Tamworth Powerstation Museum.