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Times Past: Mystery of Laundry

LaundryStanding in the grocery aisle I stare helplessly at bright plastic containers labeled with biblical promises to remove my stains. Nearing the half century mark and I still have no idea how to do laundry properly.

Women’s work. Historically this is true. Soiled doves, the frontier prostitutes of mining camps often began their careers between the sheets by first washing them. A woman in need of money could always find work in a mining camp washing men’s union suits and socks. Even Sarah Shull, a competent accountant, had to find work as a laundress in the mining town of Denver, Colorado after Cobb McCanless was killed and she no longer had a benefactor. His widow certainly wasn’t going to take her in, dirty laundry as Sarah was to the family.

But this is not a historical reflection. Writer, Irene Waters, calls us to reflect on Times Past in our own lives. She asks if laundry is women’s work. This intriguing monthly prompt is a generational and geographical comparison. So let me state, I’m a Gen-Xer and I grew up in rural California.

My mother was the queen of the laundry. Why, I have puzzled all month until the point I can delay no more (or miss the chance to participate). As a child, my parents practiced the typical slave labor of ranching or farming families. The idea was to birth many hands to work the fields or cattle. My father changed it up a bit by only having one set of hands. Also, he traded his cowboy boots for logger’s corks and he bought my mother a store to run in a town of 99 people (for those of you who follow the flash fiction at Carrot Ranch, yes, I just realized the connection, too).

The store was an old mercantile built the same year as our house: 1861. It catered to winter skiers and summer campers, a true mountain tourist town. We lived summers in my father’s logging camps and I worked for the ranch that encircled our small town with summer pastures. I did everything as a kid — stacked cordwood, bagged ice, pushed cattle, cleaned dishes by hand, stocked shelves and fed our horses hay. But never was I tasked with laundry.

As far back as I recall we always had a modern washer and dryer. My mother did the laundry as if it were some homage to my father. His family was big on cleanliness and town clothes had to be spotless. My mother used liquids from various jugs to whip up some sort of cleaning cocktail of which she never revealed its secret. Thus my extenuating befuddlement regarding laundry.

No one ever taught me.

Thrust on my own, I had to use the laundromat with coin operated behemoths. I bought Tide because it’s what my mother used, but all the other ingredients seemed redundant to me. Of course, my clothes began to look dingy. Not that I was particular about that. I had children and discovered the dreaded laundry monster, an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes where items morphed like mold. Where did all those clothes come from? Never did I cater to my spouse the way my mother did. By the time my kids could reach the wash machine lid and understood the dryer wasn’t a carnival ride, my family was on their own!

To this day, I’m stumped buying laundry detergent, trying to figure out which ones will really set me free. Besides, I sneak my clothes into my husband’s loads. Woman’s work? Not if I can help it!


  1. Wow with the 99 people / 99 word connection. I think we had Tide. It’s got me thinking. These prompts of Irene’s are so interesting. I’ve loved reading them.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Funny how it came to me, that memory of “not quite 100.” I’m always curious to discover those odd subliminal links! I’m really enjoying Irene’s collection of data. πŸ˜‰

  2. Annecdotist says:

    Ha, you made it, and like Sarah I’m intrigued by the 99 word connection. I was really interested in the sex workers washing the sheets! I don’t understand the laundry aisle either, but I’ve got it fairly sussed: I go for which ever of the capsules are cheapest at the time. If they don’t shift the stains, at least it’s clean dirt!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Clean dirt and cheap capsules! I think that’s the way to go, Anne. There’s a great book that profiles sex workers in the mining camps and many did laundry, too. I guess that was the day job!

  3. TanGental says:

    I’m with you on laundry products. I know my mother, ever the snob, refused to use tide preferring daz, no idea why. And my first experiences of a machine were st uni where my whites became blues quite quickly when wrapped with jeans.

  4. Wonderful Charli. It is amazing the connections we find but they come with a lot of surprise when unexpectedly you realise them. I can understand how you feel. I am a few less than 2 weeks of 60 and my sister-in-law has been teaching me how to do the washing and how to fold the sheets. It is a trifle embarrassing but I was not taught either. Perhaps our mother’s were rebelling against the gender division and kept us out of the laundry (and in my case the kitchen as well).Tide obviously was in the UK as well as US but not in Australia. We used blue beads of bleach which I think was FAB when I was in high school. I have no idea what we used when I was in primary school. I think you managed your wash days perfectly with each family member taking control of their own wash. Part of my memoir completed is about our time at the General Store where we too did everything. Bagging ice holds many memories. Hopefully one day you will read it and tell me whether a general store in the States was much the same as one in Australia.
    Thanks Charli for participating and adding in your wonderful way with not only your own memoir but a bit of history as well.

    • My mother kept me away from laundry and the kitchen. I thought it was because she wanted to control everything. It felt that way. I’d never thought of it as her way of rebelling against the gender division. It’s a different perspective I certainly hadn’t thought of!

    • Charli Mills says:

      My SIL is a master of folding! I’m rather unenthusiastic to learn. πŸ™‚ Oh, I will look forward to reading about your General Store memories. We had an ice maker in the back I’d bag ice, load it in a cart and push it to a box container my parents bought one summer and put on our front lawn. I’d then load it with the bags. I’d think general stores fit their environment, what is deemed necessary. It will be interesting to read! I’m enjoying the results of your Times Past challenge!

      • Our ice maker only lasted our first Easter. We’d been told to have every freezer full of ice and we had some massive freezer space. We made ice to fill them over the few weeks prior to the holiday and it was gone in less than half a day. As our policy was not to ever be out of anything we made constant trips into town buying up what ice they had whilst we attempted to make more but the machine was so dashed slow that it didn’t happen quickly. Then we heard the complaints about our home made ice. It was like a tube with a hole in the middle instead of solid ice. It packed the bag full but mainly with air and consequently melted quickly. We resolved to not make ice and buy it in. Then we discovered that even the proffessional icemaker couldn’t keep up with the demand in peak times. By the time we left we had the situation sorted and plenty of ice .
        You are right – general stores respond to the community needs and these have changed over time.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I’m fascinated by all the troubles with ice! Who would have known?

  5. Maryann Warren says:

    I too never used the washing machine until I married and had one if my own! Laundry mysteries still abound. I did know how to hang clothes with little or no wrinkles when dry due my ironing duties! I enjoy your writing of the past and connecting it to the present.

    • Charli Mills says:

      I think there’s a secret code to solving stains and saving color! Ha! Sounds like ironing duties was a good teacher. I remember leaving the kids’ clothes on the line to long and they dried crisp. But I love that fresh air scent of sun-dried clothes. Thanks for reading! <3

  6. lbeth1950 says:

    I would try that but he crams everything,, from whites to bathroom rugs in same load in same massive load. It looks worse when it comes out. Reblogging

  7. lbeth1950 says:

    Reblogged this on Nutsrok and commented:

  8. olganm says:

    I live alone and I’m not very particular about laundry. I have my own method (one for all, let’s go) and although I’m sure there are cleverer ways to go about it, if somebody is really bothered about my clothes they are welcome to doing my washing!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ha! I like both your method and your attitude! I remember once chiding me for wrinkles in my blouse and I remember saying they could take it home and iron it for me. Thanks for joining the discussion!

  9. Lisa Reiter says:

    Already I want to edit my own entry – so keen was my mother to get us all trained.. Lights, darks, shaking out shirt – damn! I was drilled – she couldn’t wait to have us independent so she wasn’t doing it all!
    Great reflection and I LOVE that 99 connection ❀️

    • Charli Mills says:

      I was left happily untrained. I have a well-trained SIL who loves doing laundry. We had laundry monsters at the same time in life (our kids are the same ages, I had three, she had four and won both the birthing and laundry contests). I remember marveling at her prowess with detergents, machines and folding.

      That connection, so weird! In fact, I just went online to check the current population (it’s grown!) and this is what I found:

      “Markleeville is a tiny town located in the state of California. With a population of 199 people…” Even weirder, but I’m not expanding the constraint to match the current population. πŸ˜€

      • Lisa Reiter says:

        I think “happily” and “untrained” are the key here – especially when you read some of the other responses!
        And yep, 199 would change the parameters of your flash too much! Wouldn’t it be fun though to keep in with the population’s week by week births, deaths etc and have to respond accordingly! Xx

  10. My mother was Queen of Laundry. It had to be done just so, though I don’t recall any instruction. Didn’t do my own laundry till I left home around 21. Now if it’s not washable without special care, I throw it into the machine and it better not require ironing either. I do it cause I have to and anyway, one of my cats knows when the sheets are ready in the drier and beats me to the bed so she can dive into warm sheets. The other cat, a newcomer, learned to follow. Thank goodness they are short hair cats. πŸ˜€

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ah, warm sheets! Your cats know a good thing. Despite my best efforts to make the bed and strategically stack pillows to hide the edges of the comforter, both dogs manage to dig into bed every day. They’re short-hairs, too. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for sharing your memory, too!

  11. Sherri says:

    Charli, I love that you got this out by the skin of your horse’s hooves, lol! Only because I’m so glad I’m not the only one! Loved all the comments too. The 99 connection…that is something…! I remember Tide from living in California, but can’t remember if we had it growing up or not. I wrote about my grandmother’s pride in doing the laundry and the ironing, but thinking of it, although I ‘helped’ – played more like! – I don’t ever remember being given any proper instruction. Labels? What labels! I keep the whites separate from the darks and that’s it. And I’ve yet to find that perfect laundry detergent too. I would love to know what it was your mother used. Great post, love this piece of memoir from your childhood, and I know all about those mold growing piles…but I won’t say whose πŸ˜‰ πŸ™‚

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ha, ha! Now I know the feeling of waiting to gallop in after feeling stumped! My eldest turned out to be allergic to Tide which only complicated laundry matters. And labels? You mean those tags I cut off? I think I know why my whites are beige, gray or pastels. πŸ˜€

      • Sherri says:

        Yep, you do now! Oh no…allergies and cut off labels? Oh well…at least everything gets washed and clean, that’s the main thing! πŸ˜€

  12. Oliana says:

    This IS interesting!! My mom worked since I was born so she did washing with Tide but as soon as my sister and I were old enough, we did the ironing. I hated it, so I botched it by putting double pleats my dad`s dress shirts so he forbade to iron anything except his handkerchiefs…I did the same for my ex-husband, double crease on his pants and he did it himself. As for detergent, I bought what was on sale…period.

  13. Joyful2bee says:

    At 64 I still am trying to figure out which one cleans the best, prevents fuzz balls on certain materials, or removes odors best with cold water! I need to find an updated Consumer Report on this! Lol

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