Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

If In Doubt, Use The Wash Pot - For Fun!

by Norris Chambers

wash pot

   We don't think much about getting our clothes clean in these modern times. We either take it by the cleaners, put it in the laundry bag or wash things as we need them in a modern automatic machine and a dryer. It is a chore - but it is a simple one that does not require much time.

  This has not always been the case. During most of the thirties, and prior to that, keeping the family's clothes reasonably clean was a very important and trying operation.

  One day of the week was usually designated as "WASH DAY." and most of that day was devoted to that task. In the country, this day was Saturday or Monday. Those who chose Saturday usually lived so far from town that they just stayed home and washed. Those who lived closer, went to the village on Saturday afternoon and did their washing on Monday.

  The most important part of the washing equipment was an old black pot, about eighteen inches in diameter and rounded on the bottom. It held about 20 gallons. There were three short, evenly spaced protrusions on the bottom which held the pot upright when these were pushed into buggy hubs or short pieces of 1" pipe. If neither was available, a rock under each leg served the purpose nicely.

  There were also two iron loop handles cast with the pot, one on each side. These could be used with a chain or cable and the pot hung or hoisted. Ordinarily these were not used on the farm. This container was appropriately called a "wash pot."

  In addition to the pot, there were two or three galvanized steel tubs, also aptly named "wash tubs." The tubs were placed on a bench side by side. The first one on the left was the actual washing tub and the other two were rinse tubs. The "rub board" was the only tool used. Of course most people have seen the old rub boards - a corrugated metal surface mounted in a wooden frame. When the clothes were rubbed up and down over this surface, with a generous sudsing with lye soap, they eventually were reasonably clean. If they were not clean, at least they were disinfected.

  The pot was filled with water, and a wood fire was kindled all around and under it. Before too long, the water was near the boiling point, and was carried to the first tub in buckets. Enough hot water was left in the pot to make up a soapy solution. The dirtier clothes were thrown in and punched up and down for a long time in the hot soapy water before being transferred to the first tub. At the first tub, all clothes were rubbed up and down many times and with considerable pressure on the rub board. The water was then twisted out into the tub and they were thrown into the first tub of rinse water. Here, they were agitated thoroughly to remove the soap, and were twisted again to get them as dry as possible. If only one rinse tub was used, they were taken to a "clothes line" and straightened out and hung to dry. This is where clothes pins came in handy. If no clothes pins were available, they were usually laid across "barbed wire" fences. Those using two rinse tubs ran them through the third tub, removing even more of the soap and dirt. If only one tub was used, the water had to be changed regularly to keep it clean enough to do the rinsing. This twisting process was called "wringing." Twisting a chicken's neck to kill it was also called "wringing its neck."

  This process was repeated several times, starting with the light colored and less soiled clothes. With a large family, it was necessary to heat several pots of water and change the tubs regularly.

  The last tub often contained "blueing." This was a blue solution that caused white clothes to come out of the rinse whiter. There was also a large pan or small tub containing "starch." Saturating the clothes in this last solution caused them to become stiff when they dried, and made ironing easier and more effective. Starch might only be applied to the collar and cuffs of shirts, and to certain parts of ladies' attire. Bonnet brims were always starched.

  After washing and gathering in the dry clothes, another tedious chore began. Ironing was done with two "smoothing irons." These were heavy iron implements shaped like an arrow tip - pointed on one end and square on the other. They had a metal handle that was usually cast with the iron when it was made. Since the handle was steel, it was almost as hot as the ironing surface. The operator used quilted pads, or rags, known as "ironing pads." The irons were placed on the top of the cook stove, which had a smooth top that got pretty hot. The temperature of the iron wash checked by moistening the end of a finger and touching it quickly. If it sizzled, it was hot enough. When one got too cold to use, it was exchanged with the other and left on the stove. Of course all the clothes had to be folded, separated and placed in the appropriate clean clothes spot.

  Clothes were referred to as Sunday, First Fiber, Second Fiber, Third Fiber and work clothes. Of course the Sunday clothes were worn only to church or funerals. First Fibers were town, party and general going duds. Second and Third Fiber were used for general visiting and gallivanting. Shoes fit into the same category. There were Sunday shoes, knock-about shoes and work shoes.

  When the weather was warm, kids didn't wear shoes. When school started in the fall, bare-foot was common until about the time of the first frost. Then when spring came, off came the shoes. Many boys went bare-foot even to the ninth grade. In those days, there were only eleven grades and no kindergarten. A high school education then only took eleven years. Now it is thirteen or more.

  Of course school teachers were only required to have one term of college. Most teachers continued to go to college in the summers until they obtained a degree.

  But to get back to wash pots - they were also used to make soap. All country folks made their own soap from lye and fat. Since hogs were the staple meat, and hogs produce much fat, there was always an abundance of lye soap. Lye came in a small can, and was inexpensive, even for money-scarce settlers. A few eggs or a bucket of sour cream could be traded for such necessities.

  The pot was often used to heat bath water for the Saturday night scrubbing of people. A smaller family might get by with one or more large kettles on the cook stove. The No. 3 wash tub made an adequate bath tub. Tubs were numbered 1, 2 and 3 according to size. You could put ten or twelve gallons of water in a No. 3 and have a little room left to splash.

  The house floors had to be scrubbed, and the same soap and hot water was also used for that. When slaughtering hogs, which was something that started with the first cold spell in the winter and continued as long as necessary, a lot of hot water was required. The old black water heater was employed for this, also.

  The wash pot has been used for soaking grain to feed hogs, squashing grapes to make wine and cooking various vegetables before canning.

  When we were quite young, Clifton and I threw a handful of shot gun shells into the fire under a wash pot. It sounded like World War I had reopened for a few seconds. Clifton's mother got hit on the leg with a flying shell. She thought she was shot. But it is interesting to note that when a shotgun shell in put in a fire, ordinarily the shot will remain and the shell will be hurled out of the fire. Needless to say, we were in deep trouble! We were also guilty of firing a shotgun straight up in the air, and one of the lead pellets made a hole in by brother's hat brim. More trouble!

  We got our first gasoline powered washing machine in 1931. It was still in use as late as 1950. With this machine, the hot water and tubs was still required, but the rubbing and wringing labor was gone. It speeded the process to a half day, or less.

  If you haven't had fun on this trip back through the years, remember that many of the GOOD OLD DAYS were not all that good...but in looking back, it is easy to remember the FUN things and ignore the bad. So, always have FUN, even if only in your thinking.


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