Gene Logsdon: Hanging Out The Wash

The Contrary Farmer

Several readers recently mentioned that they dried their laundry on a clothesline outdoors which reminded me that I had more to say on that subject than I wrote here a few years ago. It seems to me that drying wash out in the sun is one of the easiest ways to save on energy. It also carries its own reward because of how fresh and sweet sundried sheets smell when you crawl between them. We also dry clothes sometimes next to our wood-burning stove in winter which not only saves on electricity but puts much needed moisture into the air.

But as some of you intimated, not everyone likes outdoor clotheslines. In the subdivision where our daughter lives, they are verboten, which mystifies me no end. Do clothes fluttering in the wind really look ugly to some people? I think a Monday morning backyard of flapping sheets looks lovely and I remember how as children, we used them as sort of impromptu tents to play under until Mom would stop us.

Maybe the problem is that underwear on the line seems a bit lewd to some? Looking at the women’s lingerie catalogs flooding our mailbox these days, I can hardly imagine that.

So what gives here? In a talk a few years ago, I extolled the savings in electricity that could come from using outdoor clotheslines, or even indoor ones in inclement weather. When I finished an elderly, kindly-looking lady in the front row stood up and really took me to task. By heaven, she had worked hard all her life, slaving away at washing and drying and cooking and cleaning, and by heaven, she loved her electric appliances and by heaven, she did not like it when a man, a man, who probably never had to do the laundry, dared to suggest that she was wasting energy by using an electric clothes dryer.  I was flabbergasted at how perturbed she was and immediately retreated, hoping to calm her down a bit with a droll but true story. I actually did do a lot of laundry as a young man in boarding school and once we ignorantly hung the sheets out on the line in below freezing weather. They froze solid. Removing them from the line was like handling plywood panels. It was really very funny, but the lady who hated clotheslines would not even smile.

I have a theory, as usual. When we first moved to our sanctuary among the trees, I started cutting wood for home heating. Our farmer neighbor had always done that which gave us something to talk about. I asked him why more farmers did not avail themselves of their dead trees this way. He smiled and replied. “Many people my age think that only poor people heat with wood. It’s beneath their dignity.”

For the forty years we have lived here, we have run a clothesline from the deck on the back of a house, which is about ten feet above the ground level, to a big oak tree in the yard, using pulleys at both ends. (There’s a photo of it above, and in a 2011 blog post Backyard Clotheslines and Washboard Secrets) We can stand on the deck and reel the clothes pinned to the line out and in. Very handy. We got that idea from the Amish, who often extend a clothesline this way from their porches to the sides of a nearby barn or windmill.

The drawbacks to outdoor clotheslines are walnut trees, birds and bugs. A falling walnut husk leaves a brown stain on clothes that looks like you-know-what. And birds leave stains that are you-know-what even if they are whitish. Sometimes bugs get on the wash which will tempt you to say nice things about electric dryers too. But in all these years Carol has rarely had to re-wash anything. When we first took up housekeeping in a log cabin in the woods, that was not the case. We made the mistake of running our first clothesline under a walnut tree.

Back then we really were too poor to buy an electric clothes dryer. Does that mean that poor people are the real heroes today, the ones properly addressing climate change?


One Comment

Back in the late ’50’s, my aunt Dorothy who lived in North Hollywood, California, would hang her laundry out back. Even in the heat of summer, those clothes would come back dry as a bone. Something to do with the combination of water type and the heat? I vaguely remember something about having to get out there and get them down while they were slightly damp and by the time you got them into the house, they would be dry and flexible. Dorothy turned 100 this year. I still remember seeing this beautiful woman looking like Marilyn Monroe hanging those clothes out on the line.