Fact Check

Grandma's Wash Day

Description of how laundry was done in bygone days?

Published Feb 3, 2006

Claim:   Description of how laundry was done in bygone days imparts "count your blessings" message.

Status:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2004]

Years ago an Alabama grandmother gave the new bride the following recipe:
This is an exact copy as written and found in an old scrapbook - with spelling errors and all.

Build fire in backyard to heat kettle of rain water.
Set tubs so smoke wont blow in eyes if wind is pert.
Shave one hole cake of lie soap in boilin water.
Sort things, make 3 piles - 1 pile white, 1 pile colored, 1 pile work britches and rags.
To make starch, stir flour in cool water to smooth, then thin down with boiling water.
Take white things, rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard, and boil, then rub colored don't boil just wrench and starch.
Take things out of kettle with broom stick handle, then wrench, and starch.
Hang old rags on fence.
Spread tea towels on grass.
Pore wrench water in flower bed.
Scrub porch with hot soapy water.
Turn tubs upside down.
Go put on clean dress, smooth hair with hair combs.
Brew cup of tea, sit and rock a spell and count your blessings.
Paste this over your washer and dryer.
Next time when you think things are bleak, read it again, kiss that washing machine and dryer, and give thanks.
First thing each morning you should run and hug your washer and dryer, also your toilet — those two-holers used to get Mighty Cold!
For you non-southerners - wrench means rinse.

Origins:   The

above-quoted list of washday chores has surfaced in a number of places, including a museum display in Arrowtown, New Zealand titled "Grandma's Washday." Well before the Internet, it was circulated as xeroxlore, with photocopied versions passing from hand to hand.

It has been kicking about for a very long time. While its folksy spelling is in some versions further exaggerated and in other iterations cleaned up, the order of the items and their contents remain relatively stable. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand reports encountering it in a 1981 South Carolina folklore journal, which had in turn found it in a 1975 newspaper. His article about this item of contemporary lore prompted a woman to send him a typed copy of a 13-item list that, she said, hung in a handwritten version "above my mother's wringer washer in a little town in the wheat country of Colorado for as long as I can remember. That was during the forties."

It also appeared in a Kansas newspaper in 1954. The columnist who presented it said the item came to him as a news clipping from a reader, intelligence that indicates it had been published in a newspaper prior to that.

Our own find of a closely related item comes from a book published in 1959:

[Cerf, 1959]

An anonymous friend mailed me the following little poem. I wish somebody could identify the author:

Grandmother, on a winter's day, milked the cows,
slopped the hogs, and got the children off to school;
did a washing, mopped the floors,
washed the windows, and did some chores;
cooked a dish of home-dried fruit,
pressed her husband's Sunday suit,
swept the parlor, made the bed,
baked a dozen loaves of bread,
split some firewood and lugged it in,
enough to fill the kitchen bin;
cleaned the lamps and put in oil,
stewed some apples she thought would spoil;
churned the butter, baked a cake,
then exclaimed, "For goodness' sake,
the calves have got out of the pen,"
and went out and chased them in again;
gathered the eggs and locked the stable,
back to the house and set the table,
cooked a supper that was delicious,
and afterward washed up all the dishes;
fed the cat and sprinkled the clothes,
mended a basketful of hose;
then opened the organ and began to play
"When you come to the end of a perfect day."

Yet the "Perfect Day" poem predates even that — a copy was found in an Ohio newspaper in 1926.

While undoubtedly these poems and lists have been around for quite a while, it is not necessarily true they date back to the days supposedly being lauded. The desire to view earlier eras through rose-tinged lenses did not begin with this generation; nostalgia for "the good old days" is an ordinary part of the human experience. Just as each generation views its young people as going to hell in a handbasket, so does it regard the times of its grandfathers as simple, honest, and more wholesome. Forgotten are dread disease that snuffed out so many lives, crushing poverty, and widespread discrimination against anyone who was not both white and male; instead, the long hours of back-breaking hard work endured by previous generations are presented as having been a matter of choice, and a noble one at that. Lists and poems like these are far more about how we imagine our forebears to have cheerfully shouldered their hardships rather than how they actually lived them.

Barbara "fond remembrances of things that never were" Mikkelson

Last updated:   23 August 2008


  Sources Sources:

    Bennett, Al.   "Here in Atchison."

    Atchison [Kansas] Daily Globe   1 December 1954   (p. 9).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 243-246).

    Cerf, Bennett.   The Laugh's on Me.

    Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1959   (pp. 176-177).

    Lancaster [Ohio] Daily Eagle.   "A Perfect Day."

    13 November 1926   (p. 4).

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