TOUGH TASK: A 19th-century washing machine.
TOUGH TASK: A 19th-century washing machine.

Mother’s work was never finished when it came to laundry

MANY people, especially as they head towards retirement or old age, look back on their early life and say the world was a better place then, that everything was more orderly and predictable, and we would be much better off without all the new gadgets we have today.

However, how many of us would really discard the modern appliances, the television, the radio, the washing machine, the car, or even the lawn mower?

If we look back honestly we certainly seemed to have a quieter life, but it had its drawbacks as well.

Mrs Enid Milne of Goonellabah gave us some insight into the old days a few years ago.

It was a very ordered life: every day had a strict program and all the family had tasks which had to be done in a certain way.

Only dirty people used a mop so this meant that floors had to be scrubbed at least once a week on hands and knees. The wet floor was dried with newspaper. Sandsoap was used on many surfaces including sinks and cupboards. All food shelves were washed down monthly and new newspaper carefully placed on them – newspaper was thought to deter silverfish.

Large, black, iron kettles sat on the fuel stove so that hot water was always available. The fire was rarely allowed to go completely “out” because it was a major part of everyday life. The stove was regularly coated with “Zebra” blacking, applied with a brush. It was a messy job. All cooking was done in the stove oven – succulent Sunday dinner chickens, bread, and amazing gingerbread.

The stove also had other uses. In bad weather clothes dried there on clothes horses and perhaps a stray clutch of tiny chickens could be housed in a box nearby.

Washing day was always long with plenty of hard work. This was normally done in the outside laundry where there was a copper to boil the water.

After bailing out some of the water for washing in the cement tubs, heavy-duty items were boiled in the copper.

Great care had to be taken when items were later transferred to the tubs for rinsing. Items to be starched were set aside in the glutinous mass.

All wringing was done by hand. It was helpful if two people did this as items could be twisted in a sausage fashion. This was more effective and aided the drying process.

Lines were usually strung out across the lawn or outside area with props to hold the lines in place. Props were prone to slip so it was a good idea to sink a jam tin in the lawn and place the end of the prop in this.

There was nothing worse than a lovely line of clean whites falling to the ground after a prop slipped.

Ironing of starched items was tedious. The wooden ironing board had first to be prepared with an old blanket and cover so that the items would not slip – creases were unforgivable. There were no easy drip-dry materials in those days.

The early washing machines were amazing but they had problems.

First came the ones which had to be pumped up and down with a Horlicks malted milk action. If you were lucky a wringer was attached but this was always prone to sticking – ejection levers were a much later invention. You learnt to be careful feeding the monster!

Irons heated on the stove (and carefully wiped to remove ashes) were replaced by petrol irons but these too had their dangers.

Yes, they were good old days – but sometimes they were not so good!

Prepared by Geoff and Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, 02 6621 9993. Museum at 165 Molesworth St, Lismore is open 10am–4pm Monday–Friday; Research room open 10am–4pm Monday and Wednesday.

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