C.B. sends me a photo of what appears to be a contemporary wall-mounted wooden sculpture. A further look shows its title is “Leader Clothes Dryer Pat’d July 4, 1899, GEM Mfg. Co. North Girard, PA.” This Zen-like minimalist appearing thing of beauty expands to form a tree from whose branches one can dry clothes indoors.
The history of washing and drying clothes is a snapshot of a ritual that was once a communal activity with room for socializing. European woodcuts from the 14th to the 16th century show groups of women with washing bats and boards gathered together at a river’s edge, or holding each other up to stomp clothes in a wooden tub. Women hold “possers” if they could afford better than a tree-stick to slap the dirt out of clothes.
On washing week, which was not all that frequent, women filled bucking vats with lye. Lye is a detergent of alkaline concoctions, but essentially is water silted through ashes from a wood fire. Where you lived determined your lye: seaweed ash in Spain, cherry in the Appalachians, potato plants for “weed ash” in Ireland. Some recipes call for urine to be run through the ash. This special sauce was called “chamber” lye because it “came from” bedroom chamber pots: this was perfect for stains and pre-soaking.
Adding boiled animal fat, our foremothers made black soap, known for its brownish color, but before washing with this soap, linens were pre-soaked in those bucking vats, the women continually re-heating water that passed through an ash-covered cloth for up to 18-hours. In fact the tradition of washing on Monday began because the process could take a week, between lye pre-soaks, rinses, soaping, more rinses, all interspersed with having to boil water over an open flame, let alone time for a fine day for line drying. Meaning all work had to be accomplished, in a pious household, before Sunday, and clothes had to be finished and folded before the Sabbath.
Here’s where C.B.’s object came in handy. If the weather was not conducive to drying, a system needed to be in place for room drying. Therefore, this wooden drying rack, which could be folded conveniently, was invented in the mid-19th century. At that time, Americans and Britons washed clothes twice a month, Germans once a month, and the French every three months. The wealthy families washed less because they prided themselves on full wardrobes and full linen closets. No one did his or her own washing, as it was so time consuming and laborious. Even middle-class families were visited by professional washerwomen, who spent almost a week at the house to accomplish the task, which included pre-soaking, washing, drying, sprinkling, mangling, ironing, and airing. If the week was overcast, C.B.’s little tool came in handy. City dwellers used CB’s tool as well during the early 20th century as more workers worked in cities, and apartments allowed no spacious open lawns for drying clothes. In fact, a century before, certain villages in England and American had designated open grass fields for this purpose.
Other domestic washing related paraphernalia includes mushroom-shaped linen smoothers (before the invention of flatirons) called slickenstones. Screw presses flattened large tablecloths, or in Scandinavian long flat boards were pressed down onto cloth using elbow grease; in England, “beetles” were used to pummel the wrinkles out of linen. By the mid-19th century, the mangle, with two hot rollers, was used for ‘flat work’ such as sheets, tablecloths, and wide full skirts.
About the date of C.B.’s indoor dryer tool invention, a detachable handle for heated flat irons was also invented, but a laundress still needed at least two heatable iron pieces, treated concurrently, to finish a blouse. These “sad irons” (sad meaning solid or weighty) had no thermostat, had to be polished, greased and stored well, so an experienced iron-woman was a sought-after servant. In India, a ‘press-wallah’ used an iron that contained hot coals to solve the re-heating problem, ‘wallah’ being an honorific that conveys the expertise achieved in a line of work.
A few years later than C.B.’s tool patent date, the electric iron was invented, but still fabric had to be dried in the air until J. Ross Moore of North Dakota developed the designs for an electrically operated automatic clothes dryer in 1938. Which means C.B.’s tool might well have been in use for 40 years to dry laundry indoors. Collectors for these will pay $150 for it.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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