Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Right to Dry

Dresses hang at an Old Order Mennonite farm in Casey County, Kentucky.

I was going to blog about root cellars today (very soon!) but instead find myself on this humid Sunday, with the laundry more or less caught up, thinking about clotheslines. The "Right to Dry" movement is not new, a few years old now, and is probably not news to many readers. But this morning it was news to me. [Photo by an unknown photographer, taken during the 1930s, perhaps WPA sponsored.]

While watching some of CBS Sunday Morning with my coffee I learned that there is actually a movement out there to banish clotheslines from suburban developments and other areas. Project Laundry List is an entire "green" movement (and there is even a blog for "clothes peggers"). I was surprised that there even needed to be a movement lobbying for "the right to dry" and hang up clotheslines, especially in this new era of conserving our resources and dollars.

Alexander Lee, director of Project Landry List, which is based in Concord, New Hampshire (another reason I'm surprised I didn't know before, as Concord is about an hour from our former home), told The Boston Globe in an article written in 2008 that, in America, the oft-considered offensive clothesline has an image problem that is not shared in other parts of the world. "We want Martha [Stewart] and Oprah [Winfrey] to make the clothesline into a pennant of eco-chic," he said, "instead of a flag of poverty."

Curtains flap in the breeze at a farm outside of Hancock, New Hampshire.

I've always seen the beauty in laundry hanging and billowing on a clothesline (in fact, an old-fashioned laundry room is as near and dear to me as a pantry). Years ago, at a farm where I lived for a while (not the farm where I grew up) in the former servants' quarters at this sprawling Victorian farmstead, there was a clothes drying yard on the northwest side of the house between the kitchen ell of the main house and large barn (and just behind the connected annex/woodshed of which my apartment was atop). I loved hanging my laundry out whenever I could and would bring it home from the laundromat in town just to do so. The splendid, seemingly private, view of Mount Monadnock sprawling before me to the northwest was only part of that experience for me. The yard was also private, as so many laundry yards once were. [And yes, somewhere there are a box...someday!]

One of the highlights of writing and styling The Pantry was finding great spaces like this early 1900s farmhouse laundry room, still in use, which we included in the book even thought it isn't technically a pantry (a "laundry pantry," if you will). I styled it using what was already on hand and still in use there. [And I want one!]

A few years before that I lived and worked at the Gibson House, a Victorian house museum in Boston's Back Bay, where I was resident guide (and lived in the old fifth floor servant's quarters, up five svelte-inducing flights of stairs–and yes, I guess I have a thing for living in former servants' quarters!) for a few years in the 1980s. Some laundry may have been hung to dry in the service courtyard behind the kitchen near the back alley. Imagine laundry hanging in downtown Boston or any urban area today!

The laundry room at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (as above right, also).

But as for people seeing my laundry? Why not? I've peppered this blog entry today with other people's laundry that I have taken in recent years with my digital camera, like this photo, right, of laundry drying in front of the Sawyer Farm in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The farm is near to the farm where I grew up and we've always been family friends–a place near and dear and still in the same family for five generations. [Their pantries are described in The Pantry.]

I also like to hang up duvets and air out bedding. There is nothing like a line-dried sheet: it has a certain smell and crispness to it and I liken it to having a field grown tomato ripened by the sun versus one in a hot house. They are not the same thing. That said, does anyone like towels hung on the line? I certainly don't but maybe it was a lack-of-using-fabric-softener kind of a thing.

The clothesline industry is big business, too. Lyman Orton, owner of one of my favorite stores in Vermont (and via catalogue), The Vermont Country Store, has seized upon the "Right to Dry" movement and sells many laundry products for outdoor drying and old-style care and washing. Also Lehman's in Kidron, Ohio (where I stopped on my way back from Akron, Ohio last month–Holmes County and environs, although increasingly more touristy in recent years, has been a favorite destination for us for the past two decades) has been selling clothesline and laundry-related products as long as they've been in business. ABOVE: Old Order Mennonite laundry hangs near a bell used to call in the troops for meals.

My friend Norma on wash day. Many Amish and Mennonites have large attached rooms to their kitchens that they use for washing and canning.

Many people I know in Kentucky–"plain people" and others–have a clothesline and some still wash their clothes by hand on their back porches. Double washtubs, galvanized tin tubs and washboards–and clotheslines of all varieties–are put to good use here and don't just serve as old-timey porch ornaments. There is a beauty to driving by a farmhouse and seeing a load of laundry on the line, even though there is little romance in actually doing laundry (but there is a calming purposefulness in the task, I will admit). Those who don't see that not only don't "get it," they clearly aren't farm girls or guys, now, are they?

"Monday is Wash Day." I don't recall when every day had a designated chore but what a great idea. Here are some laundry-related items in my laundry room.

I have collected clothesline and laundry paraphernalia for years: old wicker laundry baskets (one an old Shaker one given to me by a dear writer friend who even had her name penciled on it, perhaps for laundry sent out), clothespin bags in the style of dresses and pantaloons (back when they were affordable on eBay and still an occasionally affordable find when trolling in an antique shop), clothespins, laundry "stuff." You are probably wondering, as I am: does she have a clothesline now? The short answer is 'no' – we are waiting to put one in "when we build our new house" (a chorus of late). Right now, I am happy and grateful for my chicken house (which we designed to go onto a roll top and move up the hill when we do build...). Most available land around our place will soon be used for pasturing cattle. However, I might just have to put up a makeshift clothesline this year, maybe to the north of the chicken house on the island in the middle of our driveway loop. Already my porch rails are generally covered with things and I use several old clothes racks, too.

Here is a beautiful, spare poem by the belated poet, Jane Kenyon, who was married to former poet laureate Donald Hall. They lived for several decades in the old New Hampshire farmhouse that was his family home and are two of my favorite modern poets. Hall has also penned several memoirs and children's books, especially Ox-Cart Man and Lucy's Summer. [His current memoir is on my "books to read" list.] "Wash" is followed by the first and last stanzas of another of Kenyon's poems, "Wash Day." Like a true poet, she saw the beauty in the domestic and the every day. ABOVE: The preserved kitchen at the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton.


All day the blanket snapped and swelled
on the line, roused by a hot spring wind....
From there it witnessed the first sparrow,
early flies lifting their sticky feet,
and a green haze on the south-sloping hills.
Clouds rose over the mountain....At dusk
I took the blanket in, and we slept,
restless, under its fragrant weight.

Two vintage Old Order Mennonite quilts at a 2008 auction ~ wish I had bid!

Wash Day (first and last stanzas)

How it rained while you slept! Wakeful,
I wandered around feeling the sills,
followed closely by the dog and the cat.
We conferred, and left a few windows
open a crack.
Now the morning is clear
and bright, the wooden clothespins
swollen after the wet night.

How is it that every object in this basket
got to be inside out? There must be
a trickster in the hamper, a backward,
unclean spirit.
The clothes–the thicker
things–may not get dry by dusk.
The days are getting shorter....
You'll laugh, but I feel it–
some power has gone from the sun.

[For more laundry-related writings, click here.]

POSTSCRIPT ~ When The Pantry was accepted for publication by Gibbs Smith, Publishers, they sent me a lovely little book that they wanted me to use as reference for size, design and "look" for my book design and format. It is called The Clothesline by Irene Rawlings and Andrea Vansteenhouse (and is still available here). It captures the bliss and vintage nostalgia that many feel towards clotheslines and laundry things. It is one of many favorite domestic-themed books in my collection. ABOVE: Vintage photo of two girls in front of a clothesline from eBay (available for sale now).


Ladyfromthewoods said...

I'm surprised that you didn't snap and publish a photo of my porch clothesline...LOL!!! I would've given you permission, although a line full of t-shirts is not quite as romantic as the dresses & sheets.(wink)

The laundry room is closer to my heart than a pantry. In fact, when I designed the house, I started with the laundry room and built the house around it! My "pantry" is actually the old bookshelf I have sitting in the laundry room.

Great post. I love it.
love, teresa

Catherine said...

Next time I will! And I love your laundry room.

a Cupcake near you! said...

Catherine, I love this post! I've been following the clothes line controversy with amazement for the last few years. I think the people who want to ban clotheslines are insane. Clearly, they have never used one.

The worst fallout of December's ice storm in this household is that a tree fell on our clothesline and we now have only three lines instead of five. I'm hoping my brother, who is arriving today, will be able to repair it. (He built it as a housewarming gift to me 10 years ago.)

As far as I'm concerned it saves energy, is a lovely meditative exercise, brightens and freshens clothing and linens like nobody's business and provides a beautiful scene outside the kitchen window. It's as satisfying as looking at a pantry shelf filled with home canned peaches!

It's a sad commentary on today's society that it will take Martha or Oprah to make it chic and thereby acceptable. But if that's the only way to do it then I say go for it.

HANG IT ALL! (How's that for a slogan?)


Suzan said...

In Australia we have rotating clothes lines and they are great. We also have under cover lines for the very hot days when you get burnt hanging out the wash. I love the smell of freshly line dried clothes. In summer it was the greatest fun to run through the wet wash on the hot days. Being tangled in a wet sheet seemed to be a weekly thing.

I just cannot imagine a community which polices line drying....It is so alien to me. The clothes drier is used but not often. I would hate to be forced to dry everything that way.

Catherine said...

Peaches, love what you said about clotheslines and I hope you will commission your brother to repair yours...hey, maybe bake him a few PIES!!?? And with the sun finally out up there, it should help, too.

I think those anti-clothesline folks probably have too much of their own dirty laundry and have so many other issues, to boot.

And think of the many laundry cliches (I think!):

"Hang tight"
"take down a peg or two"
"give it a new 'spin'"


Catherine said...


Glad to hear from you "down under" (hey, does your clotheslines spin counter-clockwise? I am fascinated by that phenomenon).

I have seen many of those tented umbrella style rotating clotheslines here in the Mennonite community. Very practical.

I have yet to try freeze dried clothes, however.

Best, Catherine

Suzan said...


The clotheslines will turn either way. My mother says she wants a series of long lines but experience has shown me that a 'Hills Hoist' is just wonderful.


Desiree said...

My mother used both a dryer and clothesline. I remember going to get the clothes off the line and having to shake earwigs out of the them before I brought them into the house.

At various places I have lived I've used a clothesline. Where I live now every time I look out the upstairs window into the neighbors backyard (They have a clothesline.), I think, I've got to get a clothesline. Enjoyed your post and blog.

Desiree Bell

Queen Grandmother said...

I enjoyed this article very much. I am a dedicated clothes line user. There is such an art to hanging clothes, just so-so, so the hems of t-shirts aren't all stretched out, and everything is so neat and crisp. Oh, and I LOVE towels dried on the line! LOL! Thank you for your musings.

electricdunce said...

What lovely clotheslines, I am always moved by the sight of clothes out on the line. When i was a kid, we had a big clothesline in back of our house, under a row of old elm trees. It was always such a wonderful vision, and I am lucky enough to have one of my father's paintings of that clothesline. We had a big laundry room in that house, complete with huge deep sinks. I remember learning to iron with my mother in that room.

I don't have a clothesline any more, but I am going to try to get one going again. I am going to ask my son to help me put one up..

I got a copy of your pantry book, it is lovely.


Queen Grandmother said...

I recieved your book Monday. Very nice, I just love all that great woodwork in the pictures of those old pantrys. It will take an honored place amoungst my cookbooks.

CountryFriedAcres said...

I cannot believe that stuck up suburbanites want to BAN clotheslines. Well, yes I can. These are people that use chemicals on their lawns, take lavish wash-the-towels everyday kind of vacations and drive gas sucking SUV's. I am only 37 and have dried my clothes outside for years. When I was growing up, mom didn't have a clothes line because we didn't have the yard for one, but she did lay a broom handle across the backs of 2 chairs and hang shirts on hangers there to air dry. We didn't dry our clothes all the way in the dryer either. Usually just enough to get the lint off and some of the wrinkles out. After that they went on the hanger and were either "broomsticked" or "shower pole'd." I love hanging my laundry outside. In the winter when it is too cold to dry, we put folding drying racks in front of the wood stove. The clothes dry fast and the moisture from that keeps the humidity up in the house. Two birds with one stone.

Ken said...

Love the clothesline. I bought a Hills Hoist and I live in the US.

I remember Monday being wash day and Tuesday was when the ironing was done.

My grandmothers clotheslines were the cotton rope strung from house corner to garage corner to pole and then this way and that (if that makes sense). Put up and taken down every Monday!

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