12. Do they still call it laundry?

Today in the era of front-loading washing machines, operating at temperatures not much more than hand-hot with powders, liquids and gels cooked up in remote laboratories, the weekly wash is a bland affair.

‘Back then’ it was either a case of using communal wash houses or in my youth the kitchen/scullery, although new houses were being built with external wash-houses. The reason for this was that all laundry was boiled and produced copious amounts of steam, which did not react well with the wallpaper. The ‘boiler’, if you could afford it, was heated by gas, through a rubber hose from a tap in the wall. (Health and safety note) If you could not afford a gas boiler then a galvanised-zinc ‘tub’ was filled by water boiled on the fire or a cooker. Then came the ‘possing’! A posser/poss-stick was a device used for pounding the laundry while it was submerged in the tub to remove the dirt. It was either made entirely of wood with a ‘T’-handle or a hollow copper dish with a slimmer lighter handle (Google it).

The word detergent covers all manner of washing powders, but most are relatively modern and my parents’ generation used pure soap flakes. Once boiled, possed and rinsed, the garments/linen were dried using a mangle or wringer. Mangles varied in size from the large free standing variety to those you could clamp on to a table or a tub, but in both cases they consisted of two rollers turned by a handle, between which the washing was passed to squeeze out the water. The damp linen was then hung out to dry on a washing line and often was taken in during a passing shower, but almost inevitably ended up covered in specks of soot from the surrounding coal fires. Some houses, even up to modern times, had a drying rack hanging from the kitchen ceiling, which could be raised and lowered by a pulley and used for the final stages of drying or in bad weather. Such was the complexity of the whole process (and I haven’t mentioned ironing without electricity), that washing was almost universally carried out on a Monday and the whole process took up most of the week. Look up the song ‘dashing away with the smoothing iron’ for the full sequence set to music.

Although the Victorian inventors came up with some ingenious devices, the ‘washing-machine’ did not appear in Britain until the 1950s. Laundrettes grew up in towns and suburbs where people could do their washing and drying in large front-loading washers and driers, for a price.

Domestic washers were a small electrically powered tub not much more than 18”/40 cm square with an agitator which oscillated back and forth through 180o. A fold-away wringer was attached, but still turned by hand. Although ‘handy’ they barely coped with large items like the domestic spin drier which appeared later. The final version merged the two devices in one ‘twin-tub’ cabinet, big enough to cope with most households

One of the problems with machines was that they produced vast amounts of foam from the new synthetic detergents and it was not until low-suds products were manufactured that the modern front-loaders became available.


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