Working Class life in the 1940s & 50s – After Wash Day
After comes the ironing
My Admiration Grows
In my previous hub, I looked at Washday, but of course washing the clothes is not the end of this story.
Everything that mum washed she, of course, had to dry. Even when the washing was dry my mum still had to iron it all.
Getting the washing dry was not an easy task. This task was even harder in a crowded working-class area of two up two down terraced housing.
It is amazing how quickly we get use to the conveniences that come with living in today’s world.
I had almost forgotten what life was like back in the 40's and 50's until I started writing these hubs.
There are now several generations who have no first-hand knowledge of those times.
Writing these hubs has made me appreciate so much more, the many things that I have been taking for granted.
As I write these hubs my admiration for my mother and her generation continues to grow
What to do with wet washing
On fine weather days of course my mother would peg her washing on the clothesline in the backyard to dry. In the summer she could get several wash-loads dry during the day.
During the winter months, even when it was not raining the washing did not always dry. Some dry days it was still sometimes difficult to get the washing to dry outside on the line.
Damp winter's mornings when there was no breeze, the washing would hang limp on the washing line. On days like this when we took the washing in, it could still be as wet as we put it out.
This is where the big old cast iron mangles came in. The mangles usually had two huge wooden rollers. Mum fed the washing between the big wooden rollers. When I was big enough I was the one who would turn the handle that caused the rollers to go round.
On the top of the mangle there was usually a handle of some sort. This top handle could turn to alter the gap between the two rollers.
Surprisingly, these old fashioned mangles got a lot of the moisture out of the clothes. I remember my mother feeding the bed sheets into the rollers as I turned the handle on the mangle.
The sheets would come out the other side of the mangle almost horizontal. It would come out a foot or so until the weight of the sheet got too much and then it would start to bend .
We kept our mangle, like a lot of people did, outside in the back yard. We had a cover that we placed on it when it was not in use.
Mum always put her wet washing through the mangle, the wringer for my American friends. Often the washing would go through the mangle more than once before hanging it on the line.
Once it had gone through the mangle a couple of times, it was amazing just how much drier it was,
As the handle on the mangle turned the washing being fed through the rollers, had the water squeezed out of it.
So, even when mum couldn’t put her washing out on the line her washing wasn’t dripping wet.
If mum couldn’t dry the washing outdoors for any reason then of course she had to get it dry indoors.
It was difficult to dry washing indoors.
There was no place in our house to hang a load of dripping wet washing.
Our home didn’t have a bathroom so mum couldn't hang wet washing over a bath.
The only rooms in our home with a stone floor were the scullery and the pantry. These two rooms had red quarry tiles on the floor.
Unfortunately, both of these rooms were too small to hang washing in. There was no space for washing to hang except maybe for the odd tea towel or hand towel.
The tea towel and hand towel were in use in the scullery, and we often hung those after using them over the cooker. The heat from the cooker would often dry them out.
It was difficult to dry indoors, but mum did manage to get her washing to dry indoors.
In the winter mum always had a coal fire burning in our living room. The rest of our house was usually left unheated.
Each room, including the bedrooms, had a fireplace in them. Only the attic room, where I slept did not have a fireplace.
Apart from the living room the fireplaces in the other rooms seldom had a fire lit in them. In working class homes, it was quite usual for only one room in the house to have heat.
My dad was a coal miner so we always had coal. But even we would have struggled to heat more than one room constantly in the winter.
Coal miners had an allowance of so much free coal per year. I am not sure what that was, it was certainly at least a ton.
I can remember my dad sending me to stand by the coal house door to count the number of bags. I would count each bag as the coal-man threw the coal into the coal house.
I think that this was more to keep me out of the way of the coal-man than it was to keep a tally of what he put in our coal-house.
The coal man would put the emptied sacks into a pile on his cart so that he could keep tally how many bags he had delivered. We never went without a fire in the living room in the winter months.
Many of our neighbours were not so fortunate and many ran out of coal. In the cold weather, I can remember the odd neighbour would come round to our back door with a bucket. They would ask my mum if she could spare a bucket of coal until pay-day.
The Kitchen Range
When I was young the fireplace in the living room was an old-fashioned range which had a hearth and a fireguard.
Mum would sometimes put the damp washing on the fireguard to finish off drying. When mum put washing on the fireguard to dry she would watch it carefully.
Mum would keep an eye on the washing because there was quite a lot of heat given out by the kitchen range.
Sometimes if the lump of coal had a fault in it, it would explode. The red hot embers from the faulty coal would then fly off in all directions. On the rare occasions that it happened, the fireguard stopped the flying embers.
But if there was washing draped on the fireguard, an ember could set that drying washing alight. It was also easy for the drying washing to scorch if not watched.
The Maiden or Clothes Horse
Mum would also use something called a maiden or a clotheshorse. We would put the wet washing onto the frame of the maiden.
Maidens were made from of wood and could be closed when not in use.
Mum would drape the wet washing over the frame of the maiden until she had used up all the space.
We placed the maiden in front of the living room fire after the wet clothes were on.
Mum would leave the maiden there until the washing dried or the weather got better.
As soon as the weather showed any signs of being able to dry the washing the washing was taken back outside to dry.
Sometimes mum would put the maiden in front of a paraffin heater that we had in the front room.
Mum would light the paraffin heater especially just to dry the clothes. Then she could shut the drying clothes away in the front room out of sight and out of the way.
When the maiden was not being used my brother and I would use the maiden as the frame to make a tent or blanket fort out of.
We loved making tents indoors and we played for hours in these tents. It is amazing how different and so much better a sandwich and a drink tastes from the inside of such a tent.
My brother and I spent many happy hours building such blanket tents. We would use all sorts of household items in their construction not just blankets.
Sometimes we would build them upstairs in one of the the bedrooms. Sometimes we would build it downstairs in the living room.
The Flatley Drier
Later on mum bought a Flatley Dryer this was a wooden airer that you fixed on an electric heater.
When you had put all your wet or damp washing on the airer you would then put a shaped cloth bag over the clothes. The cloth bag reached almost to the floor. The bag enclosed the washing over the the top of the heater at the bottom.
This was so that the hot air would circulate inside the bag concentrating and conserving the heat. The clothes got the benefit of the heat and so dried quicker.
It sounds good but in reality it use to take ages for the clothes to dry this way. It was not unusual to hear about clothes that had caught fire when using a Flatley.
To be fair our Flatley never caught fire but then we didn’t use it very often.
Mum didn’t use the Flatley often because it seemed to eat the electricity.
I have to admit that I never actually knew of anyone personally that had a fire using a Flatley. But the stories we did hear were enough to make us careful.
Finally if all else failed mum would use the pulley in the living room to put the wet washing on.
Because the pulley was in the living room over the sideboard, in reality only damp washing could be put on it. Otherwise wet washing would have water dripping onto our wooden furniture and ornaments.
The pulley was fixed to the living-room ceiling. Mum would lower the pulley using a rope which was tied to a hook on the wall.
Depending where on the length of rope you tied it to the hook, determined the hight of the the pully.
The pully would stay at that height until she had put all the washing on and pulled it back up again.
When mum hoisted the pulley back up to near the ceiling she tied off the rope again to keep it up there.
The pulley could hold quite a lot of washing. But mum usually used the pulley to put the freshly ironed clothes on rather than wet washing.
The Flat Iron or the Sad Iron
When mum had finished drying the washing she then had to iron most of it.
Now that is not a particularly big deal today because the type of irons that we use now.
My iron can be adjusted so easily to the temperature to suit almost any fabric. I also have a steam setting for ironing the harder to iron fabrics.
My first memories of my mother ironing are of her using what we called a flat iron or sad iron.
The flat irons are made from solid metal. Mum heated the irons either on the stove or if there was a fire in the range then she heated them on there.
I can see my mother even now in my mind's eye testing the temperature of the flat iron.
Testing the Flat Iron's Temperature
My mum had several ways in which she would test the temperature of the flat iron. The first and most usual way that I saw mum do this was she would take the iron off from the heat and spit on it.
If the spit sizzled and bounced about she would pronounce it ready. Sometimes I would see mum lick her finger and touch the surface of the iron. Again if it sizzled or hissed she knew that the iron was ready.
Finally mum would simply hold the iron very close to her cheek. She would be able to tell by the heat coming off from the surface of the iron whether it was hot enough. I found this photo on the web of a lady doing just that.
While mum was using one of the flat irons to iron the clothes the other two irons would be heating up.
Ironing especially in the summer was a hot and time-consuming job. Ironing was not a job that my mum was fond of.
The nature of the flat iron meant that mum had to change the irons over every few minutes. This was because once off the heat source they soon lost their heat.
I found this image on the web of a lady using a flat iron and you can see two other flat irons are heating up ready to be used. The irons are on the top of the range over on the right hand side of the picture.
Plugged into the light socket
Most houses in our working class neighbourhood around this time had few power points.
At the beginning of the 1950s mum got an electric iron. But she didn’t plug it into a wall socket, as we didn’t have one back then.
Mum plugged the iron instead into an adapter, which plugged into the light fitting. fig. one shows the type of adapter used in the UK.
It was a double adapter that fitted into where you would normally put your light bulb.
The double fitting meant that mum could have both her light bulb on and her iron on at the same time.
The second photo fig. two is of an American version of this type of adapter, which some of you may be more familiar with.
Fig three shows both ends of the British bayonet plug fitting. Of course the hole you see on the photo would normally have the wire coming out.
Back then mum did not have an ironing board. Instead she used to iron on the kitchen table. This table was directly underneath the light fitting.
If the light was on when mum was ironing then the bulb would swing about all over the place as she ironed. It was off putting having the swinging light-bulb casting shadows as she ironed.
I was glad when we had power points fitted in the house and we didn't have to use the light socket as our power source.
Thankfully by the time I was old enough to be called upon to do some of the ironing we had a wall socket and an ironing board which made the task much easier all round.
Funnily enough my kid brother never did get old enough to be called on to do any ironing or any other kind of housework come to think of it.
The lines drawn back then between what was called woman’s work and man’s work were very sharply drawn and clearly defined.
Girls were definitely brought up differently to the boys back then but that is a subject for another hub. Lol
I hope that you have enjoyed this little wander down a working class memory lane, if you have you might like to check out some of my other hubs featuring the working class lifestyle of the recent past.
Comments 59 comments
More by this Author
Find out what the children took with them when they were evacuated see how much the host families got paid for each evacuee that they took in. Watch an evacuee telling his story to his grandson.
A first hand account of train travel in the late forties and early fifties as experienced by a young working class child. Also memories recalled of the barrow boys and girls that would meet the trains
what wash days were like sixty years ago before there were such things as automatic washing machines. Read this first hand account of what it was like in a working class home in Britain on wash day.