Monday, March 7, 2011

The Pleasures And Pains Of Laundry Day

I was recently discussing laundry with my S.O. and mentioned in passing that there was a time when I was a child when a neighborhood midget woman would bring her washer over and haul it up our flight of 23 stairs so that we could use it in our kitchen to wash our clothes.

My S.O. looked at me like I was crazy.

It's a true story, though, however surreal it may sound.

At least I thought it was a true story. The bizarre images that it conjured up even as I was telling it made me wonder....

The woman had dark hair. I'm not sure how my mother met or knew her, but she seems to have lived on Islington or maybe Rockingham a few blocks to our south. Somehow she managed to drive a car over to our place despite her extreme lack of height. Somehow she managed to get her washer up our stairs, too, all by herself. I was too young to help and my mother never offered to. Apparently my mother thought that the few bucks we were paying the woman was enough to cover the delivery and retrieval of this appliance as well as our use of it. Maybe this is why I can't recall the woman ever smiling much....

Of course I'm not talking about a full-size modern washer but a small, portable model that was about the size of a bushel basket and looked rather like an over-sized roaster or pressure cooker. I've not seen anything like it since, and that fact (combined with all the other odd little details associated with this story) made a small part of me wonder if I was merely remembering a dream.

A few minutes on the Internet managed to prove to me that such washers did indeed exist.

Apparently they were first patented by Bernhart A. Benson in 1943 and subsequently churned out by the Chicago Electric Manufacturing Co. and sold under the Handyhot brand name.

Here are two pictures that almost exactly match the appliance that I remember:

The agitator connected to a motor in the lid. The hand-cranked wringer attached to the side of the tub.

It's now hard to imagine this contraption managing to get a single pair of pants clean let alone a week's worth of laundry for several people as it sat propped up on one of our kitchen chairs next to a cast iron sink straight out of "The Honeymooners." Maybe its extreme limitations quickly became obvious and explains why it disappeared from my life fairly quickly....

Recalling this story led me to other memories of Laundry Day and the somewhat startling realization that for more than half of my life getting my clothes clean has been a real pain in the ass.

For a time before and after we tried to use this portable washer in our kitchen we carried our clothes a long way down to a dark and dingy basement where the pleasures of an old wringer-style washer awaited us. My mother stopped using that washer when she started getting a bit of an electric shock whenever she put her hands in the water in the tub. I suppose she might have been electrocuted had the short been a bit worse. I suppose my life would have turned out very different if she had been....

For a while we sent our laundry out. An older man with a deeply wrinkled tan face, silvery hair, and black-rimmed glasses would haul our clothes away in a nondescript gray van, then magically return them all clean and folded up in tightly sealed bags a few days later. It was an expensive service, however, and we seem to have regularly ended up with other people's socks. I don't know who these other people may have been, but it was oddly disconcerting to find their socks popping out and falling onto our living room floor when I helped to open up the bags. Visions of my underwear popping out and falling on *their* living room floors were even more disconcerting....

Soon my sister and I found ourselves hauling our dirty clothes every week to a laundromat 4 blocks to our north. The momentary excitement of using a machine on the wall that magically converted dollar bills into delightfully clattering quarters did little to counter the boredom generated by 2 hours of white noise and the sight of the clothes in the dryers going around and around and around. Thank goodness someone would occasionally put too much soap in one of the over-sized front loaders and cause it to overflow!

It wasn't until the 1970s that another, much better portable washer freed me from that weekly walk to a steamy purgatory.

Ours was '70s brown - not avocado green - but otherwise it looked just like this one. A full load of clothes easily fit into the left side where a back-wall-mounted agitator spun continuously in one direction and made a pretty good show of getting things clean.

We lived in the upstairs duplex apartment on Cherry at the time and our landlord lived right beneath us. Various washer functions (especially those involving the spinner at the right) seem to have produced quite a bit of noise and vibration. I seem to have taken a perverse amount of pleasure in knowing that the ceiling of our landlord's kitchen was shaking and shimmying every time we engaged in a noble attempt to rid the world of our human stench....

If I ran a zoo I think I'd put a few of these old washers in with the chimps and bonobos just so they might get some inkling of what they've been missing by obstinately refusing to evolve up to our level.


  1. According to this page
    "Every zoo wants some bonobos but only a few have them because they are relatively rare and endangered. The total number of bonobos at zoos and research institutions is only about 141, worldwide (2002 numbers)."
    It goes on to say there are 71 bonobos in the US and 17 of them are in the Great State of Ohio, divided between Columbus (11) and Cincinatti (6). I don't know whether those are also 2002 numbers. The guy seems to have another website somewhere else that he's updating instead of this one.

    The page also mentions that of the "great apes," chimps and bonobos most resemble humans behaviorally. However, the other great apes have bigger brains, so go figure.

    Perhaps coincidentally, I am reading a fictional book about bonobos, "The Ape House."
    I was leery of reading it on what I think of as "The DJ Principle," that because it is a work of fiction, it will probably insinuate untrue notions into my brain that I will eventually confuse and conflate with real facts over time.
    So far the bonobos in the book have communicated verbally with each other without seeing each other with one telling another where to find a hidden object. And the bonobos in the book understand human speech and speak back in a different human language--American Sign Language.
    I am a big fan of Koko the gorilla who learned ASL, so I would like to think some bonobos might be interested in learning ASL and also able to, so therein lies the danger of TDJP, for if these fictional capabilities are exaggerations of reality, they are lies I am eager to believe.
    I would have passed up the book due to TDJP, but it's written by Sara Gruen, who wrote, "Water for Elephants," which I immensely enjoyed. In that book an elephant is an accomplice to murder, but I think almost anybody would find that part of it believable, under the book's hypothetical circumstances.

    I'll stop now.
    Oh. There's an awesome video on the page at this address:

    I think the URL speaks for itself.

  2. As I read, I kept getting this subconscious tug of familiarity, and then at last, remembered... I'd written about nostalgia and laundry when my Uncle Joe had died! (At least the old memory follicles haven't ALL fallen out!)

    When my son was a baby, we had no washer or dryer in the building, at all, and lived on the second floor. Luckily, my parents paid for a diaper service for a year. After that, it was lug laundry downstairs, with a toddler in tow, stuff it into our miniature new Honda Civic, and drive 3 blocks to the laundrymat with a toddler in the baby seat, and make sure he didn't run out into traffic while we waited for the laundry to wash and dry.

    Can it be any wonder that we deicded to buy a house when he turned two?

    The mini-washer tub is FASCINATING!! And you may not see a practical use for it, but I can imagine that it was a life saver for mothers of babies in diapers! Judging from the miniscule sized wringer, I'll bet that's exactly why it could've been designed. Also, well, this is trivial, but if your mother paid the woman in actual dollar bills, perhaps that wasn't as bad as might be imagined, given the relatively higher value of dollars back then. I recently looked up my earnings from old jobs, courtesy of my $ocial In$ecurity statement, and was shocked to see how little I made, vis a vis modern money. Yet it was enough to support myself, in a modest way. Ah, dem were da days.... Meanwhile, did you know we still use our ancient '60's stove, which IS avocado green?