On the corner of... Hand-cranking your laundry

Sat, 08/19/2017 - 11:00am
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Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year, the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of items in its collection. For those interested in joining or donating to The Block Island Historical Society, please visit blockislandhistorical.org.

The verses of the child's ditty “Round the mulberry bush” offer a window on the one-time life of a housewife. “This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes... so early on Monday morning.” Tuesday, the laundry was ironed; Wednesday, seams were repaired and mending done. The remaining days of the week were consumed with cleaning and baking, fundamentally preparing for a Sunday of morning church and afternoon visitors.

By one account the woman who had her laundry out earliest on Monday was deemed the most industrious, mirroring tales of ladies vying for that honor on Calico Hill, where yards containing clotheslines were close, visible to one another. They may not have worked on that prescribed calendar but they nonetheless were rumored to wash at night and hang their clothes under the cover of darkness to assure that first place of honor come morning.

Laundry was hard work; nothing was tossed into a machine and buttons pushed with little afterthought. Prior to household electricity, water had to be hand-pumped, or even hauled, then heated, many clothes scrubbed on ribbed boards, and hung outside in all but the worst weather.

Wringers were a step toward modernization, and the spinners that left laundry “spun dry” — or what we, today, call “wet.” Early wringers were stand-alone, such as the one in the Historical Museum, hand-cranked machines, with two rollers through which washed fabric was passed to squeeze out the excess water (machines still available as a “green alternative”).

Later, the same type of apparatus was affixed to an electric-powered, gyrator tub washing machine, the rollers also driven by the the wonder of electricity, which carried the danger of crushed fingers. Such a “modernity” was part of laundry day at the last true boarding house on Block Island, a bed and breakfast — and lunch and dinner — place on the Neck Road. Water did not have to be hauled and heated, but linens for the whole house were washed and wrung and hung on long lines in the summer sun, a part of every work week.