Life at the Stafford Home in the 1930s
[Editor’s Note: a memoir written by Harriet Dukelow in 2001.]
Monday washday began on Sunday evening at our house. Mother brought the dirty clothesbasket from her bedroom closet to the bathroom bathtub. Then she began sorting the clothes into piles. Meanwhile Dad filled the copper boiler with water and put it on the back of the range where he had added more wood to the fire he had made, and it remained there all night slowly heating the water. Mother added grated soapsuds from Fels Naptha bars of soap and the sheets and towels were soaked all night in this solution. As Mother sorted, she turned all of the pockets inside out and, using a whiskbroom, whisked out the dust and crumbs from the pockets and pants cuffs. Not one was left unturned. The white socks were scrubbed on a washboard after soaking them in soapy water. They HAD to be white! After all, they were to be hung on our outdoor clothesline where the neighbors could see them.
Before Dad left for work on Monday morning he pushed the kitchen table from the center of the room against the wall and brought the washing machine out of the pantry into the middle of the kitchen floor and plugged it in. To fill it with water I seem to remember my Dad used pails and a dipper, transferring the hot water from the boiler to the washing machine along with the first load of sheets and towels using a clothes stick or pole to remove them. The pole was a sawed off piece of broomstick with rounded ends. Dad then put a bench behind the machine wringer and put cold water in large round washtubs on this bench. After being agitated to get them clean, the clothes from the washer were put through the wringer into the first tub and then a lever was pushed down and the wringer swung over to the second tub of cold water and the clothes were then sent through the wringer again into that rinse in which Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing had been placed. and on to the clothes basket on the floor where they were then ready to be hung on the clothesline outside. At this point Mother had cooked the starch for the blouses, shirts, skirts and pants for all four of us children, and our Dad and herself. Mother cleaned the clotheslines with a warm, soapy cloth and wiped them a second time with a moist one so they were absolutely clean enough to have the clothes hung on them. How do I remember all of this? In the summer, when we got older, we were allowed to do this job for her. We could not touch the wringer, because when Mother was a little girl, her mother had told her not to ever get her fingers near the wringer, so when her mother turned her head away for a second or two, she decided to run some of the clothes through the wringer herself. Her finger caught in the wringer and her mother quickly gave her first aid by re-attaching the piece of her fourth finger, right hand, which was hanging by a thread, because she was to be a musician, a piano player, and she would need all of her digits. Consequently, she would not let any of us use the wringer until we were grown-up. After school in the afternoon, we took in the sweet smelling air freshened clothes and helped fold them. Mother took the ones to be ironed, sprinkled them with water and rolled them up into the same clothesbasket, covering them carefully with a towel. The other things such as towels, underwear and socks were stacked in piles and we each tool our own pile of clean clothes to put away in our dresser drawers.
Monday noons when we came home from school (we lived across the street from the school), we always knew what we would have to eat—Sunday noon’s leftovers, because Mother was exhausted from the washing As I look back, I do not blame her! Tuesday was ironing day and many of the clothes had been starched and looked beautiful after Mother finished pressing them. As I recall, she even ironed the hems on the sheets and pillowcases. Once she read an article from the Minneapolis Tribune in Cedric Adam’s column where for hot days while ironing he recommended putting her feet in a pail of cold water while ironing, which she did, and , fortunately, she did not electrocute herself. He retracted the recommendation in the next day’s column as a dangerous bit of advice. Wednesday was mending day, and stacks of Dad’s socks and ours were in the darning basket, along with the black darning wooden egg which was tucked into each sock before carefully darning all the holes with a weaving stitch. They looked perfect when she finished. (We seldom owned new socks!) If we had holes in the soles of our shoes, we covered them with a pieces of cardboard which had been cut to fit. This also saved on the socks! Thursday was baking day when the range was fired up to heat the oven for cakes, break and pies. The cakes always rose on only one side neared the fire unless we got the pan turned around in time to make the cake more even. They were often uneven, but never mind, they tasted good when frosted and this hid the unevenness. The bread rose on the warming oven doors above the range all night and the loaves were baked in the morning. I suppose the bread and pies had to be turned, too, to brown properly. The heat in the oven was never very precise, although we had a thermometer hanging on the oven shelf and tried to maintain the temperature for baking. Friday’s Mother must have rested, or had company in, or “went calling”. She would often have friends over for coffee and we hoped to get home from school in time to join them for the goodies. She included a deaf friend who she shouted to for about two hours until she finally had to begin writing notes, as her voice “played out”. Another lady who was almost blind came, too, and played the piano by ear and stayed for coffee. Mother was so kind to many of the needy people in town. Hobos visited our home almost weekly and we began to think they passed the word around to others telling them where to stop as they came through on the railroad cards during the depression. Once my younger sister was serving the hobo on the back porch (we never let them in the house), and asked him if he preferred apple or lemon pie. We laugh about that now, as we are sure he was happy to have whatever Mother dished up for him. They always got a good meal, we remember that.
When Mother made doughnuts ( a long process) she tried to get them all done before we got home from school. (She was afraid of the grease catching on fire.) When we got home we could, of course, smell that doughnuts had been made. Without saying anything, my brother would immediately go down to the basement and pretend to be looking for something. You could hear him opening things and turning over tins and then all of a sudden, he would exclaim, “Oh, Doughnuts”!! Mother would laugh upstairs when she heard him and, of course, was delighted that he had found some of them. They had been placed usually in big crocks she kept there.
Saturday was cleaning day and we all had to help. We learned to dust at an early age, sweep, run the vacuum cleaner, and scrub the kitchen and bathroom floors on our hands and knees. There was also Spring and Fall housecleaning to attend to. We were mighty glad when that was over! She was a “slave-driver” then until it was all accomplished, especially the cleaning of the garage. My Dad had built shelves for her there and they had to all be cleaned. She surely liked to “chase the dirt” and keep thing neat and orderly. (If only some of this had rubbed off on me!). How I wish I were like her now
Our home was always happy. Every evening we children gathered on her bed to hear the Bible stories read, and we learned to pray. We loved that time together even if we did not always show it. Her brothers and their families often drove out from Minneapolis for Sunday dinner with us at their old home. They were always welcomed and we loved playing with our cousins. Our home always remained the same secure place. I think this made a difference for us children growing up in this atmosphere of love.
We took our baths on Saturday nights in the kitchen in the very same washtubs used for the wash rinse (one at a time in the same water). We had to be clean for Sunday School the next morning. It was time to change our underwear and wear our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. (What a difference from today’s world when we can bathe daily in clean water as we wish.) The bathtub was hooked up later to a water heater when we were about all grown. Otherwise, if we had a chance to take a bath in the winter in the tub, it was because we had a reservoir on the coal and wood furnace to heat water from the fire. There was never very much of it!
These were the so-called “good old days”, but who has the energy to go back to them? Mother sewed all of our clothes also and made over adult coats for us until we were teenagers. No wonder Mother never had time to work outside our home!