The clothesline talks if you listen to it. If you’re of a certain age or lived in a certain part of the country, you probably remember clotheslines fondly. I know I do. Wherever I go, I always look for these bygone drying implements of days long ago, and I want to share a story of finding one. Then, I’ll share some other’s stories.
Backroads when driving offer the most charming glimpses into history and the past. Unless you’re really in a hurry to get somewhere, I say avoid those big highways and Interstates. It’s worth the time. Sometimes getting to your destination means finding lonesome and scenic country roads and maybe backroads. That’s the case when our family gathered for a big reunion in the heat of July at Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia. To get to our rental property meant windy and narrow roads, passing by vintage –looking general stores and gas stations, and seeing the backbone of America, the people, in their yards doing their chores on a Sunday afternoon.
One thing that caught my eye when we turned yet another corner to meander the last mile to the hidden property was a 1940s style house on the corner, nestled in a large green yard, more like a pasture, and there in the rear of the house was a clothesline. Not just a small clothesline, mind you, but one of considerable length with triple lines, weathered crooked posts holding it from end to end, and relics of history, like an old birdhouse, adorning these posts. I knew I had to know more about this clothesline and who lived there.
The next day Ben and I decided to take a long walk, and, yep, I wanted to head back up the curvy road to the house with the clothesline. As we got there, I felt like the heavens had opened up, as if Norman Rockwell had painted a magnificent photo for me—there was a wiry small grey-headed little woman stretching her arms hanging laundry, lots of it. As the wind gently blew breezes that were oven-temperature, the garments and large white eyelet dust ruffle, already hung, would flap and billow. I just stood there in amazement at the beauty.
Now you might ask, why I was so moved by this scene. Well, it reminded me of my past. Yes, of my history, my life, living back in Southern Appalachia. Funny how that happens more as we enter our third chapters of life. With the exception of during the winter (and still sometimes on sunny days), Mom would carry outside loads of washed and rung out laundry piled high in baskets. She’d lumber up the 15 or so wooden steps from our cave-like dark musty dank basement to the backyard where there was what seemed to me as a child, an endless clothesline. With four kids, there was a lot of washing and laundry to do, plus cooking, gardening, canning, sewing and more. No wonder she was in great shape and slim and svelty.
The memories of the feel of those tattered and worn all-cotton terry cloth towels and worn and well-used sheets after they’d dried in the open warm air—yes, stiff and with a gentle roughness of sandpaper. Little did I know then that these towels were perfect for the exfoliation of dead skin cells! The aromas of the clothing—everything I put on my body smelled of summer rain, fresh sunshine, and mountain air. The sheets, no high thread count, were clean and seemed ‘ironed’ by Mother Nature.
And, Mom’s organization of the clothesline and the things she hung was impeccable. From the beautiful wooden pins that were in the trusty bag to the arrangement of the things draping from the sturdy lines—it was as if it was a department store’s showcase window. The colors. The styles. The textures. The patterns. Yes, a work of art. Of course, I didn’t think that at all as a kid. All I saw was work and more work. Like when Mom made me, yes, ‘made’ me, go and pull off and fold the dried clothes. I can remember dreaming of a thing called a dryer. Oh, lawdy, what I’d give to go back in time and pull those clothes off the line.
So, back to this little woman. You can imagine seeing two strangers standing across the road looking at you as you’re hanging out your laundry. She glanced at me and Ben with some trepidation. I crossed the road, walked through the grass, Ben followed me. We smiled, extended our hands, and said we were renting property down the road. I shared with her that her laundry was, for me, an art form and brought back memories of growing up in West Virginia. I don’t think she really bought that ‘art’ comment as she had this expression of ‘child, you must be delirious…here I am in 95-degree weather hanging clothes and you see art’.
We continued to talk. We learned that she and her sisters, all ‘old maids’, lived in the little house. They were taking care of another elderly relative who’d just had surgery for cancer. Oh, yes, and that relative’s youngens were flying in from Arkansas the next day to help out. She talked more about growing up in this area and life, her relatives, her name and more—just amazing how we stood in that ankle-high emerald green grass the sun toasting our skin and listening to her as she hung piece after piece not losing a beat and sharing her life story. As she moved a few steps to hang a piece, we moved a few steps to continue to listen. It was like a Lifetime movie!
I told her I was a photographer and asked her if she’d mind if I came back with my camera and take some shots of her laundry. Her expression was even more confounding. I mean I almost laughed. For her, she saw this laundry and the clothesline as her everyday necessity of life, something that was what she’d probably done for 60 to 70 years. Why in the world would someone want to take ‘peeekchurs’. But, she graciously agreed saying, in her silky Virginia drawl, ‘Well, I sooopppose if that’s whatchu wanner do…I don’t have no problem with it.’
So, later that day, I hopped in the car camera in hand and spent almost an hour just taking pictures, waiting for a breeze to billow the clothing and languishing in memories of growing up. Shortly before I was finished, a big truck turned that corner and stopped in the road. The man was looking at me—again, I knew he was probably a local, so I walked over (in hopes of explaining what in the devil I was doing and why). Before I could get a word out, he poked his head out his window and said in his slow Southern drawl with a deadpan look on his face, “Now, missy, donchu know it’ eeemmmmpooooolite to take peeekchurs of other people’s underware?” After explaining that I did have permission and why I was doing it, he proceeded to tell me about them thar three ol’ maid sisters who’d always dressed alike. They’d lived in the house all their lives and were now elderly yet still spry and spunky. Only on the backroads do you find colorful insightful and charming experiences of life.
PS: You never know what strikes a chord and interests folks. I posted on my FB page a picture of vintage clothespins that my hillbillie WV bestie had given me. They were her Italian Mom’s and she’d used them several times weekly since the 1930s and up until she stopped in her older age. Here are just some of the comments about clothespins & interspersed throughout are my photos are ‘peeekchurs’ of my Rockwell clothesline. Leave your thoughts about clotheslines & I’ll add it!
Enjoy~ xoxo ~peace & namaste~ ally
Linda Pelaschier Mihlebach My grandmother and mother also always hung all of our clothing outside. I used to as a young bride as well but busy lives, modern conveniences pollen, and Lyme disease on the rise have put an end to that for me sadly. What a lovely gift of precious memories you were given Ally.
Sherri A Marchese, I remember those. My mom had a basket full of those wooden clothespins. What memories!
Terry Wiley Alice…did you know your clothespins were probably made in Richwood, Nicholas County West Virginia..? There was a clothespin factory there and the pins were made by hand …
Billie Bj Helms Hillier Awesome. I sent you a PM. Check your other folder.
Billie Bj Helms Hillier I was born in Richwood!
June J Jordan Remember playing with the clothespins?
Terry Wiley, I have a bag of those that were made in Richwood…..a friend’s grandfather made them….
Jim Linton The question. You gonna use them?
Alyson Pisani, I love even the smallest nostalgic pieces of long ago. They hold such special memories!
Joseph Gollie Women used to drop clothespins in a milk jug at baby showers for prizes.
JoAnn Belack Definitely remember those…..and when they brought those cotton sheets in, my grandmother ironed them on a ‘mangle’……so crisp and cool, but a ton of work.
Missy McCoy, I think they also got used for babies to cut their teeth on. We had a bag hanging on our line too
Jim Linton And they made great rubber band projectiles.
Sherri A Marchese, you described that scene so well that when I finally scrolled through the pictures it was exactly how I had imagined in my mind. The most poignant photo to me was the one with the 3 pairs of matching checkered drawstring britches! Funny how a clothesline can tell such a story. Great piece and photos!
Patti Flannery May Alice D’Antoni Phillips, I still have my Mothers and Grandmothers. They are both mixed together in the bag that my Grandmother made for them. I use them more often than you can imagine on the clothesline that Dad put up for Mom. I use it mostly for our sheets….just love that smell💕
Patsy O’Brien Such sweet memories…
Rich Fletcher, I hung my towels out today.
Sue Harris My washing goes out on the line every day..still a very common practice in UK..can’t beat line-dried linens.
Sonjia Sharp I still hang laundry out Alice D’Antoni Phillips and yes, that smell is one of a kind.
Nanou Bip Bip a treasure.
Lee Kokubun Rogers Use to paint a face on it and we played dolls with them.
Susan Weller Bickta I remember my mother hanging clothes out on the washline ….. not so good when the mulberry tree had fruit on it!!!
Wyatt Brenda Wayne Yes, clothes never smelled so good. Of course, I hate ironing now. I had six brothers.
Kim Banick My memory of the clothesline in the backyard is the great tents and houses we built by throwing the blankets over the lines and used every clothespin we could find to connect the edges. smile emoticon Great memory, thanks, Alice!!!!
Lori Cripe McLain Such a joy of simpler times! The Amish folks had theirs in the front of their houses in Indiana
Sue Harris a lovely written article heart emoticon .. my friends and I have had much fun also about the etiquette of how you hang your linens on the line..just thrown on any old how, or do you colour match, do you match the colour of the pegs..do you put them in order of size… do you turn jeans inside out, so pockets dry ?? large linens near the house, unmentionables furthest away.. the different ways can be endless lol..
Sarah Burgess Wolfe Oh yes!
Mary Marshall Love this! Yes, they smelled so good. After we moved back to the states from Germany, I had a clothesline I used myself all the way into the mid-1990s (saving to buy a dryer). I love the smell of sheets dried on the line, that crisp smell you just can’t get in a clothes dryer.
Deborah Biggs Old school. Brings back lots of great memories.
Dreama B. Perry Brings back many memories.
Linda Pelaschier Mihlebach Thank you for the enjoyment of reading that and a glimpse into the past as well as your travels
Faye Kilgore, do you remember how stiff the clothes would freeze in the winter?
Barbara McCarty Brookhart, I helped hang clothes outside.
Sharon Sullivan, I remember the smells of fresh sheets dried outside.
Robin McGlamery, I loved my clothesline
Nataša Pajestková I still have lines on my balcony (living on the 9th floor). The balcony is turned out of the town; I live on the edge of town. I am not going to buy a drier, and I have two reasons for it: I am single, no reason for a dryer, not a big batch of washing; I love things dried on fresh air. I remember long lines in our garden when I was a child. Great memories, not only because of it but also my loving home, our big garden, and my happy childhood!
Laura Mohr Still have a few of my mothers. Most all our clothes were dried outside. Nothing like the smell of sun-dried sheets and towels.
Spunky Laferrera I have a clothesline and I just brought in some clothes that I put out this morning.
Denise Collins, I remember & loved those days
Hochstetter-Fowler Colleen My mom always had some sort of clothesline outside! Clothes never smelled better than hanging outside to dry.
Nanou Bip Bip got very nostalgic reading your story, and of course, you made me laugh, from now on I will say peekchurs hahaha, thank you for sharing with us your sweet memories. God bless you, Ally.
Tony Belda Yes, girlfriend I remember them well!! I helped mamma bring the clothes in off the clothesline! She would unclasp them and either hands me the pins to put in the clothespin bag or she would give me the item to fold and place into the basket. The baskets were bushel baskets from the farm lined with cloth or some had a type of plastic. I remember the red-lined one for sure!! Anyway, I always liked folding the towels or pillowcases into the basket as they were so easy!! LOL, Do you remember sprinkling the items that needed to be ironed and rolling them up and then putting them in the ironing basket? Our folks sure did work hard!! Makes one thankful for the modern conveniences of life we now have. Thanks for the memories!! smile emoticon heart emoticon Lizz