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Washing Clothes
© 2006

Before electricity was invented, clothing still needed to be washed. The original method of cleaning clothing was to go to the river, get the clothing soaking wet, and beat the heck out of the fabric to forcibly remove dirt and grime out of the fabric. Sand was the detergent of choice in the open rivers and streams. This "stone washing" was very hard on fabrics which wore out quickly.

Later developments replaced the rock with a man-made device called the scrubbing board or wash board. The same technique was used but now the addition of homemade lye soap made the whole experience slightly less work. You still had to haul the water to the wash tub, heat it, and then wash the whole pile of clothes by hand. This meant hand-rinsing also.

Still, the "convenience" of the scrub board was a lot of work. It was so much work that most clothing was worn for many days before they ever got washed. For people who are particular about the cleanliness of their clothing, the "once-a-week" washing was not good enough.

Seen on the left, is one of the first efforts to mechanize the washing process. A convex corrugated rocker mounted over the center of a rectangular box that has a concave bottom wash tub with a galvanized metal liner. The operator manually rocked one curved surface over another, and rubbing the clothes placed between the two ribbed surfaces. Without your hands being in the water, the water could be much hotter than previous methods.

The "Thor" was the first patented electric washing machine invented in 1908 and patented in 1910.

Motorized versions of the manually-powered rocker scrub board washer appeared commercially as early as 1911. These devices did not have the technology to vary the scrubbing speed or intensity as the previously used hand-powered models. The action of these machines would work well for heavy work clothing, but had a tendency to shred the finer textiles of ladies clothing.

About this same time period, laundry detergents made a few technology advances and the need for harsh scrubbing was no longer present. Detergents helped disperse dirt and grime without needing the mechanical action of the harsh machines. Many clever but expensive electric machines were designed but few met the needs for washing all types of fabric. Material was still being chewed up and every wash day meant more buttons had to be sewed back on.

On the negative side, many of these new-fangeled laundry detergents used powerful phosphates which would later be discontinued as a hazard to both your health and the environment.

There was still one more addition to both the hand-powered method and the early electric machines: the wringer.

The hand-powered wringer was introduced early in the development of the washing machines. I vividly remember in the later 1940's and early 1950's using this little jewel attached to our electric wash tub. The "spin cycle" was still a long way off.

Believe it or not, the device seen on the left is still available from a company called Survival Unlimited, and their model #BL-38 sells for $97.95. They have four more models if you're interested.

Galvanized wash tubs are still available in many stores and are still at a very reasonable price. The tub on the left from Main Street Supply is a 2.5 gallon tub and sells for $6.99 plus shipping. Larger tubs are more expensive, of course. A 15-gallon round tub sells for $13.99. A real deal.

Upgrading to a more permanent installation, you can purchase a two-tub laundry sink from Wisemen Trading and Supply for $139.95.

The hoses are the drains for each tub. One tub is for scrub. The other is for rinsing. The hand-powered wringer would be mounted on the edge of either tub, depending on which tub you wanted to drain the water to.

A hand-scrubbing board would be setting inside the wash tub so the laundry person ("Mom" in the good-old-days) could scrub the clothes until all the dirt and grime was removed.

As a child, my job was to crank the wringer attached to the detergent-loaded scrubbing tub. The wet, soapy clothes were run from the wash tub directly into the rinse tub where the sat until the entire load of clothes was ready to be rinsed.

After manually rinsing out all the clothes in the rinse tank, the wash tub was drained and refilled with cold water for a second rinse. Again, my job was to turn the hand-crank in the opposite direction, allowing the first rinsed clothes to fall directly into the second rinse tub. When we were finished rinsing in that tub, I had to crank the clothes back toward the first-rinse tub - only this time I couldn't allow the clothing to touch the water. I had to raise them up and put them directly into a clean laundry basket to be hung on a clothesline outside the house. You wouldn't believe what happened to me if I dropped the wet clothing on the ground.

Why so many rinses? To get all the soap out, of course. Clothing with the old laundry detergents still trapped in the fabric could lead to some really interesting rashes on the inside of your legs . . . if you catch my drift. Count the number of spin cycles on your new washing machines. I'll bet there are at least three cycles for every load of wash you do. This is for the exact same reason. To get out all the detergent.

These items above are for real. They really work. If you are setting up a permanent or semipermanent bug out location, don't forget clothing still needs to be washed. As a minimum to keep clothing clean in the woods, you need to have:

  • Scrub/wash board
  • Detergent (environmentally safe, such as Arm & Hammer liquid detergent)
  • Large bucket(s) for scrub and rinsing
  • Water
  • Large pot to heat up the water
  • Clothesline (rope) and clothes pins (wood or plastic)

Optional, but worth every penny, is the hand-crank wringer. If you've never tried to wring the water out of clothing by hand, you are in for a real treat. Your hands and forearms will wear out long before the first load of laundry is finished. Remember, you may crank the clothing as many times as you need before you hang it up on the clothesline

Yes, the venerable washboard is also still for sale. Many times they can be found in country stores, hardware stores specializing in "hard to find" stuff, or the internet. This example is from the
Model 2133-C sells for $19.99 plus shipping. Clothesline

This one is from Ace Hardware and sells for $18.99. The store in my area has these on the shelf so you don't pay shipping costs. It is the Ace Hardware No. 63756. Ace Hardware

My final example is from Aubuchon Hardware. It is a miniature version and is only 7 - 1/4" x 14 - ½" in size. Selling for $6.49, I can guarantee you that you could not make this yourself for twice the price. If space is a factor in your bugout kit, consider this little tool.

Think of this washing experience as a lesson in history. You will quickly thank our forefathers for inventing the modern washing machines and driers. The first teenager that has to wash his or her multiple changes of clothing (per day) will think twice about ever changing clothes again.