Thursday, 23 April 2015

Thursday List: Hanging Out The Washing


I love pictures of washing hanging out to dry – copies of the images above and below have been hanging in my house for years. There is something very satisfying about them, and it’s nice to think of drying washing as something that has been going on for thousands of years, mentions dropped into some unlikely books.

Odyssey 2

1) Starting with The Odyssey  by Homer – probably composed around the end of the 8th century BCE. This translation (2004) is by AS Klein. Nausicca, a princess, is going for an expedition from the palace:

The girl brought the bright clothes from her room, and packed them into the gleaming wagon, while her mother put up a box of food, with everything to content the heart. There she packed delicacies, with wine in a goatskin bag: the girl climbed up, and her mother handed her a gold flask of olive oil, so that she and her maids could use it after bathing. Then Nausicaa took up the whip, and the smooth reins, and flicked the mules to start them. With a clatter of hooves they moved off smartly, carrying the girl and the clothing, and the maids too, to keep her company. 

When they came to the river, lovely with streams, and never-failing pools, with enough clear water bubbling up and brimming over to wash the dirtiest clothes, they un-harnessed the mules and drove them along the bank of the swirling river to graze on the honey-sweet grass of the water meadows. They lifted armfuls of clothes from the wagon, carried them down to the clear black water, and trod them thoroughly in the pools, vying with one another. When they had washed the load and rinsed away the dirt, they spread the garments in lines on the beach, where the breaking waves wash the shingle cleanest. After bathing and rubbing themselves with oil, they ate their meal on the riverbank, and waited for the clothes to dry in the sun. 

When they had enjoyed the food, Nausicaa and her maids threw off their headgear and played with a ball, white-armed Nausicaa leading the accompanying song.

Nausicaa is a princess, so good for her doing her own washing. In fact she has been inspired by Athene, who whispered to her: ‘Your lovely clothes are neglected, yet your marriage will soon be here, when you’ll not only need to be dressed in lovely clothes yourself, but provide for those who accompany you.’ Nausicaa is going to help Odysseus…

2) James Joyce’s Ulysses is inspired by the Odyssey, and Nausicaa is Gertie McDowell – we featured her doing her laundry in the parallel scene a long time ago on the blog. (And in this entry I translated a poem by Sappho from the Ancient Greek, though I haven’t ventured my own translation of Homer.)

3) Shakespeare has washing hanging out too, in the song of Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale:
When daffodils begin to peer, --
With hey! The doxy over the dale, --
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge, --
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!

4) Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver  goes sleuthing in the Scottish countryside, in Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses:

[The farmer's wife] had been hanging out washing; a basket of linen sat in the middle of the patch of grass and a pair of underdrawers hung by one leg where she had abandoned them. Rather a splendid garment for a sheep farmer’s wife, I thought, studying the satin waist-tape and the lace trim. And next to them on the line . . . I blinked.

‘Never,’ I said out loud. ‘Preposterous.’ For next along the clothes line to the splendid underdrawers was a bandeau brassiere in the same white linen with straps of the same satin tape and no Scottish farmer’s wife from Gretna Green to John o’ Groats could possibly possess such a thing.


5) In Christianna Brand's marvellous wartime murder story, Green for Danger, the posh young nurses live in a cottage together - here the policeman has come to visit:

Cockie [stood] in the narrow doorway, politely averting his eyes from a line of solid-looking underwear hanging across the little kitchen…Woody dived under the line of washing, holding up a garment for the Inspector to follow her. ‘Excuse the Jaeger coms and things, but chiffon and crepe de chine don’t quite suit the life of a VAD…’

6) The poet Seamus Heaney wrote a wonderful poem about pegging out washing, dedicated to, and about, his mother:

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack...

Odyssey 37) I recently came across a lovely book of poems called Washing Lines, which could have been designed for me: a collection of poems about laundry, washing and ironing, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts. It seems to be out of print now, but you can still pick up copies. (Watch out if you search on Amazon: you have to specify a search in books, or else you get offered a lot of cheap and nicely made washing lines in many different colours.) It features poets down the ages talking about doing the washing. It was put together by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, and is a lovely read.

8) There is currently an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery in London - this one, Hanging the Laundry Out by Berthe Morisot, is there, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington:

The top picture is a photograph by Crispin Eurich of washing drying in the streets of Huddersfield. The second picture is Southwold Beach by Stanley Spencer.


  1. Moira, your post on laundry is very interesting. It reminded me of Mumbai's own famous "dhobi ghat," a large open-air laundry where the washers, known as "dhobis," washed dirty linen from homes, hotels, and hospitals in a designated area close to Mahalaxmi Station en route to my office. The dhobi came home and took your clothes and the two of you made similar notations in your respective ledgers or diaries, so that the clothes that went out one Sunday morning came back intact the next. It used to be a popular attraction among foreign tourists and has been featured in many Hindi films. I think, Dhobi Ghat has closed down. Frankly, I didn't know there were so many books featuring laundry.

    1. I was surprised myself, Prashant, when I started to think about it. It's such a basic part of life, but such aspects don't always turn up in books. Thanks for the info on the dhobi ghat - I just went and looked at some pictures on Google Images - amazing, the rows and rows of washing hanging. Perfect for my topic.

  2. Actually, I wrote a "Washing Poem" when I was - must have been 5 or 6 - at primary school. Amazingly, I still remember it!

    "If the washing went pointy looking
    And our pants and vests and trousers
    Blew out like balloons in winter
    I bet Mum's sheets go pointy looking too
    Out came the sun
    And soaked snow off the balloony things
    And soaked snow off a pegged-up toy."

    (I actually remember this being inspired by a similar scene in one of the "My Naughty Little Sister" books....!)

    There's more frozen washing in one of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder - logic dictates it must be "The Long Winter" - I remember the image of Ma coming in all bundled up with a board-flat pair of combinations under one arm.

    And of course, we get a murder in "A Pocket Full of Rye" based on the nursery rhyme
    "The maid was in the garden
    Hanging out the clothes,
    When down came a blackbird
    And pecked off her nose!"

    There's rather a lot of laundry hanging out in books... I remember Gillian Clarke describing it beautifully in her epic poem "Letter from a Far Country" which you can (amazingly) read in its entirety in this preview link:

    "My grandmother might be standing
    in the great silence before the Wars.
    Hanging the washing between trees
    over the white and the red hens.
    Sheets, threadworked pillowcases.
    Mamgu's best pais, her Sunday frock.

    The sea stirs restlessly between
    the sweetness of clean sheets
    the lifted arms,
    the rustling petticoats."

    1. Thanks for the great additions Daniel - I can't believe I didn't think of the Agatha Christie book! I love your childhood poem...

  3. Lovely list. Here's one more:

    "As he fastened the belt of his overalls he strolled across to the window. The sun must have gone down behind the houses; it was not shining in the yard any longer. The flagstones were wet as though they had just been washed, and he had the feeling that the sky had been washed too, so fresh and pale was the blue between the chimney-pots. Tirelessly the woman marched to and fro, corking and uncorking herself, singing and falling silent, and pegging out more diapers, and more and yet more. He wondered whether she took in washing for a living or was merely the slave of twenty or thirty grand-children. Julia had come across to his side; together they gazed down with a sort of fascination at the sturdy figure below. As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line, her powerful mare-like buttocks protruded, it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by child-bearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an over-ripe turnip, could be beautiful. But it was so, and after all, he thought, why not? The solid, contourless body, like a block of granite, and the rasping red skin, bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?
    ‘She’s beautiful,’ he murmered.
    ‘She’s a metre across the hips, easily,’ said Julia.
    ‘That is her style of beauty,’ said Winston."

    George Orwell, 1984

    Note: she was my 50 yr old woman, before being bumped by Mrs Ramsey:

    1. This is fabulous. I thought I knew 1984 well, but I don't remember this at all, and it's great stuff.

  4. I remember the washing being hung out when I was young, Moira. There is just something about warm, fresh air that weaves itself into the laundry, isn't there? What a great idea for a list. It makes me think of some of the lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel's My Little Town:

    My mom doing the laundry, hangin' out shirts in the dirty breeze

    And as you say, people have been hanging out the washing for thousands of years: lots of material there.

    1. Oh yes, Margot, great call, I love that song. And yes, the clothes are much nicer if you can dry them that way.

  5. Oh if you're including songs then one of my favourite Morrissey lines from one of my favourite Morrissey songs is the practically-Joycean

    "Don't leave your torch behind / Power cut ahead / 1972 / And so we crept through the park / no I cannot steal a pair of jeans from a clothesline for you..."

    Late Night, Maudlin Street

    And then there's Kate Bush's Mrs Bartolozzi - which is a whole song about doing the laundry (& more, natch...)

    1. Bring on the songs too! I'm just so pleased to find that other people share my fascination with this. The Kate Bush is the washing machine song, right, all our dirty clothes, sloshing around....

  6. There's an early poem by Carol Ann Duffy featuring empty shirts. And doesn't a clothes line feature in Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit? Oh yes, she had a Washing Day. And so did Mrs Tiggy Winkle.

    We are but odd socks in the launderette of life. (Biff)

    1. Yes - it turns out it's much more common than I remembered, particularly in children's books which I didn't look at at all. Could've doubled that list....

  7. Oh, I LOVE this post! Wonderful excerpts and pictures. But you haven't included Mrs Mopple's Washing Line - my daughters and I loved this when they small.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, and now I have to go and look up Mrs Mopple!

  8. Great post. I love those quotes, especially the first one and the images are gorgeous.

    1. Thanks - I really enjoyed doing it, but thought I would be the only person who had any interest! It just shows you never can tell...

  9. Will there be a linked winter post on tumble dryers? I can hardly wait...

    1. You're a lone wolf here, Col, the rest of us are just riveted by the concept....

  10. I'm fascinated, too. I am not the housewifely type in general, but I do love to see washing blowing on a line.
    I used to teach a course on early 20th century European art. Part of Duchamp's The Great Glass was inspired by washing blowing on a line, as something fleeting and ephemeral.

    1. Yes, I agree, anyone can enjoy the sight, and the lovely smell of the clean clothes.
      I think you get the prize for the most erudite washing contribution!

  11. Interesting idea for a post. I like paintings of laundry in New York City's Lower East Side. I see you have one of John Sloan's paintings in your post. Here is another one by him, entitled "A Woman's Work," which I like.

    When we lived in Chicago, we had a wooden back porch where my mother would hang up the laundry. And when I moved into my apartment years ago, there was a laundry line running from the kitchen window to the bathroom window. I didn't use it, but I used to see (and hear as the gadgets attached to the lines were rusty) women in the building across from mine hanging out their laundry. Alas, no longer.

    1. Kathy, I didn't know anything about John Sloan other than the painting I used, but I loved the one you linked to, and now I see he did quite a few others on a similar them - they're beautiful, thank you.
      I was glad to see so many people liked the cheap and cheerful way of drying clothes, even in this modern age of cramped living and electric dryers.

  12. In John Sloan's days, laundry was hung up on lines.

    I am drawn to the tenement life on New York's Lower East Side. That's the life of my Russian Jewish immigrant grandparents, of my grandmother who worked at the Triangle Factory, but was ill on March 25, 1911, the day of the horrible fire. Luckily, she was not there but lost many young friends.

    The Lower East Side was the scene of some of my youthful adventures, lots of great restaurants, street musicians, art and jewelry outside. It was one of the places to be in my youth.

    I've read several novels in which immigrant families in the early 1900s started out on the Lower East Side.

    1. How interesting Kathy. The last time I was in New York, I went for a walking tour of the Lower East Side, where the guide told us many such stories, it was absolutely fascinating and the single thing I tell NY visitors to do. I am always very interested in immigration because my own family are Irish, and some members went to America and some to England.

  13. The day before I saw this post, Glen and I were talking about washers and dryers in our childhood. I remember my parents having a washer and dryer in the kitchen, although we were in a tiny little house. We did have line for drying in the back yard, although don't have much memory of that. Glen lived in Ohio and they had a washer, but all clothes were dried on a line in the basement. Makes me wonder what people do in the really cold climates when it is snowing or freezing. In books... not a detail I remember.

    1. My mother always hung the washing out to dry if it was at all possible - she didn't even have a drier till late in life. Getting the washing dry must have been one of the great unmentioned difficulties of life in cold climates with little technology. Anyway, I was delighted to see that the question resonated with so many people.

  14. We had an old-fashioned washing machine with a wringer in Chicago and my mother hung the clothes out on the wooden back porch.

    Well, Moira, my sister and I are a product of a bicultural family of immigrants. My mother's parents were Russian/Polish/Jewish immigrants who came here in 1907. And my father's grandparents were Irish immigrants; well, three were Irish and one was English. (Those grandparents of his argued about their religions daily.)

    Quite an interesting family life: lots of holidays, feasts, cultural things that were
    wonderful for the children. A Passover Seder one week and then Easter egg dying and hunts the next, lots of chocolate. Matzohs for my mother and hot cross buns for my father. We weathered it well.

    We were very close to my mother's family who spoke Yiddish. But we visited our father's brothers and their families; that's where I heard the Clancy brothers and began to like Irish songs.

    It's an interesting way to grow up.

    1. How lovely! You are lucky, Kathy, to be able to claim and enjoy all those different cultural heritages.

  15. Well, yes, and it confuses my friends. When I was using some rather Christian expletives, a friend was shocked and asked why someone who was Jewish was saying these things. I reminded him of my name which is Irish and my father's heritage and the religion of his childhood. We grew up hearing him use expletives
    and both my sister and I do this.

    On the other hand, I worked in offices as a teen-ager where no one was Jewish and everyone was Irish or Italian. The managers would tell anti-Semitic jokes around me, not knowing of my heritage. I would get very upset but I didn't say anything as it was my first job and I was 18. But later I wish I had refuted it.

    I don't put up with any bigotry any more as you know because I won't read books containing any type of bigotry if it's over the top. But about a year after the job was over, I became very irked at that close-mindedness and that was that.

    1. We have to pick our fights don't we? It can be hard when you're young, and think your job might be at risk: I think we all get better at working out what we should do as we get older. People told very anti-Irish jokes in my young days, and I think all women had to put up with banter that would be considered completely unacceptable now.

  16. Yes, of course, women have had to put up with awful wisecracks and so-called jokes and outright putdowns. I remember more than a few.

    True about anti-Irish jokes, too. I've seen a few at blogs actually or some directed at people from the very county from which my great-grandmother emigrated. It shocked me.

    And then I heard Liam Neeson talk about on TV the bigotry he faced in Ireland and then when he moved to England as an Irish person.

    Anyway, I take the resilience and strength from both cultures, not to mention sense of humor, and move on. The humor helps. I love Jewish humor and dry Irish, English wit. I grew up with all of it and appreciate it. I just saw the guys from Monty Python on TV last week here with a few clips from their first movie and almost fell over laughing and remembered how much my father loved their wit.

    1. Finding something to laugh about always helps - and taking the best from all cultures.

  17. one of my favorites:
    Happiness is Waiting from Cosy Sheridan's Eros 'album'
    This entire song is about hanging clothes on the line.

    1. What a great song! Thanks very much for sharing it...

  18. Hello. I would love to share a creative workshop I held with three women where one of the creative tools for unlocking narratives and an affective experience of beauty was hanging up our washing and then lying underneath each others washing.
    Please could you email me your email address.

    1. Thanks Abi, I'd be very interested in learning about that. I will email you.