Occasionally, I get the idea that I am a hard worker. For times such as these, I keep stored up in my heart this passage from Robert Caro’s The Path to Power:
Every week, every week all year long—every week without fail—there was washday.
The wash was done outside. A huge vat of boiling water would be suspended over a larger, roaring fire and near it three large “Number Three” zinc washtubs and a dishpan would be placed on a bench.
The clothes would be scrubbed in the first of the zinc tubs, scrubbed on a washboard by a woman bending over the tub. The soap, since she couldn’t afford store-bought soap, was soap she had made from lye, soap that was not very effective, and the water was hard. Getting farm dirt out of clothes required hard scrubbing.
Then the farm wife would wring out each piece of clothing to remove from it as much as possible of the dirty water, and put it in the big vat of boiling water. Since the scrubbing would not have removed all of the dirt, she would try to get the rest out by “punching” the clothes in the vat—standing over the boiling water and using a wooden paddle or, more often, a broomstick, to stir the clothes and swish them through the water and press them against the bottom or sides, moving the broom handle up and down and around as hard as she could for ten or fifteen minutes in a human imitation of the agitator of an automatic—electric—washing machine.1
The next step was to transfer the clothes from the boiling water to the second of the three zinc washtubs: the “rinse tub.” The clothes were lifted out of the big vat on the end of the broomstick, and held up on the end of the stick for a few minutes while the dirty water dripped out.
When the clothes were in the rinse tub, the woman bent over the tub and rinsed them, by swishing each individual item through the water. Then she wrung out the clothes, to get as much of the dirty water out as possible, and placed the clothes in the third tub, which contained bluing, and swished them around in it—this time to get the bluing all through the garment and make it white—and then repeated the same movements in the dishpan, which was filled with starch.
At this point, one load of wash would be done. A week’s wash took at least four loads: one of sheets, one of shirts and other white clothing, one of colored clothes and one of dish towels. But for the typical, large, Hill Country farm family, two loads of each of these categories would be required, so the procedure would have to be repeated eight times.2
For each load, moreover, the water in each of the three washtubs would have to be changed. A washtub held about eight gallons. Since the water had to be warm, the woman would fill each tub half with boiling water from the big pot and half with cold water. She did the filling with a bucket which held three or four gallons—twenty-five or thirty pounds. For the first load or two of wash, the water would have been provided by her husband or her sons. But after this water had been used up, part of washday was walking—over and over—that long walk to the spring or well, hauling up the water, hand over laborious hand, and carrying those heavy buckets back. Another part of washday was also a physical effort: the “punching” of the clothes in the big vat. “You had to do it as hard as you could—swish those clothes around and around and around. They never seemed to get clean. And those clothes were heavy in the water, and it was hot outside, and you’d be standing over that boiling water and that big fire—you felt like you were being roasted alive.” Lifting the clothes out of the vat was an effort, too. A dripping mass of soggy clothes was heavy, and it felt heavier when it had to be lifted out of that vat and held up for minutes at a time so that the dirty water could drip out, and then swung over to the rinsing tub. Soon, if her children weren’t around to hear her, a woman would be grunting with the effort. Even the wringing was, after a few hours, an effort. “I mean, wringing clothes might not seem hard,” Mrs. Harris says. “But you have to wring every piece so many times—you wring it after you take it out of the scrub tub, and you wring it after you take it out of the rinse tub, and after you take it out of the bluing. Your arms got tired.” And her hands—from scrubbing with lye soap and wringing—were raw and swollen. Of course, there was also the bending—hours of bending—over the rub boards. “By the time you got done washing, your back was broke,” Ava Cox says. “I’ll tell you—of the things of my life that I will never forget, I will never forget how much my back hurt on washdays.” Hauling the water, scrubbing, punching, rinsing: a Hill Country farm wife did this for hours on end—while a city wife did it by pressing the button on her electric washing machine.3
Lest I think we now live in the time of intellectual pursuits not subject to measures of physical toil, I force myself to remember that Caro wrote this passage after moving to Texas’s Hill Country,4 because he sensed the local folks were unwilling to open-up to outsiders. He has committed his life to his art. I do not know hard work.