Aren’t We Lucky? GW revisits her own Grandma’s life.

I did an hours ironing today and had to sit down with a cuppa. But although being 80+ is a reasonable excuse, it made me reflect. There I am, blogging about the younger generation not understanding the lives of us older people, but when I was young did I?

This is my grandmother. She was born 147 years ago, in 1870. She was a washerwoman.

I knew her and quite a lot about her life, but when I look back  I realise I had never stopped to think about how  she must have felt.

Odd isn’t it, when you are a child older adults are just there, you don’t think to ask them about their lives.


Now I wanted to talk her. I wanted to ask questions. Even a simple one like “What did she think about when she was ironing?”

She must have stood and ironed for hours, day after day. People sent clothes to her, or she fetched them. My Dad remembered carrying the baskets of ironed clothes back when he was quite small. Always worrying that he would drop them.

When I iron I watch TV, one of those antique search shows, nothing serious. Or listen to the radio. But she had neither.
Maybe a neighbour called by and perhaps sat with some mending or knitting? A good friend might have helped with the buttons.

Yes, the buttons…..another thing I have realised belatedly. They must have driven her nuts.

Before zips everything was buttoned. (even men’s flies.) Shirts, blouses, underwear had buttons. Most were small pearl shell or bone buttons, no plastic like today. Fragile little things they were. Absolutely no match for a mangle. Have you ever seen a mangle? A huge cast iron machine, with big wooden rollers, used for squeezing the water out of the wash.


Each wash had to go through it three times.The first time got rid of the really dirty water, the second the rinse water and finally the water with the starch.

Yes everything that could be was starched to re stiffen it: shirts, petticoats, table linen, and that nightmare, men’s starched collars!

Those great heavy rollers were turned by hand and all the while you could hear the buttons crunching. No wonder that whenever possible people used soft linen covered buttons, cuff links and shirt studs. (Had you ever thought why the latter were the fashion? It has only just occurred to me! A bit late)

When I was a child the mangle fascinated me. It stood in a half open outhouse in the yard and I loved pulling that handle. Lovely noise as the oily gears creaked. And that of course was something else. If you got the clothes near the gears they would have to be rewashed. Even worse, they may have been “mangled” and ruined, a nightmare for a washerwoman.

Can you imagine the fun when at six, I decided to mangle some washing for myself. Happily picking a large handful of flowers, I fed them in. The juice trickled out satisfyingly, a lovely deep red. But so was the wood of my grandma’s rollers! Oh dear… took weeks to get them clean.Pink sheets for weeks and so was my bottom.

But back to my Grandmother. Life has slid into being so easy that it becomes hard to remember exactly how difficult it was.

Washing was a nightmare. Up, light the fire, heat water in kettles, light another fire under the corner copper for boiling clothes, rub soap into clothes, for the really dirty or greasy stuff you had to use washing soda No detergents. And it gave you  dreadfully sore hands.

Put clothes to soak or boil. Ponch, ie thump them with a heavy metal gadget or use a dolly with wooden legs. Do that for say half an hour to beat dirt out. Lift out heavy wet clothes with wooden tongs onto sink to scrub, back to boil, rinse. Re rinse, always more hot water, fetch coal, keep fires going. Make starch with boiling water, still another kettle. More rinsing, soak different clothes in different thicknesses of starch. Collars had to be like cardboard. Mangle or squeeze out every possible drop of water. Carry heavy basket of damp clothes to yard and peg out on line. Fingers crossed for no rain. Otherwise drape everything round fire or on ceiling rails and live in steam for the rest of the day. Wallpaper not happy!
Prepare midday meal for family. Bring in dryish clothes, fold while damp ready to iron tomorrow. Creases don’t iron out of dry cottons and linens. And with no electricity irons had to be heated in front of the fire…Scorching! Soot! Swearing? …😱

It never stopped.

I am horrified by thinking about it and even more, by not having really thought about it before.

No electricity, no radio, no nylon, no detergents, everything starched, outdoor toilet, no bathroom and all water boiled by a perpetually hungry fire. All altered in my lifetime

Aren’t we lucky?


  1. May 21, 2017 / 2:18 pm

    I entered the picture before the era of “wringer washers” ended. I can remember my mother using one of these, a few years before she got her beloved “machine washer”, which spun the clothes to damp dry. I have often thought about how the women of those generations worked, and how they dipped their hands in whatever water or substance they were using—no rubber gloves available then! I remember my mother’s hands, always red and chapped. When she retired, she took great care of her hands, and rejuvenated them to a softness and beauty she could never achieve in her younger days!

    • May 21, 2017 / 7:30 pm

      Yes, the hands! The first thing my mum bought once she restarted work was one of those top loading machines. But still no dryers….

    • May 23, 2017 / 6:49 pm

      My grandmother had the mangle, but like you my Mother had a wringer with rubber rollers. They perished!

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