While staying at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast, I spotted a relic that I remember fondly and that may be making a comeback in some progressive communities — the clothesline.
At our home, Saturday was wash day. As our only licensed driver, Dad was the designated launderer. Our Saturday mornings began with the emptying of the clothes hamper under the counter in the bathroom into plastic clothes baskets and the collection of bed and bath linens. Sometimes alone, more rarely with me for company when I was very young, he drove to a laundromat in town, where the women cooed over the little girl they assumed was his granddaughter, thanks to his middle age and shock of white hair. As I grew up, I went less often if at all — too cool to hang around with Dad at a boring place like the laundromat, I’m sure.
Behind the shed in our backyard, underneath the cherry trees, we had five or more clotheslines strung across — enough for most of our clothes and sheets. Knowing my dad, I suspect hanging clothes out to dry in fine weather was a matter of economy — conservation of money as much as of energy, although he did consider the environment, too.
When I was little and somewhat willing to help with the chores, I couldn’t reach the lines (conveniently). By the time I was tall enough, I had better things to do than to help my parents with what seemed like a chore, but would today be a pleasure to me.
When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I started to wear blue jeans to school. They weren’t the pre-washed, distressed designer duds of today, but were dyed a dark blue that penetrated every fiber. I spent countless hours at the kitchen sink trying to rinse the stiffness and the blue out of them. They, too, ended up on the clothesline after leaving a messy trail of water through the trailer. I even hung them out in freezing weather, when they froze and I risked cracking them.
Clothes hung out take longer to dry, especially when the clothesline is in the shade. It’s not as convenient as tossing a load in the dryer and hitting a button, and there are other downsides to line drying under trees besides the amount of time it takes. Occasionally a bird or two would ruin our laundering efforts with well-placed defecation. In our case late spring/early summer meant picking tent caterpillars off nearly every item. I loathe everything about tent caterpillars, especially stepping on them.
If left unscathed by birds and bugs, clothes dried outdoors pick up an indefinable scent of sun and fresh air that no fabric softener, dryer sheet, or other chemical treatment can replicate. It truly is like absorbing sunshine into your clothes.
Even as we tear our hair out over energy sources, climate change, and problematic technologies like wind farms, we’re missing out an obvious way to save money and our clothes — clothesline drying. It costs nothing but the price of clothesline and a few moments of standing outdoors. Our mothers may have loved the affordability and convenience of dryers, and homeowners’ associations hate the sight of something so downscale as clotheslines. But sometimes convenience takes away the satisfaction that performing a simple task as simply as possible offers. And you can’t chat with your neighbor if you’re both isolated in your basements, feeding your machines.
Perhaps a few more clotheslines combined with fewer homeowners’ association rules might improve the neighborliness that seems to have been lost in the last half century — the neighborliness that brought my parents and their peers many a lifetime friendship, no matter where the neighbors moved or where they hung their clothes.