Remembering the backyard dryer

My father built two houses in the late 1920s, the second of which was where I was raised by my parents with my sister (six years older) and brother (three years older.) Though our city lot could be considered small by today’s standards at about 40′ by 100′, it never seemed that way growing up because we were free to use almost any space in the entire neighborhood including the streets and alleys. One exception, at least in the summer, was that we could not use our backyard on Mondays. Other days as I described in a previous column, we could use the yard for a miniature baseball field by also incorporating some neighbors’ yards. We also had other games played there and at one point had about six buried cans serving as cups for our putting golf game.

But Mondays? Usually not. Some of you may also have experienced every Monday as wash day. That meant pumping the water from our cistern that stored the rainwater runoff from our roof. The pumping filled a large boiler on a short gas stove in our basement, then by buckets that hot water went into the washing machine and some went into one of the two stationary, cement wash tubs for a hot rinse cycle or hand scrubbing on a wash board. Summer Monday chores continued with carrying the heavy wet wash up from the basement to the backyard dryer. If any younger people are reading this, they may wonder what a backyard dryer is, but the rest of you know that means air-dried, hopefully in the sun.

I am not sure when we got an electric (or gas) dryer, but I don’t remember having one even into the late 1950s and by that time I had been gone from home for quite a few years. The backyard dryer meant that one of us kids had to string the clothesline rope back and forth between our garage and our house. We did have one wire line (not sure what it was made from, but it did not rust.) Before using it we had to at least run a moist rag down the line to clean off any dust or dirt that had clung to the wire. That wire line in the summer was used other days of the week for wet bathing suits and towels.

The wire line had no “give” to it, but the rope lines tended to stretch and sag, necessitating the use of clothespoles strategically placed to push the rope line back up high enough so that the wash did not drag on the ground.

A space saving gimmick was the “umbrella” pole. That was a pole that fit into a sleeve buried in the ground so that the pole stood vertically. From the top of that pole were two, approximately 8′ poles that crossed at right angles where they fastened into the vertical pole to form the skeleton (ribs) of the umbrella. Around what were then the four ends were strung the ropes. Construction sometimes formed what would be called an inverted umbrella. It did seem to provide for hanging more laundry in a smaller space rather than stretching ropes over longer distances.


Wash day when it was rainy or in the winter meant that the wet wash needed some other way to facilitate drying. If we had our coal furnace going, we were able to put up clotheslines in the unfinished basement as close as we could to the furnace. Later when I moved away from home and had my own apartment, the equipment used was a folding clothes horse or drying horse, or just a rack, usually made from wood and one that could be folded and put in a closet when not in use. I also had a clothes horse in my room when I attended college.

Some motels used to (or maybe still do) provide a single clothes line from a retractable spool mechanism at one end above the bathtub allowing connection to stretch to the other end above the tub. That allows hanging of a few items that could then drip into the bathtub. The spool material was more like a very strong nylon cord rather than a rope.


A bit of related trivia: Though the one piece clothespin has been around for many years, the clothespin made from two pieces of material with a spring attaching the two was an American invention (David Smith in 1853 and improved by Solon Moore in 1887) and long manufactured in Vermont. Foreign competition did in the companies, with the last clothespin manufactured there in 2009. For many years the clothespin manufacturers wanted a protective tariff, which was not granted. Trump – where were you then?

It seems like it has been a while since I have seen detergent advertised on television with the very-white sheets billowing under the blue skies in the sun. Nor have I seen many clothes hung outside to dry – in the city, that is. I am pretty sure that for those outdoor folks who do a lot of canoeing trips or wilderness hiking, they still employ the decorating of bushes with clothes or sleeping bags being spread out to dry.

If you travel to some foreign countries or less well-to-do spots as well in the U.S., you may see other drying methods. In Tanzania I remember a view of a small stream with laundry being washed well upstream with the drying by spreading the laundry on bushes or flat rocks, then downstream from that were some cars partially parked in the stream being washed – an efficient use of the water!

Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!