It occurred to me as I lifted the load from the washer, up into the dryer. Why don’t we hang out the laundry any more?
Why did we think it necessary to display our empty underwear? Well, reason number 1 is that long ago there weren’t any dryers. I had never heard of them until my sister came home from college and reported drying clothes in a machine. Thinking myself mature at age 11, I pictured a room with clotheslines, ventilated by some sort of window, the walls dripping, a stuffy dark place too crowded with everybody’s wet clothes. Still longer ago, there weren’t even any clotheslines. Watching me hang the wet stuff, my elderly neighbor reported that in his youth he hung the hand-wash on the fence.
Old fence or special wires, they worked. Even in winter. Well—sort of worked—on those winter days when the temp didn’t exceed zero. Anyway, I continued to hang it all out for decades until I moved from a house in the forest to an apartment.
Laundry lines still work. Why don’t we use them? After all, a dryer is just a mechanical device that converts your clothing to lint. The apparel industry is delighted.
I admit, the advent of the electric washing machine saved labor—mostly women’s labor. I remember my mother hand-washing sheets in the bathtub, and the appreciation she later expressed for the machine that swished the clothes. The machine then let you squish them through a wringer into a rinse tub, then a another squish transfer into the next tub, then a squish into the basket that you carried out for hanging. And you could repeat the process with the same waters, successively dirtier selections of clothes, saving hot water. Sox last. The modern automatic washer, coming on the scene in the 1950’s, saved even the squish-and-rinse hand labor. But it couldn’t re-use the water.
Was it all that much trouble to hang the clothes rather than to work a second job to support the dryer, a bigger TV, two cars, a few computers, a climate-controlled house, and a monthly outflow of cash to the power company in return for the inflow of energy and greenhouse gas?
Really, non-hanging is a status non-symbol for the middle class. Upscale communities even have ordinances forbidding exposure of laundry to neighbors and passers-by. It’s as though we’re entitled to entitlement, to a life in artificial beauty and artificial comfort while we avoid meaningful function, like hanging laundry to dry and purify both itself and ourselves in the fresh air and sun.
Our cultural ideal is open space, free wilderness, while our reality is artificiality. It’s the gap between the two that renders our society vulnerable to emergent forces. Remember the song
“…we’ll build a sweet little nest,
somewhere out in the west,
and let the rest of the world go by.”
That open west isn’t there any more—or if it is, you can’t hang your laundry. Perhaps we would be more satisfied, find life to be more meaningful, if we physically lived in the environment instead of degrading it—if we physically did more self-support while consuming less entertainment.
Life is better lived than watched, even when it involves hanging the laundry.