A few days ago, I started thinking about the difficulties of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Let’s face it: life without electricity, equal voting rights, or antibiotics would be way harder. To explore this point further, let’s look at life without two rather nice appliances (albeit just for the two weeks that we were on vacation in Canada).
1. Life Without a Dishwasher
At the island, we usually use two big enamelware basins for washing, one with hot rinse water and one with warm soapy water. We take turns, going two at a time, one to wash the dishes and one to dry. There are fun things about this. For as long as I can remember, we’ve sung old camp and vaudeville songs while drying dishes after dinner. (My grandfather is a big fan of Cole Porter.) I have fond memories of my cousins harmonizing over “Lida Rose” from The Music Man. And when you’re not singing, it’s a good time to chat with your dishwashing partner.
But those dishes add up: this year, we had six people up for two weeks, plus two visitors for several days. That’s six to eight sets of dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every. Single. Day. Sometimes the mice get into the silverware drawer and you have to wash every fork, knife, and spoon. Your hands get dry from the soap. I’ve lived in apartments without dishwashers, but cleaning the dishes of two people is way different from doing the dishes of six or eight.
2. Life Without a Washing Machine
This is where the real pain lies. And funny enough, we used to be more modern when my mom was growing up. My grandmother and great-grandmother would haul a freestanding washing machine onto the rocks and set the thing going to wash clothes. Apparently it made an awful racket, but it did the job. Now that we no longer have such a handy appliance, we wash clothes by hand.
It’s an inexact science. We need three or four big tubs, depending on the amount of clothes. The biggest tub we fill with warm, soapy water for washing; a smaller one with warm water for rinsing; and often one with bleachy water for serious stains. After letting the clothes soak in the soapy water, we (and by we I mean my mom, who always takes this on) use a clean metal plunger to mash them around and make sure the soap really gets in there. Stains you have to scrub out by hand. After a few rinses and some vigorous wringing, they’re ready to hang on the line behind the cabin. Again, it’s not all bad; it’s a great time to catch up with my mom or talk through some teaching ideas.
Still, this is one of the most physical domestic activities I’ve ever seen. What with the plunging and the scrubbing and the wringing, you get a real workout. And we actually have it easy with running water, hot and cold, coming out of the pipes at the back of the house; there’s no hauling of water up from the lake or pumps.
Imagine doing these chores for the rest of your life, lady readers. Laundry you could do once a week, but dishes every day. Is it any wonder that when 19th-century women had a little extra cash, they hired out their laundry before purchasing any other luxuries? I’m not dismissing the value of doing things by hand; certainly my family gets some enjoyment out of it, or we’d have invested in some appliances by now. But boy, do I love the 21st century.