Whither the clothesline?

I once read this injunction: 

“Have nothing in your home that is neither beautiful nor useful.” 

I like that saying, because it acknowledges that beauty has its own usefulness and utility has its own beauty. It pretty much gives the green light to anything except downright ugly things that you couldn’t pound a short nail with. 

I’ll circle back around to that idea in a minute, but in light of my recent post about how people behave on buses around here, I gave neighborliness a try yesterday. An elderly couple got on the bus. She sat in an empty seat opposite me and he sat next to me, so they could be next to each other across the aisle. Cute, right? So I says to him I says, “Good morning.” 

And that’s all it took. I won’t reproduce the entire conversation here. The first leg of it contained the phrases “may get some rain”, “okay by me”, and  “watering my vegetables each morning for the last 29 days”, and that brought us to a discussion of our respective gardens. 

“I always said I’ll have a vegetable garden even if I have to get out there on my hands and knees, ” he said. Then he laughed and pointed to the knees of his denim jeans. “It’s at that point now! I wore out my britches working out there.” 

I told him that my lettuce and peas were doing well but complained that my broccoli had bolted. He sympathized, telling me he once grew radishes that tossed up great volumes of vegetation but that were the size of marbles when he harvested them. “When it’s a good year, it’s really good. You get fresh vegetables right out of the garden. When it’s a bad year, you say what am I doing this for?” 

He then observed that no one else on his street maintains a vegetable garden, and he seemed a little perplexed by this. 

I thought this was interesting. My impression is that there are a lot of people in North Seattle raising their own food in small gardens. On my own street, our friends next door have grown some vegetables for at least two years, and a few people have started building small boxes like mine or setting out pots with tomatoes. My little 3-foot by 6-foot “farm box” is out front, actually on city property, so everyone could see me growing clover as a “green manure” in it over the winter, and I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that my little zillionth of a cultivated acre may have inspired these recent enterprises. If so I’m relieved, because I sort of feel like the Jed Clampett of the neighborhood. I had a two-yard heap of topsoil lying in the driveway all winter, the hatchet job I did on a laurel hedge that was leaning over our back yard took me a month to clean up and dispose of, and I found that someone actually cut my lawn one day after I had been lax about keeping it mowed (this last turned out to be an honest mistake on the part of the neighbor’s lawn care guy, but I didn’t know that and was busy feeling sheepish and ashamed until my neighbor apologized, at which time I naturally modified my attitude to belated outrage). 

I bring up the hillbilly thing because of something  else my fellow rider said yesterday. After noting the unpopularity of vegetable gardening on his street, he observed that “no one hangs their laundry outside to dry anymore. We’re the only ones on our street who do that. Even if it’s sunny out, people put all their laundry in the dryer. They never even think of hanging it on a line.” 

Camille     arro's "Woman Hanging Laundry"

Camille Pissarro's "Woman Hanging Laundry"


I was careful to note that there sure was nothing like the fresh smell and crisp hand of wind-dried laundry (I was in fact momentarily cast back to some of the great line-dried-laundry-sniffing moments in my life), then I hazarded my impression that a lot of people these days probably view clotheslines as sort of “seedy”. He didn’t hear me. He went on to say that he and his wife still put their clothes outside to dry “even in the winter. If they freeze, you just bring them inside and thaw them out.” 

I’ve actually given some thought to disappearance of clotheslines previous to this conversation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is quite a bit of hillbilly in me. I think middle-class culture, and even that of the rich, didn’t used to be so removed from what I might call “just living on the earth”. It makes sense to use the wind to dry your clothes. But in the last few decades the middle class has become hostile to function as a legitimate beauty in it’s own right. Everything gets sanitized to an increased level of marketability. A home in a neighborhood is really now a house in a location, and most of us don’t want to jeapardize the value of the house by making it more of a home.  I’m not immune. Part of me would strongly object to having to look out of my windows and see someone else’s union suit flapping in a June breeze. 

But the deeper, Jed Clampett part of me recognizes that this is a lot of craziness. We city dwellers seem to indulge in a collective shame about our agrarian past, and in many places we’ve zoned or covenanted agraria out of our neighborhoods. We’d be embarrassed by the smell of a truly useful compost heap, the needy clucking of hens. And like my companion said, we never even consider using the wind to dry our clothes anymore. Maybe that’s because clotheslines remind us of rural homesteads, where people live among all of earth’s unseemly processes and bad smells, or of tenements of the urban poor, where neighbors live with such a lack of privacy and dignity that they must simply ignore each other’s underwear going by on the pulley. 

When exactly did laundry blowing dry in the wind stop being perceived as a beautiful thing in its own folksy, functional way? Whenever that happened, that was the moment when beauty and usefulness became estranged bedfellows. 


Update 23 February 2010: I’ve just discovered that the quote I referred to at the beginning of this post is attributable to the author, artist and textile designer William Morris, and its full text is “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”


13 Responses to “Whither the clothesline?”

  1. 1 Angela June 21, 2009 at 05:14

    I think laundry drying in the wind is a beautiful sight. Nothing Jed Clampett about it. Sadly, I think the truth of it is that most of us would LOVE the luxury of hanging our clothes to dry, but we don’t have the time, or we don’t make the time. In France, most people still hang their clothes to dry, and I remember one woman complaining that the “gypsies” would come by on a regular basis and steal her clothes. Now there’s a good reason to use the dryer!

    • 2 jstwndrng June 22, 2009 at 23:24

      You make a good point, A. Rather than writing a lengthy post lamenting the end of line drying in Western culture based on a research sample of one guy on the bus, I might better have done a little more research first. Just now I was surpriesed to find that even a quick googling of “clothesline hanging laundry” will return heaps of evidence that clotheslines enjoy staunch and loyal support among the American techno-savvy suburban population. As in the days of Revolution, many Americans share the French ideals regarding line drying — maybe not surprising, since the colors of our flags is still the same, and what is a flag but laundry exalted to a national symbol!

  2. 3 Ben F June 21, 2009 at 06:47

    I personally confess, I deeply enjoy sinking my face into fresh, wind dried sheets. One drawback is that all of the Spring pollen gets wedged in the fabric. That sets the sinuses ablaze. I must agree with m’lady. I believe that the clothes drying went out along with knowing how to sew. Its a chore, one that most people have no ambition or time to perform.
    For example. Chopping wood is a chore. I absolutely love the smell of it, the flying chips, the “ping” of the axe head striking the wedge. My back doesn’t think of it as particularly swift and several other muscles loudly object. But the beauty of it is submarined by the need to just “get it done”, so the auto-splitter is rented and the romantic image of the man of the house splitting wood for the family’s comfort is replaced by, “Honey, we need to get it done in time for winter, ..just rent a splitter”.

    • 4 Kip June 21, 2009 at 16:39

      Sure, the clothesline is gone, but I have found a stroll around the neighborhood can still reveal when laundry day descends on certain houses. The vent for the dryer gives off the smell of the chosen dryer sheet, and while not quite the same as a good old charcoal grill, it still leaves me with somewhat of a neighborly feeling. Of course, to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of ones neighborhood, one must leave the comfort of ones home and actually walk around. And that, sadly, seems to be going the way of the clothesline!

      • 5 jstwndrng June 22, 2009 at 23:37

        Kip, I hadn’t thought of those vents in a long time. Brilliant. Like a latter-day Thoreau, you walk and walk, and you know your community intimately by nothing more tangible than a scent. “Coming up on Elm Street, I’ll wager; Downy has 4-to-1 brand loyalty over Bounce in this neighborhood. Yonder a ways we’ll come into Snuggle territory.”

    • 6 jstwndrng June 22, 2009 at 23:30

      Ben, yes, the impulse to “get it done” can never have been part of the original beauty of doing work. That’s the agrarian and the industrial worlds clashing. I think a successful commitment to line-drying, or hand-chopping, would necessarily involve an equal and balancing discontinuation of some other activity. But that can work in your favor. Consider: a half cord split by hand and three trips up and down your ladder should definitely exempt you from the gym workout with the cheif. You might actually come out with time to spare, depending on how clean your swing is, hm?

  3. 7 Marni June 24, 2009 at 01:44

    In honor of “the House of the Burning Crow”…

    I will say that my romanticized vision of the clothesline is something out of “Little House on the Prairie”, with prairie being the operative word; 2 poles set in the ground, with a long,white clothesline stretched tautly between them and laundry gently blowing in the breeze, only puffy white clouds overhead. In my yard, it would be two large trees, with very large crows perched on all of the low overhanging branches, eagerly awaiting my clean,wet laundry in some sort of nightmare pact of revenge. I think I’ll have to pass, at least until I move to the prairie.

  4. 8 jstwndrng June 24, 2009 at 05:17

    I think you’re on to something with the prairie thing. Ready supply of free wind daily replenished, an ethos more attuned to life in rhythm with the earth’s processes, and neighbors far enough away as to be untroubled by the sight of your bloomers luffing in a gale.

  5. 9 jstwndrng June 24, 2009 at 20:11

    My mom tenders this vignette by email from her home in a “55+ only” community, where, even if she had room in her yard to string a clothesline, she would not have permission:

    “I remember helping my Mom hang clothes outside even in the winter. They would freeze on the line and we’d have to drape them over the long, wide radiators in the house to thaw. Dryers had not been invented yet. Anyway, yes, the sheets, towels, p.j.’s, etc. all smelled SO good. As you made up a bed with fresh sheets you could not resist the urge to bury your nose in the linen and breathe in such wonderfulness. Clothes also lasted longer and were whiter for having dried in the sun and fresh air.”

  6. 11 Kelley March 9, 2010 at 11:13

    P.S. I agree, there’s nothing like the smell of plein-air-imbued laundry. And I’d love the opportunity to view my city neighbors’ clothespinned unmentionables (do clothespins – the wood ones, not the crappy plastic knockoffs – even exist anymore?) over the property line designator. Such an intimate, equalizing summary of the layers we choose as buffers between our epidermi and a stiff breeze. To be fair (to ensure the equalness of the equalization) I’d need to put wind (of the exterior sort) through my own roomy and careworn buffers, and the thought of that is probably why into the dryer – rather than onto the line – they go. Perhaps sheets are the place to start…

  1. 1 The Barber of Ravenna and other stories « Just Wondering Trackback on July 17, 2009 at 04:36

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