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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sentimental Sunday - Aprons, Washing Clothes and Lye Soap

Sentimental Sunday is a daily blogging prompt at Geneabloggers.com used by many genealogy bloggers to help them post content on their sites. To participate in Sentimental Sunday, simply create a post in which you discuss a sentimental story or memory about an ancestor, or maybe even a family tradition that touches you.

Originally aprons were worn for practical reasons. You didn't have that many clothes and it was easier to make and wash aprons than to make and wash clothes. So you wore aprons to protect your clothes just like men wore paper collars, paper cuffs (easier to replace when you got ring around the collar from sweat), sleeve protectors and women wore dress shields (like a kotex for arm pits back before deodorant). You wore your super practical aprons for everyday use and then had your pretty aprons for company and Sundays.

It served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven.
It was wonderful for drying children's tears, and on occasion was even used for cleaning out dirty ears.
From the chicken coop, the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks, and sometimes half-hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven.
When company came, those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids.
And when the weather was cold, Grandma wrapped it around her arms.
Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot wood stove.
Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron.
From the garden, it carried all sorts of vegetables.
After the peas had been shelled, it carried out the hulls.
In the fall, the apron was used to bring in apples that had fallen from the trees.
When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds.
When dinner was ready, Grandma walked out onto the porch, waved her apron, and the men knew it was time to come in from the fields to dinner.
It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that 'old-time apron' that served so many purposes.

Now we have cheap clothes that we can buy with our higher incomes and we have washing machines and indoor plumbing so we don't have to "protect" our clothes like they did. Back then they had to make the clothes, make the soap, haul the water, heat the water over a wood stove (which means cutting and hauling wood), scrub, wring, rinse, wring, hang to dry, fold and put away. Each step entailed hard work so you saved your clothes as best you could.

My Grandmother used to make lye soap and used it for cleaning and shaved it to wash clothes and dishes in. It's made from leftover animal fat (lard) and wood ashes somehow. It was nasty looking stuff and was hard on your skin. Lye is very irritating to the skin and can do severe damage to eyes and throats. Use extreme caution when using lye, always keeping it away from children. You should use rubber gloves and safety glasses when using lye.

Lard was rendered and saved for soap-making from the annual hog kill that took place at the time of the first hard frost in autumn. Lye was made from the ashes left over from the wood stoves. (Most people kept a wooden bin with a side spigot just outside the house, into which they'd dump their ashes. When it came time to make lye soap, they poured water through the ashes and siphoned off the liquid lye.) The third ingredient of lye soap had to be supplied by a pair of hard working hands. Lard and lye were mixed together over an open fire, and stirred for hours with a long-handled paddle. It is said that when the paddle stuck straight up, the soap was ready. Lye soap was then poured into a metal pan and allowed to dry and harden; a process that could take from two weeks to one month. After the lye soap hardened, it was cut into smaller bars for everyday use.

Johnson, Clifton. Highways and Byways of the Mississippi Valley (New York: Macmillan, 1913), pages 156 - 159.

Writes Johnson, of the farmwoman making soap in Missouri, "I stopped at a farmhouse to talk with a sunbonneted white woman who was making soft soap in the yard. She had a fire with a great black kettle over it and said she was 'bilin' the lye. It has to bile slow all the morning,' she continued, 'till it's very strong. Then I put in the fat I've saved --- trimmin's of meat sich as we don't eat, pork rinds, and the cracklin's that we have left when we are trying out lard. After the fat is in I have to stir it every little while with a paddle and be careful not to have too big a fire, or it will bile over. So it simmers along till four or five o'clock and is done; and when it's stood to cool over night I dip it out into a flour barrel. If the soap is all right it's thick like jelly, and I'd much rather have it than the soap you buy. What I make in this kittle will run me a year."
Here is a breakdown of how they made lye soap in the old days: http://pgburrell.home.mindspring.com/id13.html
How to make lye for soap today (you buy the lye): http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to/video/how-to-make-lye-solution-for-soap-safely-204589/

I helped my Grandma wash and hang clothes when I was a little girl. She had an outbuilding called the wash house between the well house and the woodshed. In it she had a huge iron pot on a brick firepit. You started the fire under the pot in the fireplace. She hauled water by the buckets from the well house. She shaved lye soap in it and got it hot. She used a big wooden ladle to stir the clothes and a scrubbing board to scrub them. By the time I came along she had an electric ringer (before you had to crank a wringer by hand). She would push the clothes through two rotating cylinders to squeeze as much of the water out as possible and the clothes would fall into the tub full of clean water for rinsing. Then she would squeeze it through the wringer again and it would be ready to hang out to dry. She wouldn't let me near the wringer because you could get your fingers and hand crushed. You had to keep changing the water in the rinse tub because it would get soapy. When I helped it was when we would come spend a week or two in the summer. Can you imagine what a hard and hot job this was? And it was a full days work. So each week you had a "wash day". It wasn't until I was a teenager that she got a washer and she may have never had a dryer, I don't remember. I was a teenager in the 1970's. Even when she died in the 1980's she had a wood cooking stove and an electric stove in the same kitchen and used the woodstove more than she used the electric stove.

Grandma's was lower to the ground than this one.

That's just the washing and rinsing and wringing of the clothes. Then you had to hang them out. I hung out clothes many a time. I specifically remember hanging out diapers. You had many cloth diapers to wash and hang out to dry. Once the clothes were dry you brought in your baskets of clean laundry and set up the ironing board. You might go through the step of starching depending on what you were washing. The first irons were either cast iron and were heated on the wood stove or hollow to put hot coals in.

My Grandmothers had electric irons but they didn't have the steam features or the slick teflon coated bottoms that we have today. So they had soda bottles with stoppers that had sprinkler heads on them. They would fill the bottle with water, pop the stopper in and use it to sprinkle the clothes. Once you put the iron to the dampened clothes it created steam.

To keep their irons slick, they would rub them over a candle stub that would melt and coat the bottom of the iron with wax. Then the clothes had to be hung on hangers or folded and put away. Laundry was a hard, hot, all day job in those days.

Aprons In Our Family
Here is Grandma (Vivian Mae Barnes Huneycutt) as a middle aged woman, in her apron. Notice the wellhouse behind her. The wash house is just out of the picture. It was behind her.

In towns, there were always women who would do washing as their job to make money. In Stan's family, during the Great Depression, one of his Great Grandmothers took in washing there in Beaumont.

My Great Grandmother, Addie Mae Michael Barnes

Here are my Great Great Grandparents, Margaret Alice Ensley and McCoy Conner. She is wearing her apron at some outdoor picnic. Notice the food on the table in front of her with the large mason jars of tea and the coconut cake.

Here is my Great Grandmother Lillian Vianna Conner Reese as a child wearing her apron.

Here she is middleaged wearing an apron.

And here she is as an old lady and still wearing an apron. She always did.

Some vintage apron patterns

You can do a Google search to find vintage aprons, or patterns to make your own or newly made aprons. Here are some examples of today's beautiful modern aprons. I saw some fashions recently where girls were wearing these beautiful aprons over their clothes as fashion. I loved it and these aprons are gorgeous!

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