Clothes on the line

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk

Clothes drying on an outside clothesline were a common sight when I was a child. Every neighbor had a clothesline in the back yard. Even if you were lucky enough to own an electric clothes dryer, you still had a clothesline.


I learned how to hang clothes to dry as soon as I was old enough to reach the line. We had a dryer, but my mother thought some things just “did better” if dried on an outside clothesline.

Sheets, for example, which I never understood. She liked to dry towels in the inside dryer, but sheets would go to the clothesline. Mother said they were “fresher” when dried outside. I disagreed, primarily because it usually took two of us to hang the sheets, and there were at least 100 things I would have rather been doing.

She also always put our blue jeans on the clothesline. She said it made them last longer, but I always suspected it was because it took two dryer cycles to dry a load of jeans, and she thought that was wasting electricity.

As long as the dryer wasn’t on the fritz, “unmentionables” were all spared the outside clothesline. “No need in hanging your underclothes out there for everyone to see,” she would say, as she hefted a basket full of other wet clothes to her hip to haul across the back yard.

I have read that there is a movement to bring back clotheslines for environmental reasons, but I don’t think it will have much traction in the South. For one thing, backyards don’t have clotheslines anymore. The second is that there’s a whole generation of adults – my kids included – who think a clothespin in an archaic clip to keep bags of potato chips fresh after opened.

Our clothesline in the backyard of my youth was no namby-pamby structure. There were only three in my family – Mom, my younger brother and me – but our clothesline was approximately 20 feet long with two lines. The sheets could hang folded on one line, or, if there weren’t many clothes that day, drape across the front and back lines.

The clotheslines were held up by concrete posts. Yes, concrete. Mother wasn’t fooling around with anything a high wind could knock down.

Hanging clothes to dry took a good amount of time. Gathering them after they were dry – which was usually my job – took very little time, especially if Mother wasn’t home to watch. I could snatch those clothes off the line, usually sending clothespins flying, with record speed, especially if there was a storm brewing.

These thoughts of clotheslines popped up recently because our dryer bit the dust. It died after I had washed and dried only one of several loads after being gone for the holidays for two weeks. To make matters worse, it was two days before we were leaving for a cruise, so there were several trips to the laundromat with baskets of wet clothes.

There are many things about the “old days” that I would be happy to see return: More front porch or carport sitting in the evening; more lazy days of shelling peas and beans for the next day’s dinner; more home-cooked meals with the whole family taking part in the preparation.

More days of hanging out clothes to dry doesn’t make my list. But, if anyone needs lessons in how to bring in a basket of clothes in record-setting time, I’m available.

Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.

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