‘Mississippi Washer’ was no relief for black washerwomen
When I saw the wooden barrel in the rear yard of the auction house, I thought it was a planter, just like the ones I had at home, but much bigger and wider. As I got closer I saw the washed-out label on the front:
“Genuine Mississippi Washer.”
The washer had a metal agitator like you’d see in old washing machines, cupped handles, a wooden crank and a spout for releasing the water. It was simple in both its looks and functionality.
The Genuine Mississippi Washer was a turn-of-the 20th century wooden machine that sat on three slightly curved legs. It was advertised in a 1908 Sears catalog ad for $5.62 and in a 1906 trade magazine ad for $5.57 plus a free full-size couch. The washer was touted as being less expensive and better than those high-grade $12 to $15 machines.
“Busy housewife, don’t toil and sweat over the washtub,” proclaimed the 1908 ad. “Don’t give up all of your Monday morning to the weekly washing. … don’t wear yourself out bending over the old style washboard and rubbing the clothes before you almost wear them out also, don’t spend two hours over a hot, steaming, unhealthful tub, when with the Mississippi you can do the whole washing in fifteen minutes.”
I suspect that the woman who had money to spare for a washer wasn’t cleaning her own clothes. Likely, she was having it done by one of the thousands of washerwomen or laundresses – black women, in particular – who took in clothes to make some money to help feed their families. They were the ones doing the back-breaking work of standing over a washtub and washboard, their hands in hot water cleaning clothes that they could never afford.
The 1908 ad mentioned that the washer was about the same price as a washtub and washboard, which had been the way women cleaned clothes for decades. By the 1930s, farm women in such places as Mississippi, before electricity reached them, heated water in a large pot or kettle on an outdoors fire, used homemade lye soap to clean the clothes and then hung them on a clothesline to dry. The chore would take an entire day, and Monday was usually “wash day.”
Around that time, my grandmother took in washing for a while before my grandfather bought property and moved his family to a farm outside Macon, GA. My mother recalled that as a child she and one of her sisters would sit near Big Mama’s big black pot, placing potatoes to cook in the flame beneath it.
Osceola McCarty, a washerwoman who in 1995 left $150,000 to a Mississippi university for scholarships for African American students, told of what her day was like:
“I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I would soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, wrench ’em, rub ’em again, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I would start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00. I loved the work. The bright fire. Wrenching the wet, clean cloth. White shirts shinin’ on the line.”
Washerwomen could be found in many countries (and even in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”). In this country, women with a lot of money or even a little money had their clothes washed by other women. After slavery and beyond, thousands of black women kept doing it as an occupation (in Philadelphia in 1900, more than 84 percent of black women were servants or laundresses). They had some competition, though, from both Chinese laundries, which they objected to, and white laundry owners intent on putting them both out of business.
Historian Carter G. Woodson, writing in an issue of the Journal of Negro History in 1930, extolled black washerwomen as the backbone of their households and communities during slavery and Reconstruction. They were the breadwinners of their family when jobs were denied their husbands or mates, the ones who bought the houses, sent their children to school to be educated, saved money and invested in black banks, supported their churches, and drew scorn from middle-class blacks and condescension from whites. Someone in the 1930s thought so much of them that they made a doll in their image.
This was not necessarily a silent group of women. In Atlanta in 1881, about 3,000 black washerwomen – and some whites – went on strike for better wages, respect and a uniform pay rate. They were making from $4 to $8 a month, and they could only increase their income by taking on more washing. They started work on Monday, and delivered cleaned and ironed clothes on Saturday.
The strike was organized by a group of 20 women who formed the Washing Society, and they were backed by local ministers. White Atlanta city officials tried to deter them with arrests, fines and harassment, but they persevered and inspired other workers. The strikers were believed to have prevailed.
This was not the first or only strike: Black washerwomen in Jackson, MS (1866) and Galveston, TX (1877) organized themselves. In Mobile, AL, around World War I, washerwomen formed a union and picketed a laundry, joining other strike actions across the South.
McCarty of Hattiesburg, MS, became a washerwoman in the South sometime in the early 20th century, but her entry into the industry was not as dramatic. Her ending was, though.
She donated part of her savings to the University of Southern Mississippi to finance scholarships for students in need of assistance. She had washed clothes for families in her hometown, living frugally and saving the small amount of money she made. She died in 1999, her wish of seeing the first scholarship recipient fulfilled.
McCarty’s grandmother and aunt had also been washerwomen. When her aunt became too ill to do the work, McCarty dropped out of school in the sixth grade to take care of her and take over the washing. She began saving her money when she was 8, and years later when the pain of arthritis was too great, she gave up washing in 1994. By then, she had amassed $280,000, part of which she gave to the college.