Big mama’s old black wash pot
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    Auction Finds

    Requiem for the torturous Monday wash day

    Whenever I see a vintage cookbook, I quickly reach for it and open it up. I’m usually looking for interesting recipes to try or sweet stories to read.

    At auction recently I thumbed through one with recipes from Cape Cod with historical photos, figuring I’d see a few that were native to that New England area. The cookbook was published in the 1980s by the Thornton W. Burgess Society, founded in honor of the conservationist and children’s book writer.

    Printed beneath a recipe for Veal Scallopini À Ma Façon was a simple recipe titled “Wash Day Long Ago.” It was written in a stereotypical hillbilly script, and was obviously meant to be funny to anyone who didn’t spend hours with their hands and arms in sudsy water scrubbing clothes.

    wash day recipe

    A recipe for wash day, which was usually on a Monday.

    The origin of this list of instructions is ambiguous. tried to figure out when it was first printed, and could only go back to 1954 when it was published in a newspaper (probably after someone else wondered about its origin). There appear to be several versions, all portraying women as superhuman work mules, some in dialect and others with corrected grammar.

    Wash day and washerwomen were such a prominent part of our culture generations ago – both in this country and abroad –  that they were the subject of much prose. Googling, I came across another wash-day tale in a book of morality stories titled “Child-Garden of Story, Song and Play, Vol. 1,” published in 1893. It was titled “A Story for Wash Day.”

    “Washing day was over and the tired washerwoman had gone home. A big Basket of clean sweet clothes stood in the laundry. Nearby were the Tubs, leaning against the wall. The Washboard rested against the bench, and the Line hung on the wall. The boiler shone like silver, and beside it stood a basket of Clothespins. The room was very still, and presently the Tub spoke.”

    What followed was a litany of pompous speeches by the objects the washerwoman had used that day, each noting their own importance above all others.

    wash day

    Cover of the Cape Cod cookbook.

    In the sky above, the sun had listened to them before it finally spoke. The sun admonished them for leaving out the most important element of this weekly ritual: water (which had silently dripped as they each spoke). The sun then told the story of “bare-armed, bare-footed women, carrying bundles on their heads” to a river to wash clothes using only water and roots to clean them and stones on which to dry them. These women washed without a basket, boiler, tub, washboard, line or clothespin.

    “You are all useful and a great help, but when I heard you all boasting of your importance and forgetting the Water entirely I wanted to tell you this story to remind you that sometimes the one who really does the most does not tell of it.”

    The sun could have easily been talking about the women who do the washing without fanfare.

    That sent me to a poem by Langston Hughes about washerwomen, which I’ve written about along with Big Mama’s wash days. His poem is titled “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman.” Hughes himself worked in a laundry after the poem was published in Crisis magazine in 1925.

    An excerpt:

    And I’ve seen you singing, wash-woman. Out in the backyard garden under the apple trees, singing,
    hanging white clothes on long lines in the sun-shine.
    And I’ve seen you in church a Sunday morning singing,
    praising the Almighty, because some day you’re going to
    sit on the right hand of God and forget
    you ever were a wash-woman. And the aching back
    and the bundle of clothes will be unremembered then.
    Yes, I’ve seen you singing.

    And for you , O singing wash-woman
    For you, singing little brown woman,
    Singing strong black woman,
    Singing tall yellow woman,
    Arms deep in white suds,
    Soul clean,
    Clothes clean, —
    For you I have many songs to make
    Could I but find the words.


    wash day

    Veal Scallopini À Ma Façon recipe from the cookbook.

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