The Good Old Backyard Clothesline

I haven’t given them much thought in the past 20 years or so, but after reading a recent article in the Wall Street Journal the memories came flooding back.

I’m referring to the multiple clotheslines we had set up in our backyard where I grew up.

There are so many details I remember:

  • The wicker basket that was used to carry the clothes outside.

  • The cloth basket containing the clothespins that could be draped over the clothesline.

  • The thin metal poles that were used to prop up the clotheslines.

  • The process of attaching the clothes to the line using the pin, and then strategically placing the poles to make sure the clothes weren’t dragging on the ground. And of course, trying to see how fast I could do all of this.
  • The incredibly fresh smell the clothing had after having been hung outside to dry.

In other words, all good memories.

Growing up, I never once thought it was strange to hang our laundry outside. We did it, and the neighbors did it.

But time marches on, and a few years later my wife and I bought a house about 15 minutes away from where I grew up.

It’s hard to say if it was the neighborhood or simply a new era, but no one hung their clothes out to dry. It wasn’t long before I thought the whole idea of hanging your clothes outside to dry was kind of odd, and eventually, it became a distant memory.

That was until my mom and aunt bought a house in our neighborhood about 20 years ago. Shortly after moving in, my mom, who was born and raised in Ireland, set up a clothesline in her backyard and was using it to dry her clothes. It didn’t take long for a neighbor to come knocking and offer to install a retractable clothesline so that my mom’s clothesline would not always be visible. It was a neighborly offer, but one with a hidden message – people in this neighborhood don’t really hang their clothes outside to dry.

My mom and aunt got the message, and never hung their clothes outside to dry again.

Like I said, I haven’t thought about that incident, or clotheslines in general, for 20 years until reading the article in the WSJ.

The article notes that Americans have a reputation for being anti-clothesline.

Doonesbury even made fun of it:

British filmmaker Steven Lake, director of a laundry-line documentary called “Drying for Freedom” (2011), said the reason he made the movie was to understand why Americans’ attitudes differ from those in Europe and other countries, where people routinely dry clothes outdoors.

I remember being in Barcelona last year, and sights like the following were quite common – people hanging their clothes out from their balconies:

While some homeowners’ associations have banned clotheslines, clotheslines lovers are fighting back, Mr. Lake said. At least 19 states protect a “right to dry” with laws that prevent municipalities and homeowners’ associations from outlawing laundry lines.

It’s sad that clotheslines have become a cause of community disputes, because laundry used to connect neighbors, said museum curator Lissa Rivera.

Digging through the archives of the Museum of the City of New York, Ms. Rivera recently discovered a trove of early 20th-century photos of clotheslines crisscrossed above courtyards. “Those clotheslines were a way of knowing your neighbors, because you would have to make arrangements to share a line,” she said.

“You look at those photos and you can feel the closeness and know the children on the block all played together—as compared with now in New York, when you walk past a person who lives in your building and don’t even make eye contact,” Ms. Rivera said.

I can vaguely recall that being the case in my neighborhood growing up. Hanging your clothes outside offered neighbors the chance to chat with each other across the yards (and the chance to check out what kind of clothes and towels and sheets the neighbors had).

I’m certainly not anti-clothesline, but I guess at this point I have no desire to ever hang my laundry outside. It now seems kind of weird to me, after all, I don’t think anyone is interested in seeing my Three Stooges underwear.



2 thoughts on “The Good Old Backyard Clothesline

  1. Great post! I haven’t thought about this in years but my grandmother used to hang clothes out on a line next to the house. The clothes did smell great. I also remember helping to pull them down very quickly if rain was coming. Thanks for uncovering that memory for me, I’ll have a smile on my face all evening.


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