The laundry caste system
December 20, 2012 9:05 PM   Subscribe

The social etiquette of hanging laundry on the line...

I spoke with a woman in her late 70s recently who told me a story about her first run-in with her mother in law 50 some years ago. This woman is from Oklahoma and she married a man from Arkansas. They settled in Arkansas soon after they were wed and lived next to his mother. She was hanging laundry on the line and her mother in law, after seeing this, told her in a very dismissive manner that she "hangs her laundry like a damn Okie". Apparently the way laundry was hung on the line was an indicator of status and upbringing. Her husband confirmed this, but didn't ever offer help to let her fit in. She said this has always bothered her, even 50 years later, but she never knew if this was true or if her mother in law was just plain mean. Has anyone ever heard of this?
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My wife said that her mother was very strict about how women's underwear should be hung - it should be hidden at all costs - and that how one displayed one's underwear is an indicator of social standing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:23 PM on December 20, 2012

I know of someone who was mortified when staying with her in-laws (from an entirely different social/cultural background) because said in-laws, as hosts, did her laundry and hung her underwear on the line, even though the line was in a fenced-off back yard.

Tumble dryers were emissaries of propriety to the South.
posted by holgate at 9:33 PM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have not heard of it but it does not surprise me that there is an etiquette of hanging out laundry. I'm mostly familiar with the debate surrounding whether you do or don't hang out laundry generally (some cities forbid it, some rural places just have snobbishness about it) but I enjoyed reading up on what people thought was the proper way to hang laundry. Here are a few.

- a lesson in clothesline etiquette blog post explaining some of the "reasons" behind the norms
- The unwritten rules of hanging laundry to dry outside in Cleveland
- The laundry maid, her duties and how to perform them has many guidelines for laundry drying but not much in terms of competitive/relative drying tactics
posted by jessamyn at 9:36 PM on December 20, 2012 [17 favorites]

My grandmothers both hung out laundry (or had others do it) in a very formal way. Sheets and towels were hung on the outer perimeter, then outer clothing (shirts, dresses, etc.), then undergarments and socks in the inner core, so they would be shielded from view by the sheets, outer clothing, etc.

They were both born in the 1890s, but one grew up in Massachusetts and one in New Brunswick, Canada, so this was presumably a fairly widespread set of customs in that era.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:55 PM on December 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

I know that my sort-of in-laws, not sophisticated people, have no concept of properly hanging laundry, e.g. arranging pants so that the seams are aligned and even just flopping the ends of pant legs over the top of the laundry line. I was taught a very detailed functional approach where pants get hung one way so they open up and dry and don't get creases in weird places, shirts and blouses are hung one way so they aren't stretched, and so forth.

The house I grew up in had no back yard to speak of, so unfortunately I had to get used to having my underwear hanging on a line out front for God and all to see. That could also be an aspect; I'm sure it's never been something our neighbors fully appreciated.
posted by dhartung at 10:16 PM on December 20, 2012

It never occurred to me that underwear placement would be the key to harmony. Apparently we damn Okies have no shame when it comes to this. I am calling her tomorrow and will send the clothesline blog to her and see what she thinks.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 10:19 PM on December 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

As someone who grew up in a working class family in a rural area (upstate New York), hanging clothes to dry in fine weather rather than running the dryer and wasting electricity was the norm. And we didn't have many "rules". In general my mom would avoid hanging things like underwear and bras on the line, keeping those to either the dryer or drying them on a wooden clothes rack in the laundry room. I do remember my mom being mildly derisive of a neighbor of ours who would just fling the clothes over the line instead of using pins. But my mom's issue with it was that she said the clothes would bunch up on the line and not dry evenly, not that the person was breaking some social contract.

Later when I was in college and living in a house with four roommates, I suggested getting a clothesline as a way to save on our laundry costs. Most of my roommates were fine with that but my one roommate absolutely refused and begged us not to do it either and she wouldn't say why. Finally after repeated needling she admitted, red faced, that she believed only low class people hung out their laundry, and didn't want our neighbors thinking we were poor. I pointed out that we were poor, relatively speaking, and that our "neighbors" were a frat house and a bunch of ramshackle student apartments, all people unlikely to judge us for laundry hanging, but she wouldn't budge. So there definitely seems to be some kind of class issue around the idea of hanging laundry period.

But it's hard to know exactly what issue was involved with your friend and her mother in law. It sounds like she was criticizing the way she hung the laundry rather than the fact that she was doing it at all. Maybe she broke the "unmentionables" on the inside rule, or didn't use clothes pins. Also I can't imagine that laundry hanging practices are correlated much with one's home state. I'm sure there are just as many people in Arkansas who break the unwritten rules of laundry hanging as there are in OK. So sounds like meanness to me.
posted by katyggls at 10:26 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard of hanging underwear inside of pillow cases (ie the open end is at the top). On shared clotheslines, it's impolite to hang your wash "stretched out" (taking up too much space) and to hang individually, ie two clothes pegs per garment rather than having one peg linking two items together.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:39 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I hung clothes on my first mother in law's line, she berated me for using too many clothes pins. I got a good lecture on how to "properly" hang clothes by connecting one garment to the other with a shared clothes pin. This made no sense to me because, in my mind, it takes longer to dry that way. She also hung her clothes by the shoulders and waists, but I hang mine upside down (by the hems). I dry the undies in the dryer for sanitary purposes, I believe she did the same. I came from California, she lives in New York.
posted by patheral at 10:45 PM on December 20, 2012

There can be religious reasons. Lived in the Outer Hebrides (an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland for five years), and discovered that the Protestant northern half of the islands were more against people hanging washing outside on a Sunday than the southern Roman Catholic half. It's still sort of like that now in some of the villages on Lewis and Harris e.g. people hiring accommodation are advised not to hang washing visibly on that day.

Having said that, things are changing, gradually, with regard to what is permissable and accessible on a Sunday. It's still a case that you shouldn't been seen to be working on a Sunday to a degree, and hanging washing outside is public evidence of work. People who move to some Lewis villages will still get a polite but firm phone call if they hang their washing outside on the Sabbath from one of their neighbours, usually on the grounds that it upsets the elder locals. Though the key concept is seen to be working; modern garages attached to houses are often generous in size, with floor plumbing, so people can wash their cars and hang up washing on a Sunday with the garage door closed, so not in public view.
posted by Wordshore at 10:56 PM on December 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Kanata, the town that made its reputation on being classless about being classy, aside from being an all-around suburban shithole, also managed to make it illegal to hang your clothes to dry. Because only plebes dry their clothing, naturally.

Until green became cool again(/Kanata amalgamated with Ottawa and had some sense knocked into them), upon which it promptly became legal again.

The mere act of hanging clothes to dry is an instant class marker in some places.
posted by Yowser at 11:02 PM on December 20, 2012

Only slightly related but when I bought my house (Uk) it came with a bunch of covenants in the deeds. These are structured in such a way that we have to impose them on anyone we sell the house to. Anyway, there aren't many and they're pretty sensible restrictions on what you can do with the property... except one of them prohibits hanging of washing in front of the house. We're Ok behind the house, but in front... that'd be outrageous!
posted by samworm at 11:22 PM on December 20, 2012

Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines? Using a dryer on a super hot say seems really wasteful to me, but then again in Australia we have a hills hoist in every yard...mostly. It explains why the Canadian exchange student that stayed with us flinched when we told him we didn't have a dryer.

That said, I generally do sheets and towels on the outer lines, undies on the inner lines. But not for modesty reasons, just because the shorter inner line doesn't fit as many things I guess.
posted by scuza at 11:38 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, scuza, there is definitely a class/propriety resistance (arguably, a taboo) about using clotheslines in certain parts of the US. And there is definitely the belief that God bestowed America with tumble dryers so that knickers would no longer need to be hung up to dry.
posted by holgate at 11:44 PM on December 20, 2012

I believe that some real estate developments had restrictions forbidding hanging clothes outside to dry. Not sure what the penalty was, and do not know if those restrictions are still observed.
posted by Cranberry at 11:48 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Scuza, I was thinking exactly the same thing! (Also Australian.) I have never lived anywhere without an outdoor clothesline, and I haven't owned a dryer for years.

I actually hate the idea of using a dryer unless you absolutely have to. They chew electricity and are bad for your clothes and the environment.

That said, I admit to being a bit irritated at the way my upstairs neighbour displays her husband's wet jocks on coathangers strung along her balcony. It's against strata rules, and she's the only person in our complex who does it. She's from China, and I guess it's not a big thing there, but it's not the first thing I'd like my visitors to see.
posted by Salamander at 11:56 PM on December 20, 2012

Yea I'm not a big class lines person, but the only thing I'd ever hang on a clothesline is bathing suits and beach towels. It just seems ... wrong somehow.
posted by dame at 12:01 AM on December 21, 2012

I'm from rural Texas and grew up fairly poor. We didn't have a dryer until my brother brought one home nearly a decade after I'd moved out, as a trade from fixing someone else's car. (He put it on the steps to the side door, and it's been there--plugged in and used regularly--since. The washing machine, fwiw, is in the laundry room adjacent to the bathroom.)

Patheral's comment about being chastised for using too many clothespins really strikes true. I grew up doing the same thing, out of an innate (if misplaced) frugality that comes with thriftiness, even though we had more than enough clothespins.

Then I lived in Japan in my mid-twenties, and hung all my clothes on the porch of my apartment in a drying rack and one of those plastic socks-and-unders-racks. For some reason I'd absorbed that it was important to conceal my underwear so that no one would suspect a single woman lived there, and did--but I wonder if how much of that was vestigial propriety and how much was a precautionary "if you do XYZ [reveal your underwear on the laundry line, in this case] you're asking for it."
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:16 AM on December 21, 2012

There certainly is a class thing about line drying here in BC. My MIL was a bit horrified to learn that we line dry our clothes. I throw everything on the line but my wife will hang unmentionables on a rack in the laundry room.

We have a double, twin pulley clothes line each about 50' long. In the summer it is hot and dry enough that we can not only string clothes together to cut pin usage by 50% we can also layer the clothes two deep by half over lapping each successive garment and the clothes on line one will dry by the time line two is full and vice versa meaning we can dry faster than we can wash.

In the spring and fall it's quicker for us to not layer the clothes.

scuza writes "Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines? Using a dryer on a super hot say seems really wasteful to me, but then again in Australia we have a hills hoist in every yard...mostly. It explains why the Canadian exchange student that stayed with us flinched when we told him we didn't have a dryer."

Lots of places here in BC have/used to have zoning or deed/strata restrictions on line drying. But this is slowly changing as municipalities enact "right-to-dry" bylaws which nullify these ridiculous restrictions. It's likely that provincal legislation will be enacted eventually giving people the right to dry.
posted by Mitheral at 12:50 AM on December 21, 2012

To add to Wordshore's comment on religion - when my mother moved to a city Scotland from rural England in the late 1960s she was told off by her neighbours for hanging washing out on a Sunday. It seems that 'no laundry on the sabbath' was much more widespread until relatively recently.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:12 AM on December 21, 2012

Using 1 pin between clothes isn't to save the pins, it saves time & wear on your arms putting the extra pin on and taking it off.
posted by jaimystery at 4:14 AM on December 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

scuza: Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines? .... It explains why the Canadian exchange student that stayed with us flinched when we told him we didn't have a dryer.

There are a lot of days when I can't use a clothesline due to weather, not preference -- rain, snow, airborne dirt -- and depending on where in Canada he was from,, he may have been expecting that. Sure, on most summer days I can hang out, but not so much in the winter. Today would be bad, unless I want to be chasing my shirts across the neighborhood; yesterday it rained all day; last week they were tearing up the field upwind and there was a lot of dirt in the air. (And there are neighborhoods with rules against line-drying clothes. Some of my neighbors would prefer that I not hang mine out, but there's no rules against it, and my spider is pretty well hidden from the main street.)
posted by jlkr at 4:14 AM on December 21, 2012

Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines?

I can't hang my clothes on the line in weather that would be amenable to it; namely, warm, dry weather. I have horrible, horrible allergies and live in an area where the pollen is visible on car windows and streets on a good day. An allergic reaction to pollen can send my asthma into overdrive and literally threaten my life. That said, I hang as much to dry as I can indoors.

My grandmother hung her washing outside most of the year (she lived in Mississippi) and there was a definite "right way" to do it. I never, ever saw her (or my grandfather's) unmentionables on the line but I never saw them in the house and they didn't have a dryer, either. I think she did the pillowcase thing mentioned above, and the sheets were on the outside of the line, etc. I can't remember that she ever talked about there being a "right way," she just always did it the same.
posted by cooker girl at 4:41 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

May I ask on what day of the week she did her laundry? I've always understood that laundry was traditionally a chore for Blue Monday. Hanging out wash on a Monday also seems like it was an indication of rootedness and order, along the lines of the "No Sunday laundry" mentioned above. I wonder if the Okie accusation was an allusion to Dust Bowl migrants, who probably would have had to do their laundry as they could, when they could? Which makes me think that the accusation might have had to do with "no-good, wash-propriety-ignorant carpetbagger from Away." But just a guess.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:17 AM on December 21, 2012

Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines?

It's more convenient to use a dryer. Less work and you can leave the clothes in the dryer without worry of the frequent thunderstorms that plague the American south during the summer.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:52 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines?

In addition to what others said re weather and convenience, let's also remember that electricity is quite inexpensive in the US (relative to other countries).
posted by melissasaurus at 6:24 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I believe that some real estate developments had restrictions forbidding hanging clothes outside to dry. Not sure what the penalty was, and do not know if those restrictions are still observed.

I've done real estate closings for houses in planned communities where (amongst other things), the use of clotheslines is considered a violation.

We hang our clothes outside in nice weather - underwear towards the center, surrounded by other clothes and sheets. Hang by the hems, two pins for most everything, except one for socks and four for pants (two on each leg). Our back yard is fairly enclosed but not completely private.

We also have a clothesline in our basement with a fan pointed at it that my husband uses when he does laundry, but I refuse to. There's only enough room to hang one or two loads, and the clothes don't get that nice outdoor scent.
posted by Lucinda at 6:38 AM on December 21, 2012

I have a traditional point-to-point clothesline and I make an effort to hang smallclothes at the downhill end, where one would have to be in my back yard behind the garage to see them. I don't think anyone would be scandalized by our unders but it seems a neighborly thing to do.

The highly changeable weather here in the Southern Appalachians can make outdoor drying a bit of an adventure, though.
posted by workerant at 6:46 AM on December 21, 2012

Sounds like a first world problem
When I first went to the Caribbean, laundry was spread out to dry over the bushes at the side of the road as people had neither clothes line nor clothes pegs.
posted by adamvasco at 7:03 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it's just where you live, too. My house is on a small not-fenced-in lot and my only options for hanging clothes would have them right by an alley that gets a lot of traffic. I'd love to have a clothesline but I've always assumed that the clothes would wind up smelling like exhaust fumes.

Plus annoying people occasionally like to chuck their trash into my yard and I'm pretty sure anything I hung out there would wind up with either food chucked at it, or birds crapping on it while sitting on the overhead power lines.

There's just not a good option for an outdoor clothesline on my lot. FWIW, a neighbor up the street with much more yard space has one and I think that's awesome and don't care where she hangs her underthings.
posted by Stacey at 7:04 AM on December 21, 2012

No one ever taught me to put my underwear inside the sheets but I do it anyway! Sheets on the street side, then clothes, then underwear on the inside. I live in a dense-ish neighborhood and my clothesline is overlooked by several other homes and, I don't know, I just like to keep my underwear private.

I use the clothesline when I can but in the winter in the Northeast US it's a pain in the neck, because you have to time it just right. The day has to be dry enough AND you have to do the wash first thing in the morning because it takes a long time to dry in the cold weather and it gets dark (and dewy/frosty) by 4:30PM. Which for me means I have to do the wash on the weekend, because I get home well after dark. And generally if it's a nice day on the weekend, I'd rather not be doing the laundry. Hence, towels, sheets, pajamas and most underthings get tumble-dried during the winter.
posted by mskyle at 7:47 AM on December 21, 2012

Cranberry--I am a renter, but my lease specifically forbids me from hanging clothing to dry outside on my balcony or in the shared yard space.
posted by inertia at 8:10 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like it was probably one of the methods of hanging, but on the outside chance it was when she was hanging the laundry, according to the old rhyme, it's Wash on Monday. (So not just don't do it on Sunday, but specifically that Monday is the best time -- you're rested from Sunday and you want to wash your Sunday best before any stains have a chance to set.)

Do some people REALLY not use clotheslines?
I'd love to use my clothesline more, but it rains or has a decent chance of rain, for the vast majority of the year. I can pretty much hang out my wash in July and August. (And it's humid enough in the winter that even if it's not actively raining, clothes don't dry outside, even I leave them out from 8am to 4pm, while it's light.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:13 AM on December 21, 2012

[Folks, as much as this is a fun topic, let's keep it away from line drying vs indoor dryers and try to answer the question posed? Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:24 AM on December 21, 2012

I've read, on Metafilter, I think, of homeowner's associations that prohibit drying clothes outside. A friend in Colorado had a designated space just outside the back door for line drying. So there's still a lot of status issues around the subject. The term Lace Curtain Irish refers to the show of status with highly starched lace curtains. There were drying racks for lace curtains, with tacks on the edges for stretching them.
posted by theora55 at 9:18 AM on December 21, 2012

In high school, we lived in a rural area where clotheslines were common. I remember having a horrified-teenager reaction to underwear visible on the outer lines, while my mother seemed oblivious to the fact that it would likely mark us as pariahs for all of eternity.

We'd hang our clothes during good weather. We'd have to go running if thunderstorms popped up. It's still pretty normal for me to hear a thunderstorm coming and immediately start worrying about whether I left any laundry outside, windows open, etc., and I haven't had a clothesline for 17 years. In my old house, one would have been very useful, but I never got around to putting one up. In my current house, it's occurred to me to put one up, but we don't have a lot of good space for it on our wooded hilly lot.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:26 AM on December 21, 2012

Here in Chapel Hill, NC; I made a clothesline by screwing some hooks into the walls of my balcony and hanging up my laundry to dry last summer. Rationale: “with all of this heat abound, why use a dryer?” Sure it was outlined in the lease that I couldn’t do it, but I figured nobody was getting hurt, so why not? Saved me a few bucks on electricity each month.

Fast forward a few weeks, I found a letter on my door handle from my landlord saying something along the lines of “Please take down your clothesline, it’s not allowed. This is specifically outlined in the lease.” I blew it off, and continued to dry my clothes for another week. Then I went into the office to pay my rent, and I asked her why it was such a big deal that I not dry my clothes on the balcony. She said something like “Oh you‘re the one with the clothesline, up in [address redacted]. I figured it was those Europeans we get living here not realizing that they‘re in America where people use dryers. Please take it down. It’s in the lease”

So I guess that‘s why using a clothesline is banned in my lease. It‘s not American to dry clothes on a line. Anybody else think that‘s fucking stupid? I think it’s fucking stupid.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:49 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a data point on clothesline etiquette 50 years ago, I am not quite that old but I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody still hung out their clothes and my mother never taught me any "socially" correct way to do it. She did teach me to hang the pants by the bottom of the legs so they would dry quicker. We just hung the underwear wherever.

It was kind of a working class neighborhood though so maybe that lady from Arkansas would have thought we were some sort of east coast okies.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:02 PM on December 21, 2012

I was taught to hang things from the bottom of the seams so they wouldn't get out of shape, and to use one clothespin between 2 garments, because we were always low on pins for some reason. We had a fairly private yard, so never worried about placement of undies on the line. I never attached any social stigma to how one hangs the laundry, but I certainly grew up with the idea that there is a "right way" to do it.

And I still remember the pleasure of playing between the cool wet hanging sheets on a hot day.

When I was first married and dryerless we lived in a pretty sketchy neighborhood for a few months. At some point a favorite towel developed a mysterious round hole. My husband still swears it was from a bullet.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:40 PM on December 21, 2012

I grew up in SoCal in the 1970s and '80s and did the laundry for the family. We had a washer but no dryer. We also didn't have any rules about hiding underwear from the neighbours. Mum taught me to use one pin between clothes or linens to save wear and tear on my arms.

The mister and I have a dryer and use it. Although we have plenty of hot days here in BC (Lower Mainland) there's also plenty of rain and we have lots of trees surrounding our yard (bird poop, yuck!). The only thing that isn't consistently dried in the dryer are my bras. They're left on top of the dryer while it's drying other things.
posted by deborah at 11:44 PM on December 21, 2012

« Older How to add city to Facebook status updates?   |   Build me a modern small business solution Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.