A [Hard] Day in the Life



On my last research trip to Terre Haute I had the great pleasure of conducting an oral history with my aunt Eileen [Chrisman] Ellingsworth.  We discussed many things but some of the vignettes struck a chord.  In particular she discussed how hard my grandparents work.  Among them were several that described their daily lives.  It struck me that they spoke evocatively of what daily life was like in West Terre Haute, and in many other towns in the 1920s and 1930s.

As most of you have likely perceived, my family, like most in West Terre Haute, were not exactly middle class.  Looking back upon things I think that if we fit into any social demographic, my family was best described as residing solidly among the working poor.  Some in town were of higher status, some lower, but most shared that neighborhood where one  took a deep breath and sported a furrowed brow on the day or two before payday dawned.  Who relied on a tab at the local grocery store (like Tex Day’s Market) to put dinner on the table.  Or were forced to borrow from family on occasion.

Eileen has never forgotten “how hard your Grandma and Grandpa worked for us.”  “Oh. Tim, they both worked so, so hard.”  She talked about laundry day.  My Grandpa Ray would get up at 5:00 in the morning, pull on his overalls and go out to start a fire.  By the time dawn arrived he would have placed two large zinc tubs on the grate above the seething fire and carried bucket by bucket from the pump to fill them.  It was laundry day.

Only then would he head back into the house where Grandma would have breakfast ready for him and the kids.  While Grandma would feed, change and dress my aunts and uncles, Gramps, on hot days, would go back out and soak burlap bags in cold water.  He would hang these over the windows and front door of the house. The wind would blow through the sopping burlap providing a sort of primitive air conditioning.

He would then walk up McIlroy Avenue to catch the interurban to his job in Terre Haute.  He worked for Western Indiana Gravel (later Terre Haute Concrete Supply).  He started as a driver and eventually became a stationary engineer. After years in the mines he traded coal dust for gravel and concrete dust.  Over forty years of his lungs being assaulted.

Once the kids would were settled Grandma went outside to start a long, backbending laundry day.  Gramps had already set up her laundry rack.  In the middle was a hand-cranked ringer.  She would gather her supplies together.  Laundry detergent did not become common until the 1920s so like most others she used a hard cake of lye soap.  On one side of the laundry table she would fill another tub with the boiling water, place her washboard.  Then would begin the toil of scrubbing diapers, bed linen, and clothes, her knuckles scraping the hard ridges of the board.  As each load was washed she would turn the hand-cranked wringer and pull the laundry into a tub with rinse water.  After plunging them into rinse tub she put them into another rinse tub.  Then, it was to the clothes line.  Bending down each piece was lifted onto the line and pinned in place.  This sequence was repeated many, many times, in between feeding and checking upon the kids. 

As she grew older Aunt Eileen would help.  This happen once or twice a week, even during Granma’s many pregnancies (Grandma was pregnant 99 months of her life).  If she was lucky, she would be done in time to begin dinner.  If she did not have time, Grampa would empty all the tubs when he came home and maybe bring in the last of the dried clothes from the line.

The next day would include sorting and ironing.  There was no electric iron to help with this tiresome chore for years.  She used a “sad iron,) an 8 t0 12 pound hunk of iron that had to be heated on the coal stove.  As the girls, my mom and aunts Eileen and Doris, would take over some of this chore (none particularly cherishing this job).

As with many during this era Monday was Grandma’s laundry day.  But sometimes the weather did not cooperate and had to be done later in the week.  If the laundry had to wait til Thursday or Friday, when it was done Grandma went to her part time job.  The Bon Ton was a famous bakery/deli in Terre Haute.  Her sister-in-law worked there.  Two nights a week Grandma worked there.  She did not work for money.  She was paid in day-old bread or other grocery items to help feed the family.  Her 13 or 14 hour day would end with her lugging sacks of food home on the interurban.

Grandma did not get an “automatic” washing machine until about 1940.  My oldest uncle Art bought her one from his earnings working for a grocery store as a teenager.  It may have been the same one I remember, a reliable Maytag wringer washer.  When I was young I was fascinated by the wringer.  She would let pull the clothes through the wringer.  I really felt I was helping.  And always remember her standard admonition: “Now, watch your fingers, I am reversing the wringer. I don’t want you to get hurt”

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