Before The Washing Machine

I mentioned this morning that I was perusing some of the oral histories that the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project assembled by interviewing former slaves during the Great Depression. Some of the most interesting material actually comes from the framing elements that give you a window into life in 1937. For example, Jasper is laid up after having stepped on an old nail and presumably getting an infection of some kind. His wife is Lula (you have to make allowances for the FWP’s preference for transcribing black people’s speech this way):

By this time we had arrived within sight and earshot of the old rocking chair where Jasper sat with his foot propped high in another chair. His chair had long ago been deprived of its rockers. The injured member appeared to be swollen and was covered with several layers of the jimpson weed leaves. The old man’s thin form was clothed in a faded blue shirt and old gray cotton trousers. His clothes were clean and his white hair was in marked contrast to his shining but wrinkled black face. He smiled when Lula explained the nature of the proposed interview. “’Scuse me, Missy,” he apologized, “for not gittin’ up, ’cause I jus’ can’t use dis old foot much, but you jus’ have a seat here in de shade and rest yourself.” Lula now excused herself, saying: “I jus’ got to hurry and git de white folks’ clothes washed and dried ‘fore it rains,” and she resumed her work in the shade of another huge tree where a fire was burning brightly under her washpot and a row of sud-filled tubs occupied a long bench.


It’s nothing you don’t know. Once upon a time there were no washing machines so washing clothes by hand is what people did and since it’s a huge pain in the ass, getting paid by someone else to do their laundry by hand was a job you could have. And instead of a “skyrocketing health care costs” problem we had a “no better alternative to infection than wrapping a foot in mildly toxic leaves” problem.