“Above-Store Laundry,” Amalfi Coast.  

Laundry looms large in my life. Ever since I was a girl I’ve been fascinated with clothes flapping in the wind or basking in the sun. This fascination started, in my childhood, with my mother’s obsession with cleanliness. There were five children and three adults in our small house, so doing laundry was a major chore.

Mounds of clothes lay on the basement floor, waiting for their turn in the semi-automatic washing machine, circa 1950. After the clothes—separated into lights and darks, of course—swish-swashed around in the “tank,” my mom would hand-feed the wet garments through a wringer, cranking the handle. The damp clothes fell into a huge wicker basket on the floor, waiting to be dried on our clothesline.

Mom would heave the heavy, wet laundry up the stairs to the landing and the side door that opened to our small yard. In every season, she and at least one of her three daughters would hang the laundry neatly across the clothesline.  In spring and summer, the clothes dried in the sun and were easily folded. Not so in winter. We took down the stiff towels and personal garments to “melt” before they could be folded.

Fast-forward to Israel, where I spent a school year on a kibbutz. The porch of our kibbutz apartment had two short clotheslines. I washed most of our clothes by hand. The air was oven-hot, so by the time I hung the last item on the second clothesline, the clothes on the first line were dry!

When I returned from Israel, my father (now a widower) did his wash in a washing machine in the basement of his house, but since the dryer was broken, he would take the wet clothes to a local Laundromat for drying. My experience in Israel took over and I hung the clothes on the line in our backyard instead of using the automatic dryers, walking barefoot and smelling the grass.  Nirvana!

Our condominium does not allow clothes to be hung outside. I miss that. Seeing so many clotheslines in Italy on my vacation there last May brought back my childhood memories and a sense of something lost in moving from air-dried clothes to machine-dried laundry.

In Italy there were laundry lines almost everywhere but in the center of a town or city. I started taking photos of clothing and linens hanging from balconies, doorways, railings, and jalousied windows. When we reached the last city on our trip, the island of Burano. I hit a laundry bonanza! There were clothes hanging on every street, at all different heights. Given their backdrop—brightly colored stucco houses—I felt as though I were walking through a laundry exhibit in an art gallery.

Laundry is personal. It often reveals someone’s personality, and it obviously reflects whether a person dresses or decorates in style, and even hints at how the home is decorated. I could learn about Italy from her clotheslines.  Laundry lines would become an art form and the photos could actually hang in a museum. I could have my own exhibit!

Just in case such a thing might happen, I took 75 photos of laundry lines in Rome, the Amalfi Coast (a smaller bonanza), Florence, Venice, and, as noted above, the island of Burano, near Venice.  Here is just a sampling of my renewed passion for clotheslines.  Looking at them, I can almost smell their freshness!

“Eye-Level Laundry,” Burano.

“Blue on Blue,” Burano.

“Light on White,” Burano.

  • Paul January 21, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    I remember visiting my Grannie on washing day. She had a twin tub with a mangle in between. She’d take everything out one item at a time, put it through the mangle and it’d drop into the spin dryer. Then it would get hung out to dry, on the washing line in the summer, or on the maiden that hung over the fire if it was cold or wet out.
    At 70 she still took the curtains down once a fortnight, washed, dried and ironed them before hanging them back up. I’ve never washed a curtain in my life 🙂

    Reply
  • melissa maddonni haims June 12, 2013 at 8:53 am

    so fabulous, ellen sue! it also brought me back to my own mother and grandmother’s basements.

    Reply
  • Lana Garland May 1, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I’m currently working on a documentary called, The Clothesline Muse. I’m also originally from Philadelphia, so I was elated when I was this. Can we talk? I would really love to interview you!

    Warm regards,
    Lana Garland

    Reply
  • Roberta Cantow April 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Ellen,

    A friend just sent me the laundtry article publised in Feb. in Philadelphia Inquirer. I was inspired to write to you to let you know about a film called, Clotheslines, which I completed in 1982. There is a short sample on my website: http://www.originaldigital.net – under the sample clips segment.
    You might like to see it. I also wondered if you were aware of the movement afoot called, “The Right to Dry” which is working to remove the clothesline ban in home owner associations and other ordinances. It is all for the sake of saving energy and the planet. Your photos are lovely, and you are not alone in collecting them. I have heard from many many women with their own clothelsines collections.
    Sincerely,
    Roberta Cantow

    Reply
  • Leslie in Portland, Oregon March 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    What an amazing life you’ve had, Dr. Pat…full of contrasts! I remember how much time and backbreaking work was involved in laundering for my grandmother Grace, who raised her family with my grandfather on a farm in Alberta that had no electricity or running water. For my busy husband and me, using an energy efficient washing machine but hanging the clothes outside to dry is an ideal mix…easy and rewarding (and so much easier on the fabric than the drier)!

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. March 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

    My mother had six children, taught school and ran a working farm with my father. As a young child I helped her with the laundry: soaking clothes with something blue to make white clothes whiter, cleaning stains before the men’s work clothes were washed, and then hanging the clothes on the lines behind the farm house. The washers of that day had wringers and the washed items had to go through this dangerous contraption in order to get the excess water out of the clothes. Mommie always did this part because it was dangerous. We seemed to wash clothes daily and hung them out on the lines in all kinds of weather. These are not romantic or artistic memories, Ellen Sue. The happiest day of my mother’s life was when she bought her first washer without a wringer and a clothes dryer. She freed up countless hours and saved her hands from all that cold and water damage. Your photos are lovely, but there is always a back story to beauty.

    Dr. Pat

    Reply
  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson March 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks to all of you who have sent wonderful comments on my laundry article. It was reprinted in the Phila. Inq. in the travel section and an artist with a small art gallery read it and asked me to do an exhibit of my laundry pictures. Unbelievable, esp. since I mention that at the end of the article.
    The artist/gallery owner Kathleen Arleth (Great Bay Gallery in Somers Pt., NJ) also loves laundry and promised to hand clothes on her laundry line the day of my reception: Sun., June 2, 2013, my half-birthday.
    Everyone is invited!!!

    Reply
  • Carol Shalom February 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Your article was perfect for I too am an LLL… laundry line lover.
    I was about fifteen years old when I realized that all towels were not hard and stiff. My mother did not have a clothes dryer until the sixties. Growing up at the beach all of our clothing had that delicious fragrance of sea air.
    My fascination with laundry drives me to seek out fabrics dancing on clothes lines. Fortunately, whenever we take a trip my husband will stop when he hears me scream, “Laundry, 2 o’clock!” I begged my art teacher to have a series of lessons on painting laundry. Now my photographs have a new artistic interpretation.

    Reply
  • Norman Detweiler February 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Loved your story. As an envronmental advocate, low key, I would love to see you share these photos, they are art. Dryers are energy hogs. It’s is just these sorts of little things, that could go viral, that could add up to big change. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Carol February 24, 2013 at 8:28 am

    I love this article!!! I love to hang my clothes out – they smell so fresh and it saves on electricity! My kids complain when I make them hang their’s out but too bad!! When we finally were done with renting and were looking to buy our home I purposely made sure there wasn’t a home owners association that wouldn’t allow it!

    Reply
  • Roz Warren January 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Loved the essay and the photos.

    Reply
  • Maura January 3, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Great piece and gorgeous photos! Thanks for pointing out the beauty and personality waiting to be discovered in domesticity.

    Reply
  • Rhoda Goldstein January 3, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Loved this article and the pictures! My mother was someone who hung her clothes out on a clothes line, and nothing matches that fresh, fragrant smell.

    Reply
  • Barb Schiltz January 3, 2013 at 1:16 am

    you brought me right back to my childhood first when I hung clothes for my mom and then back to italy where I recently took some pix of laundry!!! I do remember frozen towels and your story even evokes the smell of freshly laundered sheets.
    lovely memories!!!
    barb

    Reply
  • Carolyn Honey Friedman January 2, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    I LOVED it this article. Yes, laundry tells us so much about who hangs it and their families. How perceptive of Ellen Sue to see and share the depth behind this seemingly every day and ordinary activity. Loved what she had to say, how she said it and the wonderful pictures she took. I’d love to see more of those 75 pix of laundry. A great exhibit!

    Reply
  • Joyce Eisenberg January 1, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Great article. Reminded me of growing up in Overbrook Park and having one of those circular clotheslines in the backyard. We had wooden clothespins and the cousins would pinch each other! I remember how good the towels smelled after we brought them inside. I love the idea of doing an art exhibit of laundry!

    Reply
  • Jackie Hanover January 1, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the “laundry” article. It brought back many memories of laundry days during my childhood.

    I loved the colorful pictures included in the article. Never thought about how much you can tell about a person by the laundry hanging on their line.

    Reply
  • Coll December 29, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Hurray for all the memories your laundry essay brought back:
    steam rising from my mother’s wringer washer, fragrant sheets and curtains freshly washed, starched and dried; diapers drying in hot, sunny, dry California in no time; my own laundry line now next to the woods; drying clothes I hung in an English airing cupboard, similar to hanging them now in a utility closet with the geothermal heat pump to dry them. I hate laundromats and electric/gas dryers. Nothing beats air dried clothes and their fragrance. My debilitated, aging father still washed many of his by hand!

    Reply
  • Lesie in Portland, Oregon December 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you for the essay and the lovely photographs regarding this task that is essential to us all. We have been able to return to line-drying our laundry, year round (indoors if it is raining non-stop), and it has proved to be a very positive step for so many reasons.

    P.S. Those bright aqua walls and deep-green shutters in the
    Burano photos are gorgeous!

    Reply

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