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The Mulberry Bush 

Ruth 0. Richards

Originally published in the Emmitsburg News-Journal

Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush,
so early Monday morning.
This is the way we wash our clothes,
wash our clothes so early Monday morning.

That childhood verse says it all. Monday was long ago chosen as the day the family's clothes were washed, at my home in South Dakota, in Emmitsburg, and every place else that I know of. And I hated it.

I have a strong memory of myself as a four-year-old speaking on the phone to an out-of-town aunt of mine and asking if I could live with her because my mother washed clothes on Monday. I was hoping that she didn't follow this weekly habit. Alas, she did. She washed clothes on Monday, too.

As I grew older, I hated it even more. The specter of the day really began when on Sunday we were instructed to gather up all the dirty clothes, put them in the laundry chute sending them to the basement where they were sorted by color and made ready for the washing machine on Monday morning.

My mother, a full-time secretary in my father’s law office, got up at five o'clock on Monday morning to do the family laundry, before she went to work. I was the designated member of the family who had to help with this onerous task.

For those of you who don't remember, or might never have known it, the Laundro-Mat is an innovation of the middle of the 20th Century. You might remember that as children singing the "Mulberry song," we "washed our clothes," by scrubbing, bent over, on an imaginary washboard. This is the way it was done long, long ago. There was a wash tub and a washboard, and with these the cleaning of the clothes took place.

I suppose my grandmother out on the prairies of South Dakota in the 1800s had to use the washboard, and my mother, no doubt, had to help her. But when I was a child there was an electric washing machine. Water, hot water, was put into a cylindrical tub that had a device called an "agitator" which moved the clothes around. After the clothes were determined to be clean, they were put through a wringer, by hand, to squeeze the wash-water out, and then put into a tub of water for the rinsing. In my family there were two tubs for rinsing. The moving of the clothes was all done by hand.

In my school days the hand moving of the clothes was my job before I went to school in the morning. I also had to help hang the clothes on the outdoors line. Sometimes they froze stiff–and so did I, but by the time school was over they were dry enough to bring in.

When I got to Emmitsburg in 1940, I was devastated to find no washing machine in Mrs. Patterson's house. There was a single wash tub with faucets and a washboard (You all know what a wash board looks like? Corrugated (from Latin to wrinkle) metal nailed onto a board.) Was I going to have to do our sheets, towels, shirts, table linens with this contraption?

Someone, and it probably was Mrs. Patterson, saved the day, and suggested I ask Goldie Kugler if she would do our wash. Goldie lived on West Main Street. That was very hard for me to do as I grew up in a house where we didn't ask others to do our menial work. But I asked her and she agreed to do it.

Every Sunday, just as at home, we (probably I), gathered up our dirty clothes, put them in a laundry bag and the bag into a clothes basket and took them to Goldie. She washed them Monday, dried them either outside on her porch or in the house in bad weather, and we picked them up on Tuesday, "rough dried," no ironing. Then back to the Mulberry bush.

Goldie's charge for her work was 50 cents.. At the time I didn't think 50 cents was very much, but then we didn't have much money either. Goldie had washed, starched the shirts and table clothes and folded the rest of the clothes for just half a dollar.

In 1942 when we moved out to the Neighbors' house, I was pleased elated in fact--that there was a washing machine in the basement. So I went through all of the steps that my mother had gone through: gathering up the clothes, sorting, washing, hanging them outside. When? Monday, of course.

My mother and our neighbor women competed (mother denied it) to see who could get her clothes out on the line first. Mother, because she had to go to work, usually won. For me, at the Neighbors’, there was no competition as I would never have risen at the crack of dawn to be first at anything. I do have to say, though, that I felt mighty proud seeing how white my things looked hanging out in the sun.

Then we made the move to the house next to the bank and once again I had no washing machine. There were two fixed wash tubs with faucets in the basement but I wasn't going to do the family (John's and my) wash by hand.

Once again I found someone to wash for me. Mrs. Adelsburger and her two daughters, Janet and Alice. Mrs. Adelsburger agreed to not only do the laundry, but also to iron John's shirts and the tablecloths. She, Janet, and Alice could really iron. It was professional. I never have seen a shirt or a linen tablecloth done up so beautifully as those women did them. It was an art.

However despite the firm stand I took against using wash tubs, I was forced into it when Kathy was born. I spent many hours washing diapers down in that clingy basement, and once again hanging things out to dry.

Lest you start feeling sorry for me, I want you to know that I finally got an agitator-driven washing machine after the war, and early in 1950 got an automatic washing machine. I know that I am a traitor, but I no longer confine my washing to Mondays. I probably never wash on Monday. And as for going around the Mulberry bush on Tuesday, science has practically made ironing a thing of the past.

Have your own memories of Emmitsburg of Old?  Send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net

Read other stories by Ruth Richards

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