• Branson Hart

The Back Porch Machine

I have a lithograph by Robert Kipniss of a back yard. It is one of my favorites. It is just a simple view of a tree, a fence, and the back of a plain, windowless, house. However, it is the overall subject matter that intrigues me. Back yards are special places. Front yards are public and open to inspection; therefore, they project an image of the family that lives there that the family wants the public to see. Back yards are private and therefore a more true expression of the family. Also, most families hold back yards to be more sacred, safe, and secure than the front yard.

The same was true in Fordsville when I was growing up. If you walked across someone’s front yard, which I was not allowed to do without permission anyway, the owner might have yelled at you, but more likely you would just have gotten a friendly wave. However, if you walked across someone’s back yard, the owner might up and take a shot at you, especially if it was after dark. As a kid, I remember we never walked across anyone’s back yard. We ran across.

My Grandmother's back yard in Fordsville was no different in that it was my private space. I have strong memories of all the different sectors within that paradise. There was the spaceship, the jungle, the dungeon, the wishing well, the wilderness, and several multipurpose areas. Well, if you want to get technical, there was the catalpa tree, the garden, the outhouse and the coal bin, the wells, the garage, and several multipurpose areas. One of the multipurpose areas was the back porch.

May I tell you a little about my Grandmother's back porch. It was an el-shaped, concrete, slice of sanctuary. It was the only place where I could play on rainy days. The yard side of the porch was bordered by Four O’clocks and Cannas, all red. My Grandmother would plant a few annuals like poesies to break up the red a little bit. Yellow geraniums showed up later in the year. The driveway-side was usually poesies and leafy plants. Near the outside corner of the back porch was an old, narrow, kitchen table that my Grandparents used to pot plants or get them ready to be put in the ground. Underneath it was the steel tub we used for taking bathes, washing dogs, or any other use we could think of for a steel tub.

Between the table and the kitchen door stood the most marvelous invention mankind has ever come up with – the electric washing machine with the built-in wringer. It was mainly a steel tub on four, tall, legs. Inside the tub was an agitator. The agitator was a finned-column that shoved the clothes around the steel tub to get them exposed to as much of the detergent as possible. It only had two settings, “on” and “off.” My Grandmother would put some clothes in the tub and, using a bucket, fill the tub up to the proper level. She then turned the machine on and added the detergent – always Tide. Then she had a little time to kill watching TV or cooking or something Grandmotherly. When she had determined the clothes had taken long enough to get clean, she would start step two, the most dangerous step, I might add. This was the step that separated the boys from the Grandmothers.

The built-in wringer was made up of two wooden rollers, one on top of the other, about the size of two of the rolling pins my Grandmother used to make pie crusts. Back in olden days, the rollers were hand-cranked. But, we being the modern family that we were, ours was electric. My Grandmother would throw the switch on the side and the rollers would start spinning. She then fed each piece of wash into the center on the two rollers. The rollers were in slots that allowed them to move apart to accommodate the thickness needed, but, at the same time, keep enough pressure on the cloth to wring the water out of it. The excess water fell back into the tub. The wrung-out clothes fell into the steel tub, if the dog was not using it. She put the clothes back in the washing machine tub, this time with clean water, to be rinsed. After the rinse, the clothes were subjected to the same ringing process as the sudsy clothes.

The problem with the roller system was that the rollers did not differentiate between an apron and an arm. The trick was to pull the article from the tub, feed it to the rollers in such a way that the water would run back into the tub, and, at the same time, catch it on the other side or at least guide it into the steel tub. When the rollers grabbed the cloth, they pulled it in automatically. If for some reason you did not let go quick enough, you got pulled in with the cloth. In reality, it was not that bad. My Grandmother always tried to scare me away from the machine, “Stay away from that. It’ll break your arm clean in two.” The nine or ten times my arm was pulled through never really hurt me. I might have gotten a bruise or two, but definitely no broken arms. All I had to do was turn off the power. The rollers would then release and spin free, without pressure, in either direction. This feature was designed to allow the user to unwrap towels and such that had clung to one of the rollers. During my time around that machine, I used the feature for both situations many times.

When all the clothes had been wrung out and put in the steel tub, I would help my Grandmother carry the steel tub to the clothesline. By the way, a clothesline is made up of two metal, t-shaped poles concreted into the ground about twenty feet apart and six feet high. Four cotton rope lines were run from one pole to the other. My Grandmother would hang each piece of laundry up to be dried by the sun and secure the piece with two or three spring-loaded, wooden clamps; these clothespins were also used as bag clips, note holders, and, to this day, they, along with Mason jars, can still be spotted gracing many wedding tables as place card holders and other decorations. When I got older and taller, I started hanging the clothes up by myself. I miss that.

If you thought that was the “heavy work” involved in clothes washing with a back porch machine, you forgot about the washing tub full of water. The machine was on steel wheels. My Grandmother and I would wrestle the machine to the edge of the porch. Somehow, we always managed to do that without toppling the whole contraption into the flowers. A long rubber hose had one end attached to the bottom of the tub. I would unhook the other end of the hose up near the top of the tub and let it hang off the porch and into the middle of the Four O’clocks. The dirty water would rush out of the tub and splash on the ground. The Four O’clocks prospered. I wonder what would happen with today’s detergents.

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