Grandma Was a Laundress

Could anything be more innocuous than writing about the laundry? Most of us do our own these days with intelligent soaps, conditioners, fabrics and machines to prevent us from damaging our clothes, while keeping us socially acceptable without the aid of enforced six foot intervals. It’s still a chore, but easily handled thanks to the technology, which has made us a wrinkle-free society.

Cleanliness is important. It has been so for more than a century in the industrialized west. We know about the health benefits of good personal hygiene. We also know, but choose not to mention, its relevance in helping us to determine friend from foe; clothes being an undeniable marker at any distance.

Well turned out attire has served as a convenient means for determining the acceptability of those we don’t know personally but characterize on sight. Cuffs and collars have reigned as social arbiters for generations. They are hard to hide even when we employ the best accessories in coats, vests, scarves and ties. The hint of a stain or wrinkle upon them is an unassailable verification of another’s status as an unworthy acquaintance who is to be politely shunned.

My interest in the laundry, specifically as a once important trade, has nothing to do with any doubts about my own acceptability and everything to do with family history. Previous messages have followed a paper trail about my father’s union work, confirming his role as a reform movement leader for the bakery and confectionery workers during the last half of the 20th Century. Now my attention is on the work of my maternal grandmother, who was a laundress in a small Oklahoma town in the decades prior to my father’s ascent in authority.

I knew my grandmother as a loving matronly type. She lived with us during the school year to help my mother, her only daughter, raise three boys of varying intelligence and social activities. I was too young then to think about her as anything other than an elderly, benevolent family member, who gave me two dollars each year for my birthday. She died at the age of 75 in the year that I turned 13. Her legacy survived in a few black and white photographs we kept in an album and the stories my mother and uncles would gladly share at family gatherings.

From those stories I learned that my grandmother was not acceptable to her in-laws. My research shows that my grandparents had a civil wedding despite their Christian faith and church attendance. I also know that my grandfather eventually abandoned his father’s trade as a cattleman and took up manual labor in the oil fields. His was a common man’s version of an abdication for the woman he loved.

The reason? My grandmother was a laundress. She was beneath his family’s sense of class, which is hard to fathom given that the old man made his fortune running dirty cattle. But such is the fickleness of human sensibilities. The in-laws had the means to build one of the largest houses in town and their clothes were laundered for them where my grandmother worked.

Arwen P. Mohun, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, wrote in her book Steam Laundries (The John Hopkins University Press 1999) that “Despite the undeniable impact of scientific ideas, ordinary consumers clung more tightly to the symbolic definitions of cleanliness.” Ironically this clinging included the perception of an “indelible lack of cleanliness” in those who did the dirty work of removing stains and odors from other peoples’ clothes. A laundress was “fundamentally ‘dirty’ in a way that no amount of scrubbing could cure.”

My grandmother quit work to raise her family, but her separation from the despicable trade was short lived. My grandfather died in the 1920 flu epidemic after eight brief years of marriage. He left behind a widow with three small boys who was four months pregnant with my mother. The wealthy in-laws did nothing to help her following my grandfather’s death so she returned to the only work she was qualified to do and left her brood to the daily care of her mother and three half-sisters.

She labored in the laundry business until the end of World War II. With three sons and a son-in-law safely returning from their military service, she was afforded the honor of retirement. She lived with her children, rotating for brief bits of time between the four families. But my family received the lion’s share of her love and devotion thanks to mom being proficient at producing boys. Three of us, in fact, just like grandma. My parents, though, had the sense to stop before a baby girl emerged and had the chance to spoil our good life.

Many years after my grandmother’s passing a distant cousin from the “in-law” side of the family wrote about her in his newspaper column. The occasion was a family reunion of those of us descended from a lowly laundress. He acknowledged that such a large and friendly gathering could not have occurred on his side of the family. He attributed the affection shared among as her doing, the result of a character imbued with love and generous to a fault. Near the close of his piece he addressed my grandmother in spirit with the words:

“Lula Fowler Barr, you ought to see the harvest of happiness from the garden of love you tended so well.”

Amen.

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