In warming world, time to reconsider the clothesline

In an age of global warming, this low-tech device may be poised to stage a modest comeback.

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On the first warm Saturday in April, our neighborhood hums with springtime activity.

Flowering trees are bursting into glorious pink bloom as families push strollers and walk dogs. One man rakes while his wife plants pansies around a lamppost. And at the end of the street, a woman hangs shirts and blouses on a backyard clothesline. Could there be a surer sign of good weather than that?

Hers is one of the last clotheslines in the neighborhood, a quaint reminder of an era before dryers reigned supreme. But now the low-tech clothesline may be poised to stage a modest comeback. In an age of global warming, lists of energy-saving tips routinely include suggestions such as "Hang clothes outdoors to dry when possible."

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It's good advice, of course. A dryer is typically the second biggest electricity-using appliance after the refrigerator, according to the website laundrylist.org. It costs about $85 a year to operate. Multiply that by the nation's 88 million dryers, and the energy costs spiral.

The dryer, with its round-the-clock availability and shiny push-button convenience, has also created energy-wasting habits. As one mother says, "I've noticed the big conversation about energy-saving appliances. Where is the conversation about the habits of the people who use these appliances? Many of my friends who have teenagers say that their children wear an outfit only once before they put it into the laundry hamper. One of my friends only uses her bath towel once."

That kind of wastefulness is on the minds of hotel executives, too. More and more hotels are placing small cards in the bathroom, spelling out how many gallons of water and how much soap they use each month. They encourage guests to consider forgoing a daily change of towels and sheets.

Little by little, such moves can create a new awareness of how modern laundry equipment, with its spin cycles and extra rinses, feeds our energy wastefulness.

To think about the humble and utilitarian clothesline is also to consider the role the dryer has played in increasing the size of our wardrobes. Would our closets be as full – and as big – if each washable item had to be hung on a line to dry, then taken down and ironed, rather than simply tossed in a dryer with a "wrinkle-release" setting?

No wonder homebuyers want walk-in closets, some the size of small rooms. Those in turn become a factor in increasing the size of American homes – and energy consumption. Then there's the cost of driving to the mall to buy all the clothes we can so easily wash and dry.

For Paul Gay, clotheslines have never gone away. As president of the Clothesline Shop in tiny Weeks Mills, Maine, he is following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father before him in running the 30-year-old business.

This time of year is the busy season, Mr. Gay says, noting a "massive uptick" in business as customers in the northern part of the country welcome spring by hanging clothes outdoors.

He describes two types of customers: The first are "folks who are trying to save money because the price of electricity and gas is going through the roof." The second group includes "folks who simply love to hang their clothes out." Young couples and older people are especially interested. Although customers are spread reasonably evenly across the country, he finds that Michigan, Texas, and California are especially popular states for clotheslines.

When they call to order a clothesline, many customers tell Gay, "I just want to be green."

Trying to be green with a simple clothesline, however noble a goal, sometimes comes with complications.

Once ubiquitous and essential, clotheslines are now seen as a blight on pristine suburban landscapes. Many local ordinances and condo associations ban them.

As a result, some of Gay's customers want to know how to hide a clothesline. "They're disgusted with these ordinan­ces," Gay says. In certain areas, residents are fighting back with "right to dry" bills.

Even clothespins can create a challenge. Gay cannot find a single manufacturer of clothespins in the United States. When he tells some customers that these products are made in China, he says, "I never hear from them again."

But mostly, customers are cheerful. "When people call me up and want a clothesline, they start thinking about their childhood," Gay says. They might remember helping their mother hang up clothes, or recall the fragrance of laundry when it's fresh from the line. And then there's the pleasure of watching sheets billow like sails, and shirt sleeves flap like scarecrows.

Clotheslines foster sociability. When most women were home during the day, it was easy for neighbors to exchange a friendly hello or chat over the fence as they tended to clothes on the line.

Still, nostalgia has its limits. Now that neighborhoods empty out during the day, dryers are often essential. It's hard to hang clothes by moonlight.

It's also easy to romanticize the pleasure of being outdoors on a sunny April day, pinning shirts and blouses on the line. Less rosy, perhaps, are memories of hauling heavy laundry baskets from the basement to the backyard, or dashing outside to grab laundry when rain rolls in.

Long live the dryer! But long live the low-tech clothesline, too. As members of a new generation try the novelty of drying clothes the old-fashioned way, they may come to share Gay's enthusiasm.

Calling clothesline users "some of the nicest people I've ever met," he says, "To me, a home looks like a home when there's a clothesline with clothes blowing out back in the breeze. It's a positive, not a negative."

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