America, Strung With Clotheslines

During the 16 years I worked and traveled as a fruit picker, I noticed that migrant women often evaluated a campground or trailer park on the basis of one amenity: a clothesline. "I like that trailer park where we winter at, down in Bakersfield," a woman once told me as we chatted after work. "They got a good long clothesline." Another time, a friend came to visit at a house we were renting for the fall and winter. She sat outside, surveying the somewhat run-down premises, as if searching for something positive to say. "Well," she said finally, smiling, "you sure got a nice clothesline here."

All this clothesline consciousness got me thinking. I had experienced the pleasures of the clothesline myself. Living in a picker's cabin or a trailer, without washer or dryer, I often strung a makeshift line between trees in a cherry orchard, or unfolded a portable wooden clothes rack to dry everything from diapers to blue jeans.

But even when I lived in a house with a washer and dryer, I rarely passed up a sunny-day opportunity to carry a basket of damp clothes outside and hang them up.

It wasn't just the sweet smell of sun-drenched clothes as they dried (slightly stiff and crunchy) or the ecological and financial righteousness of saving energy and money that I savored. It was the activity itself: the calming focus of the motions from basket to line; the smell of soap, mown grass, and flowers; the brush of a child's hands at my side, handing me the pins. Perhaps it was merely a domestic chore, but I never resented it, for it gave me a feeling that everything was right with the world, and my place in it.

I started talking to other people about clotheslines, and nearly everyone had a story.

A Greek-American friend told of her grandmother, who was so attached to her ancient T-shaped wooden clothesline poles that she took them with her when she moved from New Jersey to Florida. A Hispanic woman in Colorado said she hung clothes outside all winter: They freeze-dried on the line. A woman of Sicilian heritage said hanging clothes was "meditative and therapeutic." Men were more reticent, but they talked too, especially single men. They gave understated testimonials to the power of sun and wind to dry their towels, jeans, and heavy shirts.

At a garage sale, I came across "Clotheslines U.S.A." It had cost $3.95 when published in 1969; I bought it for a quarter, 20 years later. It is a photo essay on clotheslines by Helen Mather, who drove 12,000 miles across America documenting her subject. Ms. Mather photographed clotheslines on tenements, around farmhouses, in railroad yards. She'd wanted to see if clotheslines had gone the way of the buffalo, but found, to her delight, that America was "still hung and strung with them."

I tried to find Mather, but couldn't. I wondered about clotheslines, too, especially since ominous winds of change seemed to threaten the traditional outside line in the United States. In subdivisions and condominiums, clotheslines are routinely outlawed. "No one shall place upon the Property clotheslines," reads a typical "association covenant." Planned communities have such restrictive rules that one prospective homebuyer said it would be like living at home with her mother, "except that even my mother would let me have a clothesline."

Subdivisions and condominiums aside, how many people still sun-dry their clothes? Thirty years after Mather's trip, I decided to see for myself. This summer, I drove from Bellingham, Wash., to Sheboygan, Wis., looking for lines. At first, looking at the front yards of homes as I sped by, the only apparatus I noticed consistently was the satellite dish. Was the day of the clothesline over?

But I hadn't looked carefully enough. There's a skill to seeing clotheslines, I found. It's a little like bird-watching: You can't be in a rush, and you have to know where to look. I slowed down. I drove along back roads and neighborhood streets. I got out of my car and peered into backyards. I found I'd been too hasty in writing the clothesline's eulogy. It is alive and well in rural America.

Sometimes it coexists with satellite dishes; other times with gardens, tractors, toys, and children's bikes. I saw a clothesline near a snow pile on Ninth and No Name in Evanston, Wyo., and one strung between pine trees by a camper near Paradise, Mont. I saw clotheslines near stone and wood dairy barns in Fond-du-Lac, Wis., by golden wheat fields in Wilbur, Wash., and by knee-high cornfields in Tipton, Iowa. I saw a clothesline stretched between two ancient log cabins on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, near Lame Deer, Mont. Sunny, windy towns like Laramie, Wyo., and Lincoln, Neb., were clothesline meccas.

I saw the blue-and-white clothes of the Amish blowing on the lines in Sharon Center, Iowa, and I saw students' bright clothes on rotary dryers in the stark gravel yard of the student-housing complex in Iowa City. A woman in a print housedress rushed out to retrieve her clothes from the line before a rainstorm; a child peeked out behind sheets; a man hung clothes on a line that ran from a second-story balcony to a branch high in a tree.

About the only place I didn't see clotheslines outside was in my hometown, Chicago. In my parents' neighborhood on the South Side, my mother used to have a line strung between trees in the backyard. She still has a clothesline, but it's out of sight, in the basement.

Some city-dwellers remember lines strung between apartment buildings or stretched from back windows to a huge backyard pole. The sweet and natural elements did not always prevail in the city, where neighbors commented on one another's undergarments, and pigeon droppings stained clothes. The lack of space and abundance of neighbors discourages clotheslines as much as any subdivision covenant.

Not everybody likes clotheslines. My mother remembers her mother's wringer washer with little nostalgia. Before her parents could afford to have the laundry sent out for "flat work" (drying and ironing), they hung the wash in the kitchen to dry. After my mother married, she put the laundry in a baby buggy and pushed it to the laundromat. The advent of the laundromat was "the big news after the war," she recalls. "That, and frozen food."

But even my mother and father - who not only remember what they paid for their ABC gas dryer in January 1955 ($200), but also the convenience it brought them - have an ambiguous fondness for outdoor clotheslines.

'I ALWAYS enjoyed drying clothes outdoors," my mother said. "Especially in South Haven on vacation. Things smelled so good - and there was the view of the lake." My father, originally from Germany, once took a photograph of two women washing clothes in the Neckar River, scrubbing them on washboards, and hanging them up to dry. He was so taken with the image that he painted over the photo with oils and hung it in our dining room, where it has remained for 45 years.

There will always be something lovely about the orderly procession of clothes precisely pinned, something earthy and essential about blue work clothes drying in the sun, something romantic about white sheets pinned to a clothesline and blowing in the breeze. "I saw love of craft, religion, politics, census figures, economics, sculpture, poetry ... all on the scattered, unselfconscious clotheslines of America," wrote Helen Mather. Slow down and look outside, in rural areas and older neighborhoods: It's all there, still, on line.

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