The Godfather: Peter Corris: old school
Recently I happened to listen to our washing machine going through its paces and my mind went back to clothes washing when I was a kid. Our house in Yarraville had a wash-house, not a laundry, and my mother washed in an electric copper, which heated the water. She agitated the clothes with a thick stick, the end of which became soft and mushy. She put a knob of Reckitt’s Blue into the wash for whitening and passed the clothes through a wringer, worked by hand, into a basket.
The wash-house was built of unlined asbestos sheets and was fiercely hot in summer and freezing in winter.
The clothes were then hung out on two lines formed by two posts about 20 yards apart (no metres then) with two movable arms that allowed the lines to be set high and low.
Another primitive device at the time was the ice-box. This was a chest into which the food was stacked in the lower compartment while a large chunk of ice sat in an aluminium compartment above. The ice kept the food cool until the iceman arrived with a new block wrapped in hessian. I think this happened weekly, by which time the original block had melted away.
Dishes were washed in the kitchen sink by hand. A cake of soap was held in a small wire cage at the end of a handle and this was swished around in the water to provide cleaning power. The dishes and cutlery were dried immediately and put away. Washing up was a two-person job. A plastic drying rack came rather later.
The lavatory (not the toilet) was flushed by pulling a chain; bathwater was heated by a chip heater – I’ve long forgotten how it operated. The bathroom floor was linoleum, not tiles.
The wireless, not the radio, wasn’t wireless at all because it had to be plugged into a power socket. There it sat – big, brown, immovable – with a kind of mesh over the speaker and a large, greenish illuminated dial.
The telephone had pride of place on a table seen immediately on entering the house. It was a big, black, heavy affair made, I think, of a substance called Bakelite. There was a finger dial and the number was a two-letter prefix followed by four digits.
We had no car in Yarraville but I remember my father starting the one we had earlier in Stawell with a crank handle.
I don’t remember how the grass was cut (we spoke of cutting the grass rather than mowing the lawn) in Yarraville, but I do remember it when we moved to a south-eastern suburb, because it was my job. At first I laboured through it with a heavy cast-iron monster it took all my strength to push. Later a lighter version was supplied, which was luxury. By the time a motor mower appeared, my father, a lover of all things motorised, took over the job himself.
In a far corner of the back yard stood the incinerator – a large oil drum mounted on bricks with a hole cut low down in front for the draft. Here my father burnt leaves, other garden waste and some household rubbish. The burner was close to two paling fences but the garden hose was kept close at hand and there were no disasters. All totally illegal now, but then global warming hadn’t been heard of, although it was underway.
Did these relics put us more in touch with the earthy realities of life than modern push-button devices? Possibly, but I harbour no affection for them; they were tedious to use and time-consuming. But in some ways I’m old school – I prefer hanging clothes on a line to using the drier.