Starched white shirts dancing on the clothesline like paper dolls and blouses twining arms in the wind were Monday madnesses to me when I was growing up. Washing, starching and ironing clothes was a chore because there were eleven offspring and two parents in our family, which added up to a department store full of clothes a week to nurture. Simply washing them wasn't enough. I had to starch and iron them to complete the unholy trinity. It seemed to me that the pile of Dad's white shirts was as high as Mt. Everest and just as grueling to conquer.
After the basic clothes were hung out ‑ things like sheets (I'm glad we didn't starch them!) underwear, socks, overalls and slacks‑ it was time to starch the skirts, blouses, dresses and pillowcases that remained. We used a powdered starch called Niagara that came in a box with a picture of Niagara Falls on it. You had to pre‑mix it to the desire consistency ‑thick, medium or thin. If you misjudged, your mistake showed up when the clothes dried on the line. One time I mixed the Niagara with a heavy hand and the clothes were so stiff that I couldn't bend them to fit into the clothes basket.
Most of the time though, I brewed the right combination and the starched garments obediently sat in the clothes basket waiting their turn to be sprinkled. Sprinkling clothes was like watering your entire garden with a thimble. You got a pop bottle and put a cap on it with little holes poked all over it. You put water in the bottle, segregated the clothes ‑ white in one batch, colored in the other. Then you shook your sprinkling bottle. The object was to soak the garment uniformly, because if you got it too wet you'd scorch it before you ironed it dry. If you didn't get it wet enough, it would iron full of wrinkles.
After the garment was sprinkled, you rolled it up into a little ball like a porcupine and put it in the basket. You put all of the white clothes together and all of the colored clothes together for obvious reasons. One time I forgot the obvious reasons and put my favorite white ruffled blouse next to a red shirt of my brother's. As I ironed the blouse, I noticed that it had taken on a Christmasy striped candy cane look. It took me a year or so before I could listen to my brother's teasing about my striped blouse without lunging for his vulnerable spots!
As for the actual ironing, it made my shoulders and the back of my neck ache and my temper heat hotter than the iron at times. My Dad's white shirts were my special trial. Wrinkles had a way of finding a permanent home in them and could only be evicted by hair‑pin turning and 90 degree angling. The collars came first, cuffs next, then sleeves, and finally, the blessed wide‑open spaces of back, slides and front.
I had this formula down pat until one day I decided to try a shortcut. Since I hated ironing the sleeves and cuffs so much, I decided to do them last and the wide open spaces first. By the time I had finished maneuvering the shirt to get at the small spots, the wide open spaces were bent and wrinkled and needed repressing. The air over the ironing board is probably still blue from my comments as I lengthened the shortcut.
Speaking of boards, that's exactly what my mother's ironing board was ‑ a board with wooden legs that you thumped the iron across. It wasn't one of those modern metal marvels with the stubborn notches that can't be swayed from their purpose in life ‑ holding the ironing board at permanent attention.
No, my mother's ironing board had an adventurous spirit and would set off on journeys of its own at the slightest provocation, usually when I was ironing a white shirt or blouse that I wanted to be perfect. To announce its intentions it would say THUNK. Then it would lose altitude, not gradually like a balloon floating down from the ceiling, but speedily like a water balloon dropped from the sixth floor of an apartment house. If I had been foolhardy enough to put the next two or three items in line to be ironed on the end of the board, they usually ended up in the tangle of ironing board legs, iron cord and live limbs and had to be rewashed and restarched.
Then there were the live drawbacks to ironing, mostly in the forms of my brothers and sister. If I had a popular shirt or pair of pants in the current batch of ironing, I'd be pursued by the owner demanding, "When are you going to get done?"
Occasionally I had delusions of being ahead of their question and would hang what I thought was going to be a popular piece of clothing on the door. My brother's blue shirt hung there for two days once before he discovered he needed it!
I don't want to do mountains of ironing again. There are too many disadvantages to the chore! But there is one permanent press disadvantage to the old fashioned method. The biggest advantage of old‑fashioned ironing that the permanent press generation will never discover is the joys of smell and feeling. Smell was the tangy odor of freshly starched, steamed and ironed clothes. Feeling was the pride of accomplishment as I watched the army of well‑ironed clothes accumulate on the door knob, the clothes rack, and even the sides of the ironing board until I was buried in my accomplishments!