The following was sent to me by a penpal in Canada, so this much of the text wasn’t composed by me:


1. You have to wash the clothes line before hanging any clothes–walk the entire lengths of each line with a damp cloth around the lines.

2. You have to hang the clothes in a certain order, and always hang “whites” with “whites,” and hang them first.

3. You never hang a shirt by the shoulders, always by the tail! What will the neighbors think?

4. Wash day on a Monday! Never hang clothes on the Weekend, or Sunday, for Heaven’s sake!

5. Hang the sheets and towels on the outside lines so you can hide your “unmentionables” in the middle (perverts & busybodies, y’know!).

6. It doesn’t matter if it is sub zero weather….clothes will “freeze-dry.”

7. Always gather the clothes pins when taking down dry clothes! Pins left on the lines are “tacky!”

8. If you are efficient, you will line the clothes up so that each item does not need two clothes pins, but shares one of the clothes pins with the next washed item.

9. Clothes off of the line before dinner time, neatly folded in the clothes basket, and ready to be ironed.

10. IRONED? Well, that’s a whole other subject!


A clothesline was a news forecast
To neighbors passing by,
There were no secrets you could keep
When clothes were hung to dry.

It also was a friendly link
For neighbors always knew,
If company had stopped on by
To spend a night or two.

For then you’d see the “fancy sheets”
And towels upon the line;
You’d see the “company table cloths”
With intricate designs.

The line announced a baby’s birth
From folks who lived inside –
As brand new infant clothes were hung,
So carefully with pride!

The ages of the children could
So readily be known
By watching how the sizes changed,
You’d know how much they’d grown!

It also told when illness struck,
As extra sheets were hung;
Then nightclothes, and a bathrobe, too,
Haphazardly were strung.

It also said, “Gone on vacation now”
When lines hung limp and bare.
It told, “We’re back!” when full lines sagged, with not an inch to spare!

New folks in town were scorned upon
If wash was dingy and gray,
As neighbors carefully raised their brows,
And looked the other way.

But clotheslines now are of the past,
For dryers make work much less.
Now what goes on inside a home
Is anybody’s guess!

I really miss that way of life. It was a friendly sign.
When neighbors knew each other best by what hung on the line.

–author unknown

I’m one of a dying breed, I suppose..recently, Bob was finally able to put cement posts into the ground behind the garage and when the cement had hardened and the posts stood firm, he strung up 4 clotheslines for me. (Finding clothesline is not as easy as it used to be!—we did finally find some at Walmart and got the only package they had). Clothespins, on the other hand, are easy enough to find! Go figure!

I often hung laundry on the line at our Arleta house and still prefer hanging sheets and pillowcases or blankets and comforters on the line to dry. There is nothing to compare with sheets dried in the sun and then put back on a bed. I also prefer to dry bras on the line, instead of inside a dryer which tends to shrink the elastic.

When I was a child, my mother did the wash in the basement on Sutter Street, and carried it outside to hang on the lines. She had one of those wooden folding drying racks and it was my job, as a very small child, to hang all the socks over the rungs of the drying rack. During WW2, my mother used her home made lye soap, cut into chips, to wash the clothes. She made lye soap about once a year out of lye and an accumulation of grease that was saved up in coffee cans or jars. That lye soap was also great for washing dirty knees and feet, when we ran barefoot in the summertime.

When I was a child, mom didn’t trust anyone but herself to feed the clothing through the wringer—everyone knew horror stories of someone –child or adult-getting a hand or arm stuck in the wringer. But you learned at an early age to sort the laundry; all the whites and lights together in a pile, followed by the dark pieces of clothing and in a separate pile, all the towels and wash cloths. Whites and lights went first into the washer, followed by colored clothing and finally the towels.

My sister recalled helping mom on wash day. She wrote, “We didn’t use store-bought detergent back then! On Laundry Day, you grated mom’s lye soap into the wringer- washing machine full of steaming hot water. You had to use a laundry stick to retrieve the clothes from the washer. In the back yard, clothes lines were strung from tree to post waiting for the newly cleaned laundry to be hung. My job was to hang socks on a wooden rack to dry. When the socks were dry, I had the chore of matching up the pairs of socks. When I grew older, I was taught how to darn the socks…” (Obviously, Becky graduated from socks to hanging clothes once I was old enough to take over the job of socks on a rack).

When I was old enough to REACH the clothes line, my mother taught me the proper way to hang clothes—all shirts and blouses by the bottom, socks by their toes, towels all together so that two towels shared one clothespin. By the time I was twelve, it was one of my jobs to do all the ironing, except for my dad’s bowling shirts, which often had intricate designs and needed special attention to iron (like placing a thin towel over the design in order to press it).
It was a huge job as almost everything had to be ironed. I stood on a cement floor in our basement to do the ironing—until I got married—and sometimes wonder if my chronic leg pain might be traceable to all those hours of standing on a cement floor.

I don’t remember when we finally got an automatic washer and a gas clothes dryer; my father loved gadgets and any kind of new household equipment, so we might have had early models as they became available. (We had the first TV set in our house on Sutter Street). Once, Dad gave mom a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner for her birthday; she refused to use it for over a year because it wasn’t a personal gift. We learned that lesson EARLY—a household present was suitable for an anniversary but everything else – her birthday, Christmas, valentine’s day, sweetest day—required personal presents. (How we ever managed to BUY anything remains a mystery to me; we never had any allowances and I didn’t make much money babysitting for neighbors at 50 cents an hour).

When I was first married in 1958, my husband and I lived on a steep street in South Fairmount, downstairs from his mother; there was a basement with a wringer washer—and clothes lines in the back and side yards. After Michael was born, I was washing diapers several times a week (despite working full time) and hanging them outside to dry. When weather was too cold or rainy, the laundry was hung to dry in the basement where it might take 2 days to dry. I can remember bringing frozen diapers inside to thaw out. And, we didn’t have permanent press fabrics in 1958—the shirts, pants, blouses and skirts would be dampened down and rolled up to put into a bag in the refrigerator, until I could spend a day ironing everything. None of my children wore disposable diapers—the closest thing I had to luxury was 3 months of diaper service given to me by a girlfriend when Chris was born.

What is unfathomable to me is the reason why we came to California with the ironing board tied to the roof of the car. An IRONING BOARD? Something you could buy in 1961 for under ten dollars? What was I thinking?

When I am back in Ohio visiting relatives who live in the north, west, east, and south of the State, we often see clothing drying on clotheslines in northeast and northwest sections of Ohio – and correctly assume those are the homes of Amish. Seeing quilts on a line always reminds me of a time in American history, when the underground railroad helped fugitive slaves from southern states make their way north towards Canada and freedom. (When I was in Ontario, Canada, a couple of years ago, visiting a girlfriend, we visited one house that was actually a part of the underground railroad. It was now a dollhouse museum). Many slaves continued on to anti-slavery Canada to live.

By visiting Google, I found many, many sources for information about the underground railroad quilts. Here is a little of the information I found:

One of the most critical components of the Underground Railroad was secrecy.
The federal laws, as well as most state statutes expressly forbade the sheltering of runaway slaves, and there were stiff fines, some as much as $50,000 levied against anyone convicted of such an offense. This enormous sum would have spelled financial disaster for anyone, thus the need for airtight secrecy. There were some individuals who, by virtue of a sterling reputation or great political or financial wealth, were able to embrace the movement and thumb their noses at the rest of the world.

One aspect of the Underground Railroad that is not always understood today was the use of quilts to aid the escaping refugees by acting as clandestine maps, hung out on clotheslines or fences in full view, but whose message was hidden except for the initiated. Basically, there were fifteen or so different patterns used in this secret language, all of which are still very much in use by modern quilters.

The Monkey Wrench Quilt was the first quilt displayed as a signal for any slaves who planned to escape. A monkey wrench is a metal tool used to turn nuts such as held a wagon wheel onto the axel. Hung out on display it symbolized the need to collect the tools that would be needed on the long and dangerous journey that lay ahead. Wagon Wheel quilts have a round pattern and during the era of the Underground Railroad, wagons with hidden compartments were one of the primary means of transporting
runaways. This quilt was a message to pack provisions for their journey as if they were packing a wagon.

A quilt of secondary importance in the list of escape quilts is the Carpenter’s
Wheel Quilt, which symbolized to the slave their reliance on religion, specifically Jesus, the master carpenter in their lives. As they worked in the fields, they sang spirituals such as “Swing low, sweet chariot”, which soon took on the hidden meaning of their coming escape attempt. The Carpenter’s Wheel consists of patterns made of small triangular blocks, and by carefully placing the darker ones with the point aiming in a specific direction, gave the proper direction to safety.

Another quilt in the sequence of escape was the Bear’s Paw. Runaways were directed to follow the actual trails of the bears that populate the Appalachian Mountain range, and as most escapes occurred in the Spring, because with spring rains, the paw prints would be easily seen, and the same rains would minimize the ability of search dogs employed in capturing the runaway slaves.

The Basket Block Quilt is a symbol of the provisions needed for the long journey north. As provisions were the most difficult (and dangerous) commodity, safe houses would display this basket quilt signifying that food could be obtained there. Food and other necessities were often carried in clothesbaskets, which were not likely to raise suspicions.

Once fugitives made it through the Appalachian Mountains, the Crossroads Quilt signaled that they had to travel to a crossroad, or city where they could find protection and refuge. There were code words for these crossroads; Cleveland, Ohio was “Hope”, Detroit, Michigan was “Midnight”; men ready to be delivered were “hardware” and women were “dry goods”.

Underground Railroad Log Cabin quilts often had a black center indicating a “safe” house. Another variation was a yellow central square, indicating a light or beacon in the wilderness.

Shoo-Fly Quilts are made up of small squares and triangles. They represented an actual person who might have helped escaping slaves. The slaves hid out in churches, caves or sometimes graveyards, waiting for a signal from the local facilitator.

The Bow Tie Quilt was the seventh quilt displayed on the fence or clothesline to teach slaves how to escape to freedom. It was a directive for them to dress in a formal manner. When they first escaped, they wore their work clothes, making them easy to identify. Friends would meet them in safe places and give them fresh clothing. In “satin bow ties”, runaways wouldn’t stand out among city folk, and on the final leg of their journey, they would walk undetected to the shops that would take them across the water
to the safety of Canada.

When the Flying Geese Quilt made its appearance, it informed the slaves that they were to take their directions, timing and behavior from migrating geese. Geese patterns can be sewn together in four directions. A clever quilter could show direction simply by making one set distinct from the others.

The Birds in the Air Quilt is symbolic of flight or migration, and like several of
these quilts, could be made into an arrow that pointed in the correct direction.

The Drunkard’s Patch Quilt is next in the secret code. Slaves were encouraged to travel in a staggering fashion to confuse any following slave hunters. They were encouraged to even double back occasionally to throw off pursuers.

Sail Boat Quilts were a symbol of safe passage to freedom. Black sailors and boat owners helped many escaping slaves. When the Compromise of 1850 strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, allowing slaveholders to retrieve slaves in Northern states and free territories, runaway slaves weren’t safe until they reached Canada. Many depended on ships and ferries to cross icy Lake Erie.
The North Star Quilt, when seen along the way indicated that they were on the
right track, as the North Star was the guiding light to Canada. It was also important to navigation, especially boat owners who crossed Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

If you are interested in learning more about the underground railroad quilts,
Check out “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” by Jacqueline L. Tobin, Raymond G. Dobard and Maude S. Wahlman, available on There are many other books about the underground railroad and the significance of underground railroad quilts available on
Some advantages of a clothes line
 Saves money
 Zero greenhouse gas emissions per load (2 kg of greenhouse gas emissions from the average mechanical clothes dryer per load)
 Laundry smells “clothes-line fresh” without using chemicals
 Less fabric wear and tear]
 Laundry items do not shrink (hot air from a mechanical clothes shrink items)
 No static cling
 Laundry items stay softer to the touch (mechanical clothes dryers tend to remove short, soft, fine fibers)
 Laundry items may be less wrinkled
 Avoids the potential of airborne lint and reduced air quality
 Eliminates the noise from a mechanical clothes dryer
 Does not vent to the outside and waste the large volume of conditioned (heated or cooled) indoor air that a mechanical dryer’s blower does.
 For a simple line drying arrangement (rope and clothes pins) the repair and replacement costs are about $20.00 per 1,000 loads of laundry or 2 cents per load. For non-commercial mechanical clothes drying the repair and replacement costs (including labor expenses) is about $200.00 per 1,000 loads of laundry or 20 cents per load.

I love quilts and now that my sister and a niece, Cindy, have been making them, we have been blessed with some nice new quilts of our own. By the way, I wouldn’t ever dry a quilt in the dryer—it deserves to be hung on a clothesline to dry.

–Sandra Lee Smith

With special thank you to Gerri in Canada for suggesting this topic.


15 responses to “MOM’S CLOTHESLINE

  1. I remember the wringer washer diapers wrapped around the wringer,If it does, an article of the wash may
    wrap several times around a roller before it is noticed; unwinding such a
    piece is often difficult, sometimes impossible without removing a roller .
    Its you’re already happened?
    Did you ever get anything caught in a wringer?or ruined a couple of shirts?

    • Hi, Anne–I had forgotten about the clothes getting wrapped around the wringer! especially diapers if you were trying to get one right after the other going through. I think I had to call my huband a few times to help get things unwrapped from around the roller. And it was his mother’s washing machine.

  2. Gerri Anderson

    Enjoyed your Clotheslines article, Sandy. Thanx for sending (Wow, saw my name, too!).

    When I started to read the sentence – ‘to hang all the socks over the rungs of the drying rack’, it reminded me that we also had to stretch all the woolen socks over the metal sock frames. I’m not sure if they were called ‘sock-stretchers’, but before U put the socks on them, they looked like a pencil drawing of a large foot made out of metal tubing, w/ a hook on the top to hang from the clothesline.

    Did U use them, too?

  3. A quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. Men were dressed as women women were dressed as men slaves clothes were exchanged for those of a rich free person of colors to confuse the true identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes.

    • Thank you for those additional insights into underground railroad quilts! I hadn’t read this about smoke coming out of a chimney before!

  4. The Tibbe-Line is a device used to air dry laundry faster, easier and more pleasing to the eye, also can be used on any existing clothesline and can be made into a portable clothesline and taken with you (camping, traveling, etc.) 21 articles of clothing can be hung in the space of 39″ and hangers are used instead of clothespins.

  5. Sandy,

    I publish Posey Magazine, an Internet only publication, with no advertising, and would like to republish Mom’s Clothesline Basic Rules in the magazine. Would that be possible?

    Thank you for any help you can give me.

    JBruce Baumann

    Or Contact me directly:

    • Hello JBruce – yes you can reprint it as far as I am concerned – parts of that were author unknown and go back a ways….I see various portions of things like this popping up from time to time – I dont think anyone knows who the original author is.
      Would you send me a copy when its published? I will be happy to pay you for it. I get a lot of magazines but am not familiar with yours.
      Sandy Smith

  6. Thank you for allowing the information on Hidden In Plain View, I am in awe.

  7. Clarence Lencioni

    When i am choosing infant clothes, i always look for cotton based clothing. :

    View the most current short article at our new blog page

  8. Ah-ha! Fantastic.

    I wandered onto your site looking for info about whether or not line-drying in winter was a “thing”. Looks like it is. My pocketbook will be happy; my hands, not quite so much!

    Many thanks for an informative article, and a pleasant morning read. 🙂

    • Dear KM,
      much depends on where you live – I am in California and can hang laundry on the line most of the time in the wintertime – unless the weather is bad – but when I lived in Ohio, we not only hung laundry on the line in winter, the baby’s diapers (1960-61)often froze and had to be thawed out inside the house. We had a wringer washer and no dryer. when weather was very bad I hung laundry in the cellar and it could take 2-3 days to dry. whne people didnt have automatic dryers you did what you had to do. and we didnt have disposable diapers (at least I didnt) in 1960.

      thanks for writing. Sandy

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