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The Washboard Jungle: 1900

The Washboard Jungle: 1900

"New York tenement yard c. 1900-10." One of the better surviving images of turn of the century tenement life. Detroit Publishing glass negative. View full size.


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Anthony! Anthony!

I thought Wednesday was Prince spaghetti day.


Fabulous photo, like this cropped version better than the full one. About cloth diapers: I was the oldest of four and folded a lot of diapers in the 1950s. (And yes, they come in from the line frozen stiff in winter and have to be draped about the house to finish drying.) Not to get too graphic here, but if not changed frequently, babies got terrible rashes and sores, so 10 or 12 diapers a day wouldn't be a lot. My mother bought 4 or 5 dozen for each new baby. So, I would have thought there would be a lot more diapers in this image than there seem to be. Maybe people living in tenements in 1900 couldn't afford fabric to be used only for diapers and used rags? Or diapers were shaped differently and I don't recognize them?

Cloth diapers

Ewww. Just Ewww.

"Wash on Monday...

Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday"

I remember my grandmother baking the week's bread on Saturday. My mother would start off the week doing laundry and then I would earn a penny for each of my father's handkerchiefs that I ironed the next day. However, we never churned our own butter.

Everyday is washday

or at least when I was growing up. We had two lines off the back of the house, and if it was muggy it would take a long time to dry. So you would hang the clothes in the morning, then dry them all day and start over the next day. All the whites go together because the bleach would ruin anything else.

Puzzling subject

This photo would make a great jigsaw puzzle.

[Hmmm. - Dave]

Day of the Week?

Not so sure about a designated or fixed day for doing the wash back then. Our family still relies on outdoor drying and, like haymaking, must be done "while the sun shines."

[Back in olden times, anyone could have told you that washday was Monday. - Dave]

Ropa Tendida!

En mi pueblo aun es así. (With my people it is the same.)

Tenement Days

I'm a student in Glasgow now, and there are echoes of the tenement days in the way the washing is strung up in the courtyard -- it's metal pulleys now, and they're not high in the air between the buildings, but they're really close to the same. I must admit that though I put clothes out to air dry in California -- where in the summer, they can dry in ten minutes sometimes -- I haven't brought myself to do it here. Between the rabid seagulls, the breweries and the distilleries and the air pollution, I think my whites would be a bit gray...

East End Avenue

It looked a lot like that in the 1940's too. I lived with my folks at 48 East End Avenue, not far from Gracie Mansion in Carl Shurtz Park. It was not glam in those days, and we lived in a second floor apartment above a liquor store and florist shop. Out the back were the usual New York back yards above which were the spider web of laundry lines, many of which did go from building to building. I've got a painting my dad did of the view out the living room window, and also paintings of the ice house that burned in a fire around the corner from us. From the Park we could watch the progress as the UN building was built.


There's nothing like clean sheets and towels fresh from the line. Tumble-drying is a poor substitute.


I had an acquaintance many years ago from the Boston area. Every Wednesday you could count on him for at least two or three call-outs for "Wednesday Washday." So that makes me think you might be onto something.

Now that this particular photo shows the poles on which the pulleys were attached, it clears up my mistaken impression that these lines were strung between buildings. Makes sense that they weren't. Just for the conflicts between who got to use the line on any given day.

These kind of everyday activity photos are a real specialty of Shorpy which seems to please a lot of us. Dave, you play well to your audience.

Bird Heaven

You would think there would be a problem with pigeons sitting on the lines.
Scenes like this always remind me of the old cartoons where a character falls from a plane or something, goes through the lines and ends ends up safely on the ground dressed in some odd combination of apparel he accumulated along the way.

For the birds

I'd sure hate it if a flock of pigeons flew by.

What got washed.

The whites were the items most washed, dark clothes were the wool coats, hats, dresses, even pants, that were not washed every week like underwear and shirts.

I wonder if the idea of a "washday" was so that the courtyard only looked like this one day a week.

Whites Only

Was this a day for only washing whites? Because that must be 80% of the clothes here. Or did people back then wear very few darks and coloureds? I know in my household, whites make up a small fraction of our laundry.

[I think I see some grays. - Dave]

Pulley Clotheslines

Our Mother used one of these when we lived in a flat in San Francisco. When the wind whipped the clothes over and over the lines, it was murder trying to get them reeled back in. (Note the clothesline on the topmost left.) I wonder who shinnied up those poles to attach the the pulleys. Probably a kid like Shorpy. A long way down the steps to the courtyard if you dropped a sock.


No tighty whiteys here

Green Sheets

It may just look like clothing hung out to dry, but I see a linear solar-powered fabric dehydrator.

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