Washing Laundry with Ashes and Climbing Cherry Trees in the Good Old Days …

Guest blogger Monique Palomares from France works with me on Mama Lisa’s World en français. Here’s what Monique wrote…

Your blog entry about life in the 17th century reminded me about something my mother would tell us long ago. They seldom used to wash bed sheets and linens in France in the cold weather. That’s why they needed plenty of sheets and towels and napkins, because they would change them regularly, but they wouldn’t wash them until the weather was fine enough to allow the laundry to dry outside.

They would keep the ashes from the fireplace then they would put the sheets in large wooden tubs and they would put finely sieved ashes on top then they would slowly pour hot water on it, over and over again, until the water going out from the bottom of the tub was hot. Then they would rinse the laundry in the nearest stream or river and hang it on strings or wires or spread it on hedges depending on the area.

I’m pretty sure my mother saw it done – maybe it was during WWII when soap wasn’t available. They couldn’t make soap with animal fat, because in the plains they only grew grapes in the vineyards and had a few fruit trees (just like today). So there wasn’t much to eat. They were very happy when they could catch a wild rabbit. At the end of the Spring, when wild edible herbs could be dug up and the fruit on the trees would ripen, my father’s mother would say about her children, “they’re saved for this year”.

People would grow some vegetables in their gardens, but they didn’t have enough land to grow them for large families. Though they wouldn’t go and steal vegetables from other people’s property. But children would go and eat cherries from other people’s cherry trees. My friends and I did it too, it was a “youth thing” then and people wouldn’t call the police. Some would even say, “You know where my cherry tree is, the cherries are ripe but be careful not to break the branches.” Children can climb higher in the trees than adults can even with a ladder, so it’s better that they eat them: because what can’t be picked is left for the birds – though birds must get a living as well! People would grow one or two cherry trees on the side of a vineyard, and those weren’t in a cherry tree orchard for the cherries to be picked and sold. What we wouldn’t do is go eat someone’s peaches, because not a lot of them grow on each tree.

About doing the laundry with ashes, I asked my mom today, and she explained that only “the whites” were washed this way. The way she saw it done was this: the laundry was first let to soak in hot water with soda crystals, then it was hand-washed with soap. Then they would take a large tub that they would line with an old bed sheet and they would pile up the white laundry in layers in the tub. Then they would cover it all with another old sheet and would fold over the corners and rims of the lining sheet on top of everything. They would spread ashes and pour hot water very slowly over it. The water getting out from the bottom of the tub was collected and reheated then poured on top of the laundry again and again, until it would come out hot from the bottom of the tub. Then they would open the whole bunch and would go to rinse it. Not everybody would do it but she said that when she got married (in 1950) some people would still do it.

About the cherry trees: I remember two old single brothers (what I considered “old” then was what is now around my current age…) who didn’t like our eating their cherries. Of course we would prefer to go and eat their cherries because it was more fun; they would yell, “I saw you!” from afar, and we’d have enough time to climb down the tree and run away through the vineyards.

Thanks Monique for sharing that with us! -Lisa

This article was posted on Friday, December 12th, 2008 at 7:10 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Customs and Traditions, Domestic Life, France, Laundry, Mama Lisa. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Washing Laundry with Ashes and Climbing Cherry Trees in the Good Old Days …”

  1. Linda Austin Says:

    My Japanese mother remembers her mother washing out her mulberry-stained white apron in a bucket of water with ashes in it…presumably the ashes were used like bleach to whiten whites, this in the early 1930’s.

  2. Lisa Yannucci Says:

    Emanuela Marsura wrote from Italy:

    In Italy, we call “BUCATO” the linen when we wash it. A long time ago it was said: “Today I do the laundry!” My grandmother, when she washed the sheets, put the ashes of wood on the white sheets (lenzuola bianche), then she covered them with boiling water and she left them to soak for one or two days. I saw this, the sheets became very white!

    Bye… Emanuela

  3. emanuela Says:

    Monique, what’s in your stories happened also in Italy, both for laundry, both for the cherries. I went to take the cherries, with my friends, from the trees of the peasants! Beautiful !!!!!!!

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