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The 1950's were a simpler time and many of the household items we used have more or less disappeared from our lives. (I suspect that many of the things mentioned below were done in much the same way in the 1930's and 1940's). Here's a few of the chores and products that I remember:




For seriously dirty clothes, a little pre-treatment was necessary. The item in question would be scrubbed over a corrugated glass washboard to loosen up the dirt. We would use either Fels Naptha soap or some homemade lye soap -- a smelly, ugly brownish bar that my mother made from fat (lard, I suppose) and lye in an old enamel wash basin. As you might imagine, lye soap was not too kind to the skin.
We had a Bendix two tub model washing machine. It was stored along one wall of our basement. On laundry day, the washing machine would be rolled over to it's place in front of the twin tub concrete sink. The drain hoses would be hooked over the edge of the sink and then Mom would put fill one tub with hot water; add some powdered detergent; put in the dirty clothes; and then turn on the agitator. What brand of powdered detergents did we use in the 1950's? Sometimes it depended on whether a particular brand was offering a free dishtowel inside the box.
After a period of time, the agitator would be turned off and the wet clothes run thru the wringer mechanism and fall into the other tub, which was now filled with clean water, and if the laundry load was white items, bluing. Again, the load was agitated and then run thru the wringer and this time would fall into the sink from which it would be put into a heavy oval wicker basket.
Prior to hanging the clothes, the tubs would be drained and rinsed out; the hoses hooked onto the machine; and the whole thing rolled back over against the wall and out of the way.


Some clothes, like Dad's shirts, would be starched. A deep pan would be placed on a small two burner gas stove that sat near the furnace. A blue box of Argo gloss laundry starch would be brought down off the shelf and some of the powdered starch poured into the pan and water added. This mixture was then boiled, afterwhich the shirts would be added.


If it was winter or a rainy day, the wet laundry would be hung on ropes strung up in the basement. If it was summer, the process involved going outside, stinging up a rope clothesline from clothespole to clothes pole until there was enough out there to handle all the laundry. Wooden clothespins would fasten the item to the clothesline and wooden poles(approximately 6' long x 1-1/2" thick x 2-1/2" wide) with a clever little metal curlicue on top would be used to prop up the sagging clothesline. Some of the poles didn't have that metal curlicue, but rather just a "V" notch at the top. My Grandmother complained that the sticks sometimes slipped if it was a windy day and the wet clothes were flapping around, so Grandpa cutoff the head of a long nail and rammed it into the bottom of the pole. Now the poles were secure, and now that I think about it, could have been used to pick up stray pieces of paper. <smile>


Curtains were handled a bit differently. Time to setup the curtain spreader which was a wooden frame (maybe 6' x 6'?), the front of each side of this frame had little pins sticking out approximately 1 inch apart so that the curtain could be poked thru on these pins and would thus dry nice and wrinkle-free.


Rugs weren't really washed, as they were too bulky. Instead, the dry rug would be drapped over a clothesline and struck with a carpet beater. This device was nothing more than a wooden handle with several stiff wires extending out and ending in various loops which provided enough surface area to get the job done. Several strikes with the beater would produce a great deal of dust puffing out from the rug.


After the laundry was dry, we'd remove it from the clotheslines, fold it, and place it back into the laundry basket. The clothesline would have to be wound up into a tidy ball and with the clothespoles stored in the garage.
Into the house the basket of dried laundry would go and the next procedure required this laundry to be dampened in preparation for ironing. An old pop bottle woulld be filled with water and a little sprinkler device would be put at the top. It had a bit of cork wrapped round the end that went into the bottle, ensuring a tight secure fit, and at the other end the metal flared out and was capped by a slight domed piece pierced with numerous holes. A few shakes over the clothing item usually produced enough dampness and to retain it, the item would be rolled tightly producing numerous little 6" or 8" logrolls. Finally, an oil cloth would be tucked over the dampened rolls and left to sit overnight.
The next day, it was time to pull out the ironing board and begin. A dampened item would be removed from the basket, spread out onto the ironing board, and hopefully ironed to a nice smooth finish. Clothing back then was primarily made of cotton and cotton wrinkles horribly! There was no such thing as "wash and wear". Well, I suppose you could but you wouldn't look very tidy if you did.


Coal Furnace

Our house was heated by a coal furnace. It sat like a huge behomoth in the basement. It was this big round, grey metallic thing with a small rectangular hinged door about waist level.

Coal Bin

Over in the corner of the basement was the coal bin. In the late fall, the coal man would arrive and would pull his truck into our driveway. He'd unlatch the metal hatch leading to the coal bin and extend his chute into it. Then he'd shovel coal onto chute that would allow the coal to slide down into that coal bin. You usually bought either a half-ton or a ton of coal which would hopefully last you thru the winter.

The Fire and Ashes

On a cold day, we'd have to use a wide shovel to scoop up some coal out of the bin and then walk over to the furnace and toss it in. Crumpled up newspapers would be lit and hopefully the coal chunks would catch fire. The ashes would fall down thru a grate and end up in the lower section of the furnace. These would have to be removed and could be sprinkled on the snowy, icy sidewalks for traction. We didn't have salt to use back then. The heat moved throughout the house thru large heat ducts and entered the rooms thru registers which sat along the baseboard. We always had a small piece of old curtain material covering this register to keep the coal dust from getting into the house.


The Floors

Linoleum covered floors were swept with a broom and washed with a rope mop.

The Walls

In our house, the walls were covered with wallpaper. To clean them, my Mom used a product that came in a can similar to a one quart paint can. She'd pry off the top and inside was a lump of some bluish material, that had a pretty nice smell as I recall. It was similar in look and texture as Play-Doh. She'd pull off a chunk and knead it in her hands till it was soft and pliable and then rubbed it over the wallpaper. Occasionally, the exterior of the chunk became dirty at which point she'd fold it in over itself, thereby revealing the clean interior.

The Furniture

I don't suppose much has changed in how furniture is cleaned. Vacuum the couch. Dust and polish the wooden tables. The only thing that was different was that the dust cloth was a piece of old t-shirt, not something you went out and bought frequently, and the polish was poured out of a bottle onto a cloth and rubbed onto the table, not sprayed out of a can.

The Windows

Window washing involved filling a bucket with warm water and adding some vinegar. An old rag ws then dipped in, rung out, and then used to wash away the grime. Then, if you had one, you could use a rubber squeegee to dry the window, or a piece of clean cloth.


Producer's Dairy milkwagon(Circa 1950's)Source: Tina Salsgiver-Seichko
Producer's Dairy milkwagon
(Circa 1950's)
Source: Tina Salsgiver-Seichko
The street vendors that would come through the neighborhood were just some folks trying to earn a living. Some that I remember:
  • The Producer's Milkman in his horse drawn milkwagon. The milkman's name was Clarence and his horse's name was Jim.
  • The Organ Grinder would stand on the corner with a small monkey on his shoulder awaiting the neighborhood ladies who needed their scissors and knives sharpened.
  • The Paper Rex man who came around in a horse drawn wagon to collect old newspapers.
  • The Jewish Junkman rode through the neighborhood looking for discarded items. (another horse drawn wagon)
  • The Produce wagon (yet another horse drawn wagon) offered fresh vegetables and fruit right at your doorstep.
  • My favorite, the Waffle Truck. The truck would be parked in front of Mrs. Kay's store on West 13th St., and the sideflaps opened up. The sweet smell of Belgian waffles would waft through the neighborhood beckoning us to come buy one.


Our mailman was an interesting guy. As he walked along his route, he'd sing. He had a beautiful voice that sounded a bit like Perry Como. The guy was super friendly and stopped to talk to people along the way. He even joined in on one of our croquet games.
Sundays in the summertime were always accompanied by the sounds of polkas being played on the tv show Polka Time.
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