Woman Washing Laundry, Florida, 1939. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154625
When I was a child in the 1950’s, my parents would drive our family on America’s new highways from California to my grandmother’s home in rural Missouri, and for a week it seemed like I was in another country. I remember when my dad laid pipes and brought indoor plumbing for the first time for my mom’s mom who was proud to have the temporary cast-iron hand water pump rising above her indoor sink in the kitchen–the first indoor water she’d ever had.
My grandmother’s rugged life was typical of most rural Americans, especially before World War II, but what was daily life like for most Floridians in the 1930’s when indoor plumbing was rare? What was life like without a shower and without a washing machine?
A few years ago I read a little book of remembrances by Margaret Broussard, a woman “born and raised” in Florida during the 1930’s Great Depression, and though she’s not a professional writer, she recounts her childhood life with the details her grandchildren would want to know about what it was like to be a kid in the 1930’s in Florida.
Indoor plumbing was still the exception in the 1930’s, and Broussard remembers that her family had “a screened-in porch where there was a new red pump, so it wasn’t necessary to go out in the rain or wind to get water. Indoor plumbing! On the ledge of the pump was a bucket of drinking water, with a dipper hanging in it that we could drink from if we weren’t sick.”
The hand water pump was needed if someone wanted to take a bath. That’s the way it was when we visited my grandmother. Of course, thanks to my dad, she had an indoor hand water pump, but most rural Floridians in the 1930’s didn’t have this convenience. If they wanted water, they had to go outside and pour a dipper of water into the top of their cast-iron pump to prime it so they could hand-pump water enough to fill a bucket and then carry it into the house–one bucket at a time. At my grandmother’s house, the pump was in the kitchen, but my parents still had to heat the water in a pan on the stove–only a couple of pans at a time.
In most working-class rural homes the bath tub wasn’t a porcelain beauty; it was a huge washtub made of steel that was galvanized to keep it from rusting, and that gave it a bucket-gray color. Usually the tub was used for washing clothes, but if you wanted a bath, it was probably the only large tub at your house.
Broussard, who was born in Florida in 1933, tells how their family would keep the washtub on their screened back porch where the children took their baths. In the winter, though, her parents would carry the huge washtub inside to the kitchen “by the cook-stove” or into the living room “by the pot-bellied wood stove” where kettles of heated water could be easily added to the washtub.
As it was at my grandmother’s house, taking a bath was very time-consuming, and it usually required more than one person to do all the work. In most rural homes, the cleanest child would take the first bath, and the next child would use the same bath water with additional pans of warm water added to the tub. If the day had been cold and the Broussard children had not gotten sweaty or dirty, they could skip a full bath and instead take a “spit bath,” using a “washrag” and warm water and soap. Most working-class Floridians living outside of cities didn’t take daily baths or showers until after World War Two in the 1950’s when indoor plumbing with water heaters finally became more widespread.
My grandmother had an electric washing machine, but it was different from my mom’s. Grandma’s washer looked like a large round metal barrel, and I remember watching her insert the wet, cleaned clothes between two rubber rollers above the tub, and the clothes would slowly move through the rollers that squeezed out most of the water.
Washing clothes before there was electricity in the home was an all-day project in the 1930’s in rural Florida, so it was usually done once-a-week. The same galvanized washtub that was used for baths was also used for washing clothes, but it would have taken hours to heat enough washing water in pans, and the tub was not made to boil water in it, so instead a large three-legged black cast iron “boiling pot” was used so an open fire could be started under it to boil the water needed to wash the clothes. Broussard tells in her book that to add laundry soap to the boiling pot, they used shavings from a large bar of yellow Fels-Naptha.
Of course, the cleanest and best clothing would be washed first, and they would be dropped and stirred into the boiling water and lifted up and down with a wooden pole until the clothes were clean. Broussard says she remembers as a child watching how the clothes would be lifted from the boiling pot with the pole and immediately dropped into the galvanized washtub which had cold clean water where they would be rinsed by plunging them up and down and then wrung out by hand before placing them into a third tub which also had cold, clean water. This way the clothes began in the soapy boiling water (the dirtiest water) and were moved to cleaner tubs of cold water for two rinses. Then the clothes were placed into a basket before hanging them on the clothesline, using solid wooden clothespins that Broussard said looked like small wooden dolls with two legs, and the legs of the clothespin could be pushed onto two sides of a piece of the clothing draped over the clothesline.
This was very hard, very hot, very time-consuming work, and a husband who could afford to pay a poor woman to do this work would save his wife and children from doing it. Only the poorest women (who were generally African Americans) were willing to do this back-breaking work for money.
Electricity transformed the lives of rural Floridians, and when a washing machine could be afforded, a woman’s life was improved forever.
For most Floridians, though, electricity was too far expensive to be used to heat a home. Today we might think they used a fireplace because new homes today often include the warmth of a fireplace, but I remember when my dad built a brick fireplace in our new home in Holly Hill in 1960, my parents decided that wood was too expensive to use our fireplace very often. Even in the 1930’s a fireplace was a wasteful, inefficient way to try to heat a room because wood was expensive back then, too. Of course, rural Floridians could only cut wood that was on land their own land, and most working-class Floridians couldn’t afford to buy enough land to provide them with wood year after year, so heating with a fireplace was just too costly.
Instead, typically, a rural family would buy a black cast-iron wood-burning pot-bellied stove for their living room, and it would be vented with a black stovepipe that would extend into a hole in the ceiling and continue into the attic and out above the roof where the pipe would have a hat-like lid to prevent most of the rain from entering the pipe. This was what Broussard’s family had in central Florida.
Broussard writes that when the cold weather ended, the stove had to be wiped down with “stove-black” on a cloth to give it “a good oiling” so it wouldn’t rust during the months when no fire would be lit in it. The first time the next fire would be lighted, the oil would begin to burn and give off a smoky smell throughout the house.
My grandparents also had a pot-bellied stove, and when we visited during the winter my grandfather would be up early in the morning either to start the fire or to stoke it and add to more coal so it would be fire-hot by the time we woke. Coal was much cheaper than wood.
We were all careful not get so close that we might accidentally touch the pot-bellied stove that was hot enough to sear and cook your skin within a second. The stove produced more heat than a fireplace, and it was cheaper to use, but the heat still only stayed close to the stove–so close that I remember having to stand next to the stove to feel warm, but my backside would be freezing, and my front would quickly feel like it was being cooked, so I had to continue to turn slowly to try to feel warm all around. It made me appreciate our heater back home.
My grandmother’s life in rural Missouri was not an easy one, and for rural Floridians in the 1930’s before electricity even taking a bath, washing clothes, or just keeping warm in the house was hard work.
To write this I used this source:
Margaret Reynolds Broussard. Florida Child in the Great Depression. [Self-published] No City: No Publisher, 2006.