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Old School Being Green: Once Upon A Clothesline

Arthur H. Guntherby Arthur H. Gunther III

My Colorado pal writes on a subject that many of us recall — clothes drying not in a metal machine but on a line. Elaine Muise Calabro, once of Rockland County, N.Y., says she “preferred to line-dry clothes, and always did when weather allowed while the kids were young. Nowadays, many subdivisions will not allow clotheslines of any sort. Ridiculous, when we are forced to recycle, pay for ‘alternative’ renewable power sources in our bills, etc. If solar-powered heating/cooling is such a great thing, why isn’t solar-powered clothes-drying actively encouraged? …”

Her remarks recall a column I originally wrote, on July 15, 1997, for The Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y. Entitled “Stringing ideas on a line,” it went like this:

Remember the laugh your mother gave when, as a youngster, you took in the stiff-as-a-board wash from the backyard clothesline? The pants looked as if they had been in a press.

We do not see many clotheslines anymore, and my guess is that there are more busy psychiatrists and pharmacies these days partly because of that fact.

In a slower age (although my mother, who always worked as well as kept house, never had a ‘‘slow’’ day), everyone seemed to have a clothesline. In my youth, I lived in several sections of Rockland, including Sloatsburg, Tallman, Airmont, Pearl River and, mostly, Spring Valley and Hillcrest, and in each neighborhood there were many clotheslines or clothes poles, usually homemade contraptions built with whatever lumber was handy.

My mother’s line was the ubiquitous white cotton twill, drawn through two pulleys and knotted. There was a line keeper, which helped prevent sag, and, of course, the usual canvas bag full of clothespins, preferably spring-loaded. Trees served as poles.

Every Saturday morning in the 1950s, on what was everyone’s main wash day in Hillcrest, this lazy fellow would be awakened by the squeak-squeak of the pulleys as my mother hung the wash. It is a sound that, to this day, recalls the peaceful weekend lounging of a teen-ager. Lazy me rolled over and went back to sleep.

My mother would take her time hanging the wash. It almost seemed like therapy of a sort, time to get out of the house, to feel the fresh breeze, to smell a new morning and to let her mind wander. As she sorted the wash, she also seemed to sort her thoughts, and I do not doubt that it gave her a sanity boost.

At other homes, where the clotheslines might be closer together, there was over-the-line talk between neighbors, and for many this became a ritual not to be missed. Gossip was exchanged, hopes were defined, news was spread. If a photographer could have spent some time at such a clothesline gathering, he could have captured facial expressions ranging from interest to skepticism, to wonder, to joy, to sadness. But almost never boredom.

I’m told that in the old New York City neighborhoods, where buildings’ rears met in a courtyard, there would be a central pole to which were attached many pulleys carrying lines from second-story-unit windows. What gathering spots they must have been, with enough news daily to fill a weekly paper.

And, of course, everyone would know everyone else’s fashion. When you hang it all out, including your underwear, that’s not hard to miss.

My mother used to carry the wash in a straw basket, which she had for many years until it literally fell apart. When I first carried it out for her, as a little fellow, it was so heavy that I could hardly do so. By the time I was a senior in high school, it was light, and I was aware that I would not be doing the chore much longer. I wished for the old moment when it had been heavy.

You do not see many clotheslines anymore, with dryers in homes and with people too busy to take time for such labor. Life seems too quick for passing, even absent, thoughts, strung along a line ready to evaporate, as with the water in the clothes.

Arthur H. Gunther, a trustee of the Edward Hopper House Art Center, is a retired Rockland County newspaperman who writes regularly at

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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