Backroads: Scrub Board Washing

Lynn (in 1990) preparing to start the washing process

In 1990, as a single gal living in a rustic hunting camp, there was no washing machine hookup and the thought of spending precious quarters and time at a laundromat twenty miles away didn’t appeal to me at all. So, I purchased two galvanized wash tubs and a Crystal Cascade scrub board at the Farm Bureau and began washing my clothes at home. I reasoned that during the spring, summer, and fall months I could do my washing outside and string a clothesline through the trees and dry my clothes via “solar dryer.”

Many of the older women I interviewed for Backroads gave me a heads-up on how they did their laundry on a wash board so I had somewhat of an idea before I started. They built a fire under a large iron kettle to boil the clothes in. I cheated a bit and hauled gallons of spring water into the kitchen and boiled it on the stove before pouring it in the galvanized tub in the back yard.

Charlotte Hodge was enlisted to take pictures of the laundry process and we about died laughing   trying to get the correct photo sequence and watching me and my initial awkwardness get thoroughly soaked. At first, I just “hunkered” over the washtub, trying to balance myself and the scrub board at the same time. About the time I realized this approach wasn’t working, I noticed the remains of an old treadle sewing machine up in the woods and dragged it to the yard, placed a board across the top, and hefted the tub onto the board which, at least, left me upright. I couldn’t find any homemade lye soap, which is what all the older ladies used, so once again I cheated and swished Ivory Liquid in the water and used a bar of Octagon soap to scrub on collars and stains.

Squeezing out excess water

Handling a wash board is not as easy as you’d think, but I found two different ways that suited me; leaning it against my chest and scrubbing with an up/down motion, or propping it against the tub, using a back/forth action. Either way, it got the clothes clean! But it did take a bit of practice getting used to the board and not skinning my knuckles on the rippled edge of the glass.

After scrubbing an item clean, I would squeeze out the water and place it in the second tub, full of “rinse water.” After rinsing I tried not to wring out the clothes too tight since it set in wrinkles. I found that gently squeezing out the excess water before hanging let the clothes dry smooth. With a little fabric softener in the rinse water and the sunshine, clothes smelled fresh and clean just like they did when my mother line-dried them.

It just took a few washings to learn some valuable lessons. For instance, always make sure your clothesline is tight. I once lost a whole wash load of heavy blue jeans to the dirty ground and had to start over. Don’t try to hurry or scraped knuckles will result. Because I always seemed to get very wet, in the summer months I simply wore my bathing suit while washing the clothes. This worked fine until a census taker came up unannounced and gawked at me. 

That’s all, folks!

In the winter I took the scrub board in the shower and washed the clothes and myself! Afterwards I hung them on a wooden drying rack in front of the woodstove to dry.

I continued using the scrub board until Billy and I got married and built our first cabin. Then he blessed me with a washer/dryer combo that made me really appreciate the new convenience. My Crystal Cascade scrub board now hangs on our bathroom wall as a reminder of those early, not-so-convenient days! 


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