Remember the Days?: Clotheslines

By James F. Leiner, August 2016
I was driving around my old South Nyack neighborhood a while ago having a long nostalgic moment. As I drove along Cedar Hill Avenue and turned into Washington Street I thought about the families who once lived in the houses I passed. Families like the Evers, Strickles, Fentons, Friedrichs, Cowards, Cranstons and many more. My thoughts lingered a moment on Newt Bollinger and Charlie Ross who were killed in World War II. I wasn’t surprised to see the houses did change some over the past fifty years, and then I noticed a huge change. Something was missing: Clotheslines.
My grandmother’s home on the corner of Cedar Hill and Washington had three clotheslines stretched out over the garage to a large Maple tree along the driveway to Mrs. Bollinger’s garage. Just about every house in the area had a rope line where the lady of the house could hang the wash out and let the warm sun dry her laundry. Clotheslines were a simple contraption. A cotton or hemp rope about a quarter inch in diameter stretched out between two pulleys. One screwed into the wooden frame of a rear window or back door and the second into a tall tree or pole. You simply hung the wash on the bottom line and pushed it out to make room for the next piece. At the house end would hang a cloth bag full of clothespins.  They were used to attach the wet laundry to the line. If the line was too long or the wash too heavy a clothesline “trolley” would be placed to hold the bottom and top ropes together.  Some of the clothesline where even simpler, a rope stretched between two places, requiring the lady of the house to go outside; kind of step-down in status actually. There actually was a system back then. Laundry days in the “hood” were always Tuesdays and Thursdays. Why you might ask? Well, on Mondays and Wednesdays it was trash burning days. Each of the houses also had a burning-barrel somewhere in the back yard. The paper trash was burned there when not fueling the fireplaces in the winter. Anybody can realize you don’t burn trash on the days Mom or Nana did the laundry.
As I sat alongside the curb on Elysian Ave I thought about the missing clotheslines. I wonder if folks today have any idea how the clotheslines of yesteryear were the stay at home mom’s answer to Radio Free Europe.  I guess like the nickel cup of coffee the clothesline is becoming extinct and with it one of the greatest communications mediums the world has even known.  You see, one of the first things new neighbors did when the moved in the area was stretch a clothes line. Everyone watched and learned. How many of them are there – Boys or Girls? – Ages- do they have nice underwear?  Believe me, my Nana and mother could judge a woman by the underwear she hung and her character by the way she acted when her clothesline broke.
            The neighbor’s clotheslines were just like a neighborhood news broadcast. “Mrs. Lazar brought the baby home: diapers. Mrs. Fenton must be having company: different Sheets. Sleeping bags: kids home from camp. Blankets: stay away someone is sick. Training pants: Well, it’s about time. Curtains and slipcovers: Mrs. Strickle finally started earlier this year.  The clothesline was more than a flapping news broadcast it was also a little game the ladies of the neighborhood played. They would run a footrace to see who could get their wash out on the line first. If the sun rose on an empty clothesline I think it had something to do with the success or failure of their marriage. It was also a test of skill and endurance to see how swiftly she could transfer of pair of steaming long-johns to the clothesline in sub-zero temperatures without having them freeze in the basket in a cross-legged position. I also came to realize the hanging of the wash and taking in the laundry was a bit like group therapy. A lull in mom’s busy day – a wave or hello – a glance up in the sky – a smell of rain- the chill winds of winter to come.
            As I sat in my car thinking back those many years I came to realize a startling fact.  There are generations of children growing up all across the Nyack area who will never experience the comfort of crawling into bed and sliding down into a set of fluffed-up and sweet smelling chenille sheets that would never need to see an iron to press them smooth.  It is almost criminal!
-James Leiner was born and raised in Nyack with family roots going back generations. Leiner was a columnist for Nyack Villager “Remember the Days?” since 2003.
Leiner graduated Nyack High School in 1963 and graduated Rockland Community College, and Saint Thomas Aquinas before attaining his MBA from University of Michigan. Leiner had a 30 year + career as New Business representative and manager with Orange and Rockland Utilities. Leiner was very active in Nyack Fire Depts., served in the US Navy, and is married to his High School sweetheart, Judy Polhemus, for more than 50 years.