Thursday, July 5, 2018

Hung Out To Dry – Part One

Ever hear of National Clothesline Week? Well, neither had I until this observance was featured recently on a television new's report. Apparently there is a nation wide movement to encourage folks to save energy by hanging their freshly washed clothes outside and to quit using dryers for a week each year. The first week in June has been designated for this purpose. If you missed this years hanging like I did there is always next year.

Just like most of our moms and grandmothers did in days gone by, activists want us to hang our wet, dripping clothes outside. If saving energy is our national goal then this makes sense. Perhaps it should be adhered to more often than one week per year. My mom didn't have a clothes dryer until after I left for college. Like millions of other mothers, she diligently hung out our jeans and shirts, socks and sheets on the clothesline to dry.

Following is an article out of Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, dated June 7, 2015, which I ran across this week. Hopefully, the Historical Society there won't mind me reprinting a portion of their informative report.

This is International Clothesline Week. It celebrates a free and easy way to dry clothes naturally, right in our own backyards. Clothesline protocol however has mostly passed out of existence and that might be a good thing. A mere 50 years ago neighbors knew a lot about one another and judged each other by the way the wash was presented. Monday was wash day. Anybody who didn't know that was pretty dense....

Clothes were always hung by color, never haphazardly. Sheets were always on the outer lines thus guarding the families' unmentionables, though it was hard to understand why Grandpa’s woolen long johns were always visible. He wore those woolen things winter and summer. They kept him warm in winter and he said they soaked up sweat in summer and kept him cool. Kids who ran around in shorts and tank tops never believed it. For some reason long johns weren’t as unmentionable as other underwear, but perhaps by the 1950s, it was only the old coots who knew much about the things often called 'union suits' ….

Grandpa's Long Red Woolen Underwear
Hung Out with the Rest of the Laundry
Protocols differed throughout the country and, of course, women had to make do with what they had. Our pioneer ancestors spread wet clothing on bushes or lines that were strung from tree to tree and then taken down when the wash was dry.

"Lines sagging with the weight of sheets and work clothes were held up with clothesline poles placed in the middle of each line. Today, neighborhood covenants often prohibit clotheslines and outdoor drying, or allow retractable lines only. In a society where "green" is "in" and solar power is big, clotheslines are not. Who knows? In years to come, National Clothesline Week could be a real celebration!”

Well, mom didn't have to hang our wet clothes on bushes or on a rope strung from tree to tree. She had a “real” clothesline of metal poles with four long wires strung between them. And, she didn't bother with hanging our unmentionables behind bed sheets. No, our underwear was hung along side all the other clothes with no thought as to what the neighbors might see or think.

This never seemed to be a problem until I got my first union suit at the age of fourteen. We lived next door to two teenage girls, one of whom I was smitten with. Those young ladies never seemed to notice my underwear until mom started hanging out that dang union suit. Before then, they didn't give a second thought as to my brothers' and my two piece long johns or our printed boxer shorts when displayed out on the clothesline. Or if they did, we didn't know. But did they ever enjoy giving me fits over my union suit.

Even thought their daddy wore union suits, those girls loved to point at my long button-down underwear and hoot and holler over our fence. This whenever they saw my union suits flapping in the wind especially while I was out in the yard tossing around a football or doing a little late autumn yard work. At first, my face would turn a bright crimson and I would run for the house taking refuge indoors. I could have hidden inside during every wash day but was just stubborn enough not to do that. No girls were going to push me around! When I complained to mom about their incessant chiding suggesting that maybe she could hang my union suits up in the bathroom to dry, she refused and simply said, “Just ignore them, Christopher.” And, for her that was that. But ignoring those girls was difficult.

After several fall and winter seasons, the girls finally grew tired of picking on me. Apparently, even union suits lose their comedic appeal. And I got over my embarrassment, enough so that I began dating the younger of those neighbor girls. From time to time she would bring up that sore subject by inquiring, “Chris, are you wearing that silly winter underwear?” or “Did you remember to button your flap?” or "Did your mommy iron your long johns for you this morning?" Stuff like that. I loved that girl anyway. We separated later though when we went off to different colleges. We saw very little of each other after that. Now and again, I wonder about that girl and whether she married a union suit wearing man. My wife certainly did.

Surprisingly, you can find dozens of photographs of union suits hanging out on clotheslines across America. Why would so many people take pictures of their long one-piece underwear without anyone in them? Oh well, here are a few of my favorite photos.


Added July 15, 2018:
Some guys hang up their Union Suits inside...

For example, Coach Wentz of Silver Spring, Md tells me that he hangs his long underwear inside to dry as he has no exterior clothes line where he lives....

Hung Out To Dry –  Part Two   Yesteryear

One problem with hanging out clothes in the winter time is that they can freeze. Like anything else when the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, wet clothing tends to get stiff as a board. Take union suits for example. Long one-piece underwear is roughly the same size of a man or boy except, of course, without a head and feet. Upon freezing outside in cold weather they become rigid. It takes hours for that underwear to thaw out enough to become warm and soft for wearing.

Frozen union suits are comical, don't you think? Point of fact. By the time I was a senior in high school I owned four or five union suits. I wore them from the first frost in the fall until the flowers bloomed in May. My mom, bless her, would occasionally leave our clothes out on the clothesline a bit too long in the winter time.

My brothers who wore two piece long johns at the time really got a kick out of my one-piece underwear. They especially thought that button flap in the rear was hilarious. In the winter time when my union suits were left out in the cold until frozen, one brother in particular enjoyed manipulating the underwear into various human-like positions. Once he set one of my union suits on the sofa and bent them at the waist just so and again at the knees. He pulled one leg up and crossed it over the other one. That darn garment looked just like a headless boy sitting there relaxing in his underwear. Another time he propped up my union suit at the kitchen sink with the arms extended forward as if that underwear were doing dishes all by itself. One cold day that irritating brother of mine stood my union suit up -at attention- out on the front porch saluting all the neighborhood cars that drove by!

One bleak day I came home after dark exhausted from basketball practice. Well, practice had not gone all that well for me and I was in a foul mood. My mom, dad and brothers were already at the dining room table eating. In my chair was one of my frozen stiff union suits, formally seated, erected with the arms resting up on the table on either side of my plate. Those hungry long johns were about to devour my roast beef. For a moment the family sat there stone-faced before all bursting out laughing at my astonished look.

Shaking my head, I headed to the bathroom to wash my hands and prepare for dinner. I then returned to the dining room but not before I had undressed down to my union suit and socks. Straight-faced, I picked up those stiff, impostor long johns from my chair and leaned them up against the wall, still in their sitting position. I then sat down in my long underwear to eat while joining in with my family's laughter that lasted through the meal. My bad day actually turned out much better. Laughter really is the best medicine even when one is the foil!

When we got up the next morning my human-masquerading union suit had thawed and was laying on the floor in a heap.

Over the years my little brother couldn't think up enough pranks using my stiff ole union suits. I mean that kid was always up to something. As he got a little older though, he too chose union suits for his winter underwear, his pranks soon diminishing.

Hung Out To Dry –  Part Three   Yesteryear

Like me Rick O'Shay, cowboy comic strip hero, had his problems with frozen long underwear too. After marrying, one day his wife washed his union suits and hung them outside on the clothesline to dry. It was winter time. Soon she got busy with other marital duties and forgot to bring his underwear back inside. Oh-oh! The next morning, Rick hollered downstairs asking Gaye where his clean long johns were:

Newlyweds adapting to life with each other. All's well that ends well.

Reference previous O'Shay comic strip “Cowboy Rick O'Shay's Long Underwear Story” in my blog dated May 31, 2016. 

Added July 15, 2018: Several Union Suit Fans had previously sent in their comments regarding long-handled underwear hanging outside with the rest of the wash:

Oynneb sent me this note:
Growing up, I saw many union suits hanging out on clotheslines on wash day. It was no secret that the man of the family and quite often his sons were union suit wearers. I grew up in the 50's and 60's and a lot of the houses still did not have central heating. We had a gas on gas kitchen stove and a Moore heater in the living room. The bedrooms were cold. Things change, but some of us still enjoy the comfort of a Union Suit, I know I do.”

And Clay of Saranac, NY emailed:
"Isn't it interesting that the only items hanging from Hoover's clothesline is a bed sheet, a wash cloth, and his union suit. My wife still hangs our family's clothes outside and we have a lot more clothes hanging than those in the painting (Grant Wood). BTW: My neighbors love to jazz me about my union suits hanging out to dry! No matter, I'm warm."

San Antonio John had this to say:
My mom hung my union suits on the clothes line since she discovered that the dryer shrunk them. I didn’t have neighbors poking fun at them since we lived in the country, but I always hoped no friends would show up when they were hanging out in the back yard.”