Only those of my readers of a fairly advanced age will have a clue what I am talking about.
We were helping to clear out the house of a 90-year-old neighbour who had recently passed away, and came across an unmistakable implement. To the uninitiated, by which I mean anybody under 50, it was just a piece of wood; but to the older Britons it was a copper stick. Both Molly and I immediately recognised it from our youth, when one was constantly in our respective mothers’ hands. If I also say that this happened on Monday morning this may give you clue, because Monday was washday. On the other hand, you youngsters will not remember washday either.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about women working in the 1950s. The young mothers could not go out to work because their children prevented them; they could not be left alone, and childcare was simply not available; not just free childcare, any kind of childcare except that which was provided by members of the immediate family. But the fact that mothers did not have paid employment does not mean they did not work. They worked extremely hard by modern standards, doing the everyday chores that do not exist today. These began on Monday with washday.
I can remember the copper in the kitchen, although I can never remember it being used. The copper was originally made of that metal; but by the 20th century this large hemispherical tank was made of galvanised steel. It certainly was made of steel by the 1920s when our bungalow was built. This tank sat in the corner of the kitchen in a brick-built plinth that brought it up to working height. There was a little grate underneath and a chimney which led outside. The first job on Monday morning was therefore to light the fire. By mid morning the water in the copper would be almost boiling and the white sheets of the beds, white shirts and cotton underwear could be tipped in. There was no detergent, only a large block of green Fairy soap.
It was now that the copper stick came into play. Because the water was so hot you could not use your hands, so you stirred the washing with the stick, and used it to fish it out when you needed to scrub the dirty collars and cuffs on the washboard. Although the copper was redundant by the 1950s this was only a very partial relief in the workload for the housewife. It just meant that the water was heated by electricity in a boiler instead of by a coal fire. All the other operations of washday continued. This meant that the copper stick remained in use.
As if washing were not enough, all the white cottons, the sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs and table cloths had to be rinsed in starch before drying and ironing. While all this washing was in progress the housewife had to keep an eye on her children, and prepare dinner, because her hungry husband would be home at one o’clock, expecting to be fed. With dinner hour over it was back to the laundry. If the woman of the house was lucky enough she had a mangle to start the drying process; otherwise everything had to be wrung out by hand. Next came hanging out all the wet linen to dry. How the women hoped for dry day! Otherwise the washing would have to be draped around the house to dry. The clothes-horse would have to be placed on the hearth-rug and the fire made up.
Next the ironing board came out and all the starched things had to be folded neatly with creases. The electric iron was pretty universal by 1950 but ironing was an essential part of washday. By bedtime the housewife would be exhausted. Tuesday might seem a bit of a holiday by comparison, but there was always something to do; scrub the front doorstep, dust the mantelpiece or clean the windows.
The washing still has to be done, but with automatic washing machines, tumble driers, drip dry garments and no starching it hardly impinges on the day. The man of the house will do his share, while the female is out on paid employment. The front doorstep has to remain unscrubbed, the windows will be a little smeary and modern houses do not require mantelpieces. At least by 1950 many women had access to a wireless and could take a short break for a cup of tea and to catch up with events on Mrs Dale’s Diary. Work was for everybody, and Workers’ Playtime was a pleasure for the wife at home as much as for her husband in the factory. It wasn’t a lonely life despite being a busy one. Besides the children there were other housewives in the adjoining houses forever popping in and out with their washing or the scrubbing-brush.
And what is so instantly recognisable about a copper stick I hear you ask? It is after all just a plain piece of wood. But after innumerable immersions in hot soapy water it has acquired a whiteness and texture that you never forget.