Doing the Wash: 1980 vs. 2021

I think I became responsible for washing clothing at around the age of seven.

It was 1980.

I woke up one morning and asked my mom if she needed some help.  She brought me to the washing machine, an avocado green top loading Whirlpool model and showed me how to operate it.

Before showing me how to operate the machine, she showed me how to separate whites, darks and what would be appropriate to wash together.  Then, she showed me the temperature controls.  Cold for colors.  Hot for whites.  Lastly, she showed me the load size, remarking that because there were four of us, she always set the machine for large loads.

Before she went on to tell me about the detergents and liquids, she explained the importance of temperature and how colored clothing bleeds into whites.  She went on and on about the differences between cotton, polyester, nylon, wool and denim.

Then, she explained the various powders and liquids to me.

"Now, Orval.  For whites you must always set the machine to soak.  Whites must always be accompanied by a cup of bleach.  Don't forget that.  This stuff is powerful (and bleach was more powerful in the early 1980s).  If you put too much in here it will wear out the whites very quickly.  Also, don't get the bleach on your clothing.  Always treat stained whites with bleach.  You may have noticed the white sheets soaking in the deep sink.  Your daddy had an accident, so, I'll take care of that."

Too much information.

"Next," mom continued, "when you use the laundry powder, always use only one scoop.  You see."  She showed me the giant box of Tide laundry detergent.  In those days it came in a box the size of a medium-sized luggage suitcase and weighed at least twenty pounds.

"You see the little cup here, in the corner underneath the lid of the washer?"

I replied, "yes, mom."

"That's for the fabric softener.  You must put a large cap full in there. And you must do that for each load."

"Okay, mom." I replied.

"Now, remember how I told you to set the machine to soak for the whites?"

"Yes, mom."

"Good. Now watch me as I set the machine for a 20 minute soak.  The 20 minute soak will be followed by a washing. Okay, you understand?"

"Yes, mom."

"Okay, now, I'm going to put this load of whites into the machine.  You can help me with it.  Before you put in the laundry whites what do you need to do?"

I replied, "Set the water control to hot and put in some bleach."

"Yes, but I tend to put the bleach in as the water reaches about a quarter way up the inside drum of the washer, okay?"

"Yes, mom."

Okay, good. Now, show me how to set the machine for a twenty minute soak, followed by a wash."

I'd watched my mother do this countless times before.  I pushed in the control knob and set the Whirlpool to the twenty minute soak she specified.  Then, I pulled the knob up, activating the machine.  We watched as the hot water rose in the drum.  I put a cup of bleach into the wash when it appeared to be a quarter way up the drum.  Then, we closed the top lid and stood back for a few minutes.  When the machine had completely filled with water, the agitator began a slow turn from left to right, right to left.  On and on it went for a few minutes.  Then it stopped.

"What happened, mom?"

"Remember, you put the machine in soak mode.  So, once it had thoroughly mixed in the bleach, it stopped.  It will be stopped for twenty minutes before it continues with the wash.  Understand?"

"Yes, mom."

"Now, we'll put in some fabric softener in that little cup underneath the lid, and that'll seep into the wash when it resumes in twenty minutes."

*    *    *

It's Sunday morning, March 21, 2021.

I just tossed a bunch of clothes into my home washer with a laundry detergent pod and pressed start.

I don't have to program the machine.  It knows what to do.

I'll be back in a half hour to put everything into the dryer with a dryer ball.

Doing the wash these days is so easy.


Well...  I still have to fold the laundry and put it away.

Is there a machine for that?

I'm going to have to look into it.


  1. So many instructions back then, and you're right--easy peasy these days, except for that pesky folding part. I force myself to do that before I even leave the laundry room.

  2. If you find that machine that folds clothes please let me know. Some of my first memories of a washing machine include my grandmother heating water on the coal stove and my grandfather then carrying it out to the wringer washer that lived on the enclosed porch.

  3. Lots of instructions for an adult let a lone a seven year old. So funny - although I could hear my mothers voice doing the same thing but we had an old washer - then you put the clothes through a ringer, carried them outside to hang on the clothes line. Each of those steps had their own directions and warnings. I am surprise we ever had clean clothes with all we needed to do. Thanks for the memory.

  4. This scene is so, so, real! Your use of dialogue makes me feel like I am right there watching you and your mom. She had o many directions! My mom was, and is, the queen of laundry. Hers always looks way better than mine.

  5. You have contrasted then and now with doing laundry so well. I need to teach my son how to do laundry soon!


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