Friday, April 4, 2014

This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes

In order to bring a month’s supply of food with me I had to limit the number of clothes I packed so my greatest stress has come from wardrobe rather than food scarcity.  I had intended to buy lots of clothes here so I didn’t anticipate that limiting my wardrobe would cause problems.  I guess I am lucky to have missed all the frigid weather in Atlanta this winter, but it is cooler in Saint Louis than I had anticipated.  I didn’t bring enough warm clothes so there have been many days when I longed to be let loose in Walmart for about two hours so I could buy undershirts, long-sleeved turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm socks.

My present wardrobe contains three hoodie sweatshirts and four cotton cardigans.  Since I usually have to layer the hoodies over the cardigans to stay warm, keeping my outerwear clean and presentable is a challenge.  Very few people in Senegal have washing machines.  Electricity is often uncertain and the cost of such appliances is prohibitive for most of the population.  In almost every tailor’s shop you will see foot pedaled sewing machines that are 60 or 70 years old but I have not seen anyone using antique mechanical aids to do the wash.

Yet such machines certainly existed.  If you study the patent record, you can find all kinds of mechanical machines for agitating and wringing out clothes.

 Illustration for an 1870 washing machine (US106137)

Why didn’t people here adopt such machines back when they started using mechanical sewing machines?

Illustration for an 1892 clothes wringer (US471924-0)

My conclusion is that sewing became mechanized because tailoring and dressmaking are male professions here whereas women do the wash at home and families with even modest means hire laundresses.  There are so many illiterate, unskilled people from the countryside looking for work in the city that you can have your laundry done by hand for less than it would cost to do it yourself at a coin laundry in the States. 

Of course, you will have to wait at least two days to get the laundry back.  Even the richest people don’t have dryers here so your clothes may have to stay on the line overnight.  Rubbing and scrubbing the fabrics by hand puts much more stress on the fibers than our high tech washing machines so several of my garments came back shredded or they got lost and didn’t come back at all.  The crisis point for me came Christmas week.  I had sent almost all my clothes out to be washed not knowing that the laundress would be traveling out of town to attend a religious festival.  She fell ill when she got back and didn’t return my clothes for a week.  Having to wear the same outfit continuously for 5 days was the last straw.   

Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing out two loads of clothes by hand took the better part of a whole day so I bought a washing machine and paid the plumber and electrician to come install it. 

I still have to navigate around the uncertainty of whether the water pressure will be high enough to run the machine on any given day and whether the neighbors will be occupying the clothesline when I get ready to hang up my wash but now I would agree with Hans Rosling that the washing machine is the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution.

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