Brooklyn Boro

Recalling 1950s Brooklyn: Prototypical appliances and weather-soaked clothes

October 9, 2020 William A. Gralnick
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As soon as a machine came on the market that did something for you, my mother bought it. The dishwasher was a prime example, although a head-scratcher since my brother and I, or the housekeeper, did the dishes.

This thing was half again as big as a bourbon barrel or wine cask and the same shape but for having wheels. When rolled out of its corner up to the sink, it pretty much took up the whole kitchen.

There was a big, black rubber hose that attached to the sink faucet. There was another hose that hooked on the edge of the sink. One put water in, the other took it out. This was way before sensors, pre-wash, sanitary rinse. You pretty much had to wash the dishes before the dishwasher did.

Soap was a powder. If you put in too little the dishes didn’t get clean. If you put in too much you’d notice bubbles emerging from under the lid. The bubbles became like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Wiping was useless. The bubbles turned foam, the foam turned into clouds that could be removed by the armfuls.

Then one of two things happened. You stopped the machine, hit “drain,” and started again or you ended up mopping the floor as the suds eventually jammed up the machine, causing it to overflow.

Sometimes bad things happened. The drain clogged. The machine stopped. You had to open it up and stick your arm into something that the EPA would look disapprovingly at, and fish around for the blockage. Other joys were when the drain hose slipped off the sink and the aforementioned EPA sludge ended up all over the floor. Dishwashers were a work in progress.

But the washer and dryer, they were a necessity. The difference from today was that it wasn’t a washer and dryer. It was only a washer.

The wet wash got carried to the back yard and hung up to dry. We didn’t have a clothesline. We had one of those that opened like a reverse umbrella. Each pole had three or four lines on it stretching to the next pole. If memory serves there were five of them. Economy of space. You could hang up a lot of clothing in a much smaller space than stretching a line from the house, across the back yard to the fence. And it looked nicer.

The trick was getting the laundry outside. While the washer had a spin cycle, the clothes came out pretty wet. Water weighs 8 pounds a gallon. A basket of wet laundry was like dead weight. To solve this problem and to save one’s back, there was a mixture of old technology and new.

The laundry went into the basket. It was fed, piece by piece, into a contraption that was a big tub. Mounted on the tub were two rubber rollers encased in a metal frame, on the side of which was a crank. In many a cartoon you saw a character’s hand get caught in one and come out flat as a pancake. So did the laundry, with the water falling into the bucket. An additional challenge was that it took Charles Atlas to turn the crank.

Now the laundry basket was manageable, and out we went. Attached to the clothesline was a bag of clothespins. They always seemed to be striped bags. The monotony was overwhelming. Did this or that piece of clothing require one, or two, or three clips. Reach into the bag while holding the item, stick it up with the clips, reach down to do it again.

Of course, more than once did the clothing end up on the ground. Fortunately, there was grass underneath it, but mother was nonetheless not happy. For entertainment, I’d filch a clip and put it on my nose. My mother had a good sense of humor, but not for that.

Also, not funny was when a sudden cloud rolled in. There was no Doppler weather to tell you that at 11:24 a.m. it would rain two blocks from where you stood. No, we had Tex Antoine and Uncle Wethbee. Weather was more a guessing game than a science. We’d root for Tex that he’d get it right.

When he didn’t and the clouds rolled in, words not printable here often could be heard and we would begin a mad dash to the backyard. The often still-wet clothing was yanked from its pins, thrown into the basket and rushed into the house. Every so often it arrived in the house wetter than when it came our of the washer. Yet and still, nothing, not even Downy, smells as good as air-dried clothing.

Then of course there was the carpet sweeper. Remember those. I realized why a generation before, people took their rugs outside and beat the tar, and dust, out of them. Some carpet sweepers swept floors too.

But into our house came the first vacuum cleaner. It roared like an airplane engine and was so heavy it probably was made of airplane parts. It was broom-shaped and had a dirt cup for all the stuff you really didn’t want to know had been hiding in the rugs or on the floors. If one wasn’t careful detaching the cup, all that stuff ended up back where it started.

Now there are more sizes and shapes of vacuum cleaners than Carter has liver pills. We have several. I favor one, my wife favors another, the cleaning lady prefers yet another, and for some reason there’s one that no one prefers. Guess that’ll have to go eventually.

The moral of the story? Sometimes simple was, if not better, a lot simpler.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at

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