Grandma’s Wringer Washer

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Woman using a wringer washer

oday’s column will probably wake up a few long-dormant memory cells. In my case, it was my grandmother who had a wringer washer. But for many of you, it might have been dear old mom herself.

Keeping one’s clothes clean has been a challenge since clothing itself began being worn. The wealthy would have servants do their laundry, or perhaps would take it to a laundry business to be picked up later. The rest of society used rocks at the creek, or perhaps a tub and a washboard.

But in 1907, Maytag began marketing the Pastime. It was a hand-cranked washer, equipped with a flywheel to aid in the agitation of the clothes, which featured a wringer at the top so that the wash water could be extracted before the clothes were fed into a rinsing tub.

The wringer washer was high-tech stuff. No more endless had-wringing of clothes! How much easier could life get?

Wringer washer advertisement

Today, of course, wringer washers are largely unseen outside of antique shops. But it turns out that our grandmothers were actually green advocates before there even was such a movement. That’s because wringer washers use a fraction of the water and electricity (or gasoline, in some cases) that modern multi-cycle washers do.

You see, grandma would fill the washer with water and finely-shaved Fels Naphtha soap, them agitate the mixture so the soap would dissolve. Then, she would put the whites in and agitate for ten minutes or so. If the home had electricity, the more well-to-do would have an electric motor to do the job. Out in the country, a gasoline motor did the work. Of course, the less affluent turned a crank on the side.

Once the whites were done, they were wrung out and dropped into the bluing tub. The bluing made them look whiter. Then, another wringing and into the rinse tub.

In the meantime, the lighter colored clothes were being agitated in the same water the whites used! And when they were done, the darker colors went in. That’s three loads of clothing for the price of one load of soap and water!

The rinse water too was reused. So a family’s entire week’s worth of clothes could be laundered with the amount of water used to handle a single load in a modern washer.

No wonder some of our thrifty parents and grandparents were reluctant to give up their wringer washers.

Kenmore wringer washer

By the 1960’s, few homemakers still used wringers. But it seemed that many of them couldn’t bear to throw away the reliable, economical devices either. Hence, the one I played with at my grandmother’s house in Mason, Texas. And many of my friends had wringer washers stashed in outbuildings, garages, and sometimes sitting outside.

They were fun for a kid to play with, too, although you didn’t want to get an arm caught in the rollers or you would get one ugly blister.

In researching this piece, I found a website (lehmans.com) that will sell you a Saudi Arabian made brand new wringer washer for about 900 bucks. It’s an exact remake of the classic Speed Queen. They also sell reconditioned Maytags with electric or gasoline engines!

So Boomers, if you really want to go green, follow the example of your grandmother. And you’ll have it much easier, too. Just pour in some liquid detergent. You won’t have to shave that Fels Naphtha soap anymore!

Essential 60’s Accessories: Ashtrays and Lighters

Art Deco standing ash tray

Let’s step back in time and step inside a typical home of the 1960’s.

We’ll use my modest Miami, Oklahoma dwelling, of course. It was a 1950’s era tract home sitting on a modestly traveled street. Very typical of what WWII veterans were raising families in.

If you have time-traveled from the 21st century, the first thing you will notice when you step through my front door (three small staggered vertical windows placed at adult-viewing level) is a pervading odor of stale cigarette smoke.

If you see me sitting on the carpet, playing with a pile of toys, please note that I am completely oblivious to the odor. Second-hand smoke was a fact of life for a kid of the 60’s, completely unnoticed. There are many different accessories for the home that we all use everyday ranging from toiletries and kitchen ware, to coffee table books and coasters for your drinks. In the 1960’s coasters and kitchenware were both essential things to have to furnish your modern office or home, but ashtrays and desktop lighters were must a have. They were used by most people whereas today’s home furnishings and modern office furniture will usually only have them as nostalgic decorations, if at all.

Hand grenade lighter

You will also spot a variety of smoker’s accessories. These include ash trays of various shapes and sizes, as well as desktop cigarette lighters. No properly-furnished 1960’s dwelling would be complete without them. Even if it turned out that the owners didn’t smoke, odds are that any guests who came over would. It would be an ungracious host indeed who didn’t provide an ashtray for a visitor.

Ashtrays and desktop lighters were ubiquitous home furnishings that could be found in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. Some gadgets, such as the depicted hand grenade model, consisted of both a lighter and ashtray when separated. The image of the brass, hand-decorated Indian ashtrays seen to the right spurred childhood memories for me. We had one of the “sultan’s shoes” sitting on the coffee table, and it was transformed into a speedboat when pushed across the carpeted floor. I must have spent hours sliding that little shoe around making appropriate motorboat noises.

Mom tolerated me playing with ornamental ashtrays, but desktop lighters were strictly hands-off, of course.

Naturally, that didn’t stop me from playing with them when mom wasn’t around.

It’s difficult to effectively stress to today’s younger generations just how deeply smoking was embedded into 1960’s society. Every restaurant had an ashtray at every table. Hotel and motel rooms featured cheap ones, the assumption being that guests would likely make off with them. Grocery stores would feature a free-standing ashtray at each front door, placed there in the hope that you would finish your cigarette before grabbing a cart.

Sultan’s shoe ashtray

Cars had ashtrays on back seat armrests, and perhaps another one that pulled out of the back of the front bench seat.

Floor-standing ashtrays were found in banks, hospitals, churches, school gymnasiums, stores, and office buildings. Sitting before the desk of a doctor, lawyer, or insurance salesman would mean that there was an ashtray or ashtray/lighter combo within your reach.

Mom’s weekly visit to the beauty shop would mean that she would grab a small ashtray from a collection on a desk and carry it with her as she went from shampooing to sitting under a huge hair dryer. My own visits to the barber shop would be accompanied by the patrons in line using a couple of community trays, and the barber having his own personal model, right next to the jar full of blue Barbacide.

Mom gave up the habit about 1970, and got rid of all of the smoking paraphernalia around the house. That meant that Aunt Marjorie and Uncle Russell would have to use a small saucer during their visits.

Nowadays, of course, smoking is looked upon as a vice. No self-respecting smoker would dream of lighting up in someone’s home without express permission from the host. Isn’t it interesting that forty years ago, the shoe was on the other foot? It would have been considered the height of ill-mannerliness to fail to provide the smoking guest with all of the appropriate accessories for his/her use.

Aluminum Christmas Trees

Lady enjoying her aluminum Christmas tree

It was great growing up in the Jet Age, which melded seamlessly into the Space Age.

We took the Art Deco dream and turned it into real life. The ultra-modern, automated society that was envisioned by the generation that endured the Great Depression was becoming real for us, the Baby Boomers.

What better way to turn the old into new than to remove that messy firetrap known as the Christmas tree and replace it with a beautiful, shimmering aluminum model, complete with bright blue globes and a light wheel that would magically transform it into a rainbow of colors in a darkened room?

Thus did many of us grow up with memories of, not coniferous smells, strings of lights, or mom sweeping up dead needles on a daily basis, but instead, past visions of conical-shaped metallic tannenbaume that lived in boxes in the attics eleven months per year.

The aluminum Christmas tree can trace its “roots” (groan) to 1958. It all began in Chicago, when an anonymous enterprising Ben Franklin store employee created a small Christmas tree out of metal and put in a window display. Tom Gannon, who worked for Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s Aluminum Specialty Company as the toy sales manager, was in town for a visit, and he was impressed. So when he went back home, he pitched the idea of an aluminum tree to the company president. You see, Manitowoc was known as the Aluminum Cookware Capital of the World. So why not create a Christmas tree out of the same material, which could be used year after year, and which would leave nary a stray needle on the carpet?

The president was impressed, and designers soon set to work. By late 1959, the aluminum Christmas tree was offered for sale to the public.

Aluminum Christmas tree with color wheel

The tree was in a kit form that would be assembled by the homeowner. The package included a floodlamp with a rotating four-colored disk in front of it that would change the colors of illumination every fifteen seconds or so.

There was a very practical reason for the lamp’s inclusion. The first trees’ branches were made of aluminum-covered paper which was even more flammable than spruce needles. Not only that, but a broken bulb could cause a nasty short circuit amongst the metallic foliage. So customers were strongly discouraged from hanging any other types of lights on the tree. However, bright blue ornaments were encouraged (and included in many packages).

The trees sold fairly well the first year, but the 1960 Christmas season saw their numbers skyrocket. Thus did many of us have sweet memories planted in our young minds of glorious scintillating aluminum branches that magically changed colors before our very eyes.

The boom lasted for ten years. During this time, colored trees appeared with shades like blue, pink, and green (imagine that!). Then, closely paralleling the same fate and timeline of plastic pink flamingos, they fell out of style and began to be considered tacky.

But, like their polycarbonate avian brethren, aluminum trees have once again become fashionable in a retro sense. Thus, at least one brick-and-mortar museum dedicated to aluminum trees, ATOM (site has been shut down), exists, and vintage aluminum trees in immaculate shape sell on eBay for prices approaching four figures.

And yes, they are making them again. The ones our parents bought were less than ten clams. At this site (site has been shut down), (sale) prices range from 289 to 939 bucks.

So, like many of our memories, you can once again enjoy this blast from the past. Just remember to bring a fat pocketbook with you…

When Microwave Ovens Were New

60’s era Radarange

It would be difficult for me to imagine life without a microwave oven. I probably use one twice a day minimum. Yet, I grew up without one of the expensive, newfangled, radiation-emitting appliances. We didn’t get a microwave oven until the mid 70’s.

But many of us Boomer kids recall having them as far back as 1967, when Amana introduced the Radarange home model.

The heating power of microwaves was discovered by accident by Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer with the Raytheon Corporation. In 1945 or 1946 (accounts vary), he was testing a magnetron, a vacuum tube that emitted microwaves, when he noticed the candy bar in his pants pocket had inexplicably melted.

Intrigued, Spencer placed a pile of popcorn kernels next to the tube and fired it up again (this time standing back a ways!). Sure enough, the kernels soon began popping. His next experiment involved an egg, which blew hot yolk all over him when it exploded.

Spencer immediately saw the potential for microwaves as a means to cook food. First of all, the waves would need to be contained. The nature of microwaves is such that their 12.24 cm length can be contained by metal or metallic mesh. So Spencer devised a box with a tube through which the microwaves would be fed in. The contained energy cooked any food placed in the box very rapidly.

The first mocrowave oven a Raytheon Radarange from 1947. (Courtesy: Raytheon)

The first Raytheon Radarange (the name was a winning entry in an employee contest) was built in 1947. It was 6 feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. It was also water-cooled and consumed 3000 watts of power. But research continued, along with gradual miniaturization, and by the mid 50’s, free-standing microwave ovens were using half as much power and cost less than $3000. That made them affordable investment by eateries and bakeries, whose operations were revolutionized by the ability to cook much faster.

As the technology got smaller and cheaper, Raytheon saw the potential for selling home-sized microwave ovens. So in 1967, Amana, a Raytheon division, began marketing the Radarange for $495.

1972 Radarange ad

That was a lot of money back then, and sales began slowly. But that wasn’t the only factor. Urban legends have exploded with the growth of the internet, but they were around back in our childhoods, too. And many myths surrounded cooking your food with microwave radiation. Tales of sterility, impotence, and radiation poisoning hindered sales of microwave ovens.

But the numbers steadily increased as the truth showed fears of such incidents to be unfounded. By 1970, 40,000 were sold. In 1975, more microwave ovens were sold than gas ranges. The next year, 60% of US households had one. I think that’s when my thrifty father finally sprang for one, and the Enderland household began experiencing the miracle of microwave cooking.

One tale about the ovens did turn out to be true: metal and microwaves don’t mix. Many a 1970’s homeowner was horrified by miniature electrical storms when they put aluminum foil or metallic utensils in their microwave ovens. It was a mistake that was generally only made once.

Today, of course, there’s nothing cooler than frying a CD in an old microwave. And you can get a basic oven for less than fifty bucks. If you don’t have a microwave oven in your house, it’s for personal reasons rather than economic. But if you remember JFK, you can also recall a time when warming food required heating a big oven or firing up a cooktop, no exceptions.

The 1960’s Backyard Cookout

Vintage barbecue grill

At presstime, we’re experiencing one of those sopping-wet March snow dumps we get in my area every couple of years. Two days ago, my wife and I were walking the dogs in 70 degree sunshine, today, I’m looking out at eight inches of white stuff.

No matter. The previous warm weather put me in mind of a wonderful ritual that would take place every couple of weeks during summertime in Miami, Oklahoma in the 60’s: the backyard cookout.

The ritual was simple, but profound: dinner, normally prepared on the stove, would be provided via dad’s flat barbecue grill. That, to a kid, made ALL the difference.

We had the luxury of a screened-in porch. That meant no flies, no mosquitoes, and less wind blowing the red checkered tablecloth around. But I also experienced many a backyard cookout in the real elements. My grandparents’ homes in Texas and Iowa were frequent sites, and the back yards were utilized as grand dining rooms in the highest sense of tradition. I would give anything to spend a 1967 summer day savoring the sights, smells, and tastes of a summer cookout. But memories are all we have. So let’s share a few.

First and foremost was the grill. In 90% of the cases, it was a simple inexpensive affair, purchased locally at a Woolworth’s or Western Auto. Our fathers and grandfathers knew that it wasn’t the quality of the cooking appliance that made the difference, it was the meat preparation, the waiting until the charcoal was perfectly ready, and most importantly, the love that went into the cooking that made it taste perfect.

I seem to recall my Texas grandfather having a nicer cooking rig. I wish my memories were clearer,perhaps one of my cousins can step in and confirm or deny. Anyway, Pop Tinsley had been cooking for kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids in that same back yard since the 20’s, so some fifty years later, it was likely that he had suitably durable equipment for the purpose. After all, he utilized a WWI-era practice bomb for a tree-hung swing!

While dad or grandpa handled the meat, mom or grandma would handle the side dishes.

This might be a big bowl of homemade cole slaw, potato salad, or a big pot full of pork and beans, or all three! There might be a big casserole filled with red Jello with banana slices, too.

A 1960’s barbecue party

Drinks would be Kool-Aid, iced tea, or lemonade. These would be served in paper Dixie cups. Likewise, the food would be eaten on thin paper plates. I might grab two to stack for more durability, but mom and dad would prefer I use only one. Surviving a Depression will do that to you.

Then it would be time to sit down. And no, it wasn’t a fancy glass patio table and padded chairs.

No, dinner would be enjoyed sitting on a real wooden picnic table. My frugal father sprang for a genuine redwood model, complete with decorative wrought iron frame. It traveled with us through three moves. The redwood finally rotted away in the 90’s, but I still have that frame. One day soon, it will once again form the foundation for a durable table that will be passed on to my own offspring.

The aforementioned red-checked plastic tablecloth, easily hosed off afterwards, protected the wood from spills from unsteady small hands. The wind would blow the edge up over the table if you didn’t watch it. However, that same wind would keep the flies and skeeters in check.

Once the feast was over, it was time for the grownups to sit and enjoy a smoke, a cold beer, and the sight of us kids playing. If it was a particularly pleasant evening, the festivities might stretch until dusk, when the fireflies would be seen rising from the lawn.

Nowadays, I have a wonderful back yard, huge in comparison to the tiny plots in the new middle-class subdivisions that have sprung up all over the country. And it has seen its share of pleasant cookouts, although the grilling was done over gas, the paper cups were plastic, and the wooden picnic table was, indeed, a glass model with padded chairs.

But I suspect that my own kids will someday look back in fondness, and perhaps wax philosophically about the days when their old man would fire up the grill and carry on a tradition that stretched back three generations, at least.

Fuzzy-Wuzzy Soap

Three varieties of Fuzzy Wuzzy soap

Ahh, the simple days of old, long before computers, video games, and other modern-day diversions that capture the attention of the nation’s youth.

In those simple days, a kid’s interest could be piqued by things like soap that grew fur.
And the power of advertising would cause that kid’s interest to bloom into full-blown obsession, causing relentless hounding of the parents into obtaining this truly strange example of Boomer nostalgia.

I mean, think about it. Soap that grows fur? Fur much like that which sprouted on that forgotten turkey left over from Thanksgiving which you discovered looking for something to munch on during the NFL playoffs two months later.

The origin of Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap was impossible for me to track down. It was manufactured by an outfit called Aerosol Corporation, which, as near as I can tell, was swallowed up by someone else called CAC Industries, which continues to manufacture novelty soaps.

However, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, the hair-growing soap, is no more.

But what a glorious existence it had! It was endlessly hawked on Saturday morning TV commercials, ensuring that we kids would be hooked on the idea of hair-growing soap residing in our millions of bathrooms.

But wait! There’s more!

Fuzzy Wuzzy soap after getting wet

Hidden deep inside each Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap was a toy! Shades of Cracker Jack and sugary-sweet cereal! This truly was brilliance in product design.

So Fuzzy-Wuzzy soap sold millions of their offerings to eager Boomer kids everywhere.

How did it work? I don’t have a clue. Like I said, childhood recollections of the hirsute astringent are many, but actual documented facts are rare. The fur would apparently begin growing after the soap was removed from its sealed plastic bag. The fur was of a nature that simply touching it caused it to wither and vanish on the spot. And once you actually used the soap, the show was over. The hidden toy provided great impetus for kids to scrub themselves beyond squeaky-clean in an effort to gain access to that treasure hidden deeply inside.

In fact, some kids threw common sense to the wind and ATE their way to the center!

The toy was a typical plastic trinket, a whistle or some-such. Its discovery would often be accompanied by disappointment, causing us to recall our fathers’ oft-repeated wise words on those long drives to vacation destinations: “Getting there is half the fun!”