Driving around where we live in rural Kentucky, or most anywhere in the vast countryside of America, you will still find sheets and clothing and underwear fluttering in the breeze from stretches of clothesline. There is a quiet, sublime beauty to clotheslines if you stop to ponder them. Poems have even been written about them, or hanging out the laundry, such as some of the lovely domestic musings by poet Jane Kenyon. The clotheslines lined with colorful Old Order Mennonite dresses and aprons in nearby Casey County are a favorite sight of mine. And there is nothing like the smell of the sun and the wind in your sheets. So, just imagine that you are using those same natural resources to dry them! Free of charge.
This photograph is proof that American suburbs and small neighborhoods used to allow clotheslines. The photo is of a certain girl, clearly immodest herself, in the backyard of her post-World War II development in suburban Akron, Ohio, on a May morning of 1964. This was the same era when the majority of American households had one car, one income, and, despite the emergent home appliance industry, frugality was still practiced in the home. Like taking advantage of good drying weather and hanging out your laundry. It was often even the social highlight of one's day.
A half-century later, a series of clotheslines strung about in the back yards of suburban America is truly a rare event. People would complain to their neighborhood presidents. Petitions would be signed. Violation orders would ensue. Clean white sheets might be stained with the juice of errant tomatoes (well, we hope not).
So why then have clotheslines become such a problem in the suburbs and certain developments or ordinance-heavy communities of the 21st century? Are we becoming so bland and homogeneous that we can't hang out our own diverse laundry piles? What is wrong with a city street, or backyard, zig-zagged with laundry hung out to dry? It is a common enough and accepted site in European cities and towns. Some find it charming and evocative of character, either abroad or here. Others are quite simply revolted and maybe it hearkens of a class thing. It is something that is hard to argue against and yet people take issue with them. A clothesline is both noiseless and odorless and only a temporary visual patterning, rather than a looming cell phone tower.
If some Americans have become prudish about hanging out their clean laundry, it's a good formality to get over. There are discreet ways to hang your laundry if you must enact ordinances about them [even proper Bostonians, known for their practicality as well as old money, had laundry-drying facilities behind their townhouses in alley-accessed work yards]. Many New Urbanist neighborhoods of today are allowing similar setups, as well as backyard chickens and, get ready for it, even vegetable gardens. Everything old is eventually new again, as long as it is clean and well-aired or well-planned.
I'm not saying I don't have an electric dryer but there are times when a clothesline is more useful and always more cost-effective. I'm in the "let it all hang out" school of clothesline etiquette: besides, it's free, easy, and cheap. We see people walking around in public with their underwear or bras showing all the time and we are bombarded with ads revealing all kinds of erotic garments: so what's wrong with a little clothesline décolleté, people? There are so many more important things to be worried about in our society than someone else's clean laundry wafting out in the breeze. This isn't a militant issue, a socialist agenda, or even a matter of taste: it's a frugal and practical measure in an era when every little bit helps.