There is a moment, when I first open the door of my basement dryer and gather a few corners of clothes into my hands, where I have the urge to bring the fabric to my face, warm and fragrant, and inhale.
I used to do this outside, my head reaching my mother’s waist, while collecting the clothespins she would pass to me. Sheets and pillowcases and my father’s shirts floated around us like banners, white and blue and cream. Sometimes—the sun reflecting off all those flat surfaces, soaking and starching the plains of our daily lives—it felt as if the summertime sky had come down to us.
I can’t say the feeling translates quite the same in my basement.
In fact, after the initial appreciation of warmth and a scent faintly related to lavender, alone next to my dryer, I don’t feel anything much at all besides business.
Despite the best intentions of my mother—who taught me those years ago about the sun’s power and the perfect way to pin up pants, how a common task can transform into an act as calming and rhythmic as prayer—the only thing I think about now regarding dirty clothes is how quickly I can get them clean.
Often this happens between a meal and an errand on weekends.
Often this happens after my son or daughter has run out of socks.
Often this happens when the hamper has flooded onto the floor.
As the sun arcs across the sky, I see it in terms of hours, not power. I focus on the speed with which I can transport damp towels to dryer, ignoring the energy it takes to fluff those towels light—most likely because it takes me very little energy, just the press of a button, the ding of completion relieving me even from the work of memory.
Besides, we don’t have a clothesline.
So, throwing laundry into a dryer, as I rush from one chore that needs doing to the next, seems necessary.
But it is always that—a chore.
And when the buzzer goes off, there the clothes sit, a tangled, undignified mass, and beyond that initial urge to feel and smell, yanking them from the dryer and plunking them into a basket gives me no satisfaction. I might fold a towel or two, but then I’m called away by a ding in a different part of the house, and the remaining bits lie there in that basket for days until I can’t remember whether I washed them at all, and I have to bring some shirt to my nose, smelling not for sunshine, but for sweat.
I consider it safe to fold, stack, and store if I smell nothing.
Clotheslines are up there with rubber bands and toilet paper as one of humanity’s most humble inventions: a hook, a rope, and a pole—or tree—plus some space to place wet sheets, shirts, and underwear to dry. Clotheslines do not seem synonymous with controversy.
And yet, for roughly 60 million people in America’s 300,000 private communities, frequently run by boards or homeowners associations, clotheslines have been banned. Residents who don’t comply are often threatened with fines or even eviction.
As recently as 2015, California lawmakers—following in the footsteps of a dozen or so other states and cities as a reaction to these bans—passed legislation that allowed residents to have the “right to dry.”
Associations, boards, and displeased neighbors have pushed back against these laws for the same reasons the bans were originally put in place, citing a loss of property value, an unpleasing eyesore, even public indecency.
In 2012, filmmaker Steven Lake released his documentary Drying for Freedom, and at its core is the story of how a Mississippi man, fed up with telling his neighbor to stop hanging clothes outside, shot and killed him.
“It seems like such a mundane thing, hanging laundry,” said Lake, in a New York Times article from 2009, “and yet it draws in all these questions about individual rights, private property, class, aesthetics, the environment.”
And every year since 1998, on April 19th, people around the United States participate in National Hanging Out Day, which isn’t, as one might guess, about gathering with friends around lawn games in a backyard, but is instead about stepping into one’s own outside space, a basketful of damp laundry in hand, and shaking each item smooth, pinning first a single shirt sleeve and then the next to a strung line, letting the sun and wind do their work.
While I was growing up in the 1990s, everyone I knew in my rural Minnesota hometown had clotheslines. Sheets hung behind the bed and breakfast. Lines served double-duty as volleyball nets. A stroll along an alley revealed which families were hunters, what sports their kids played, what brands they preferred, what color cloth they wrapped around their twining bodies at night. Perhaps due to the town’s underwhelming size, we already knew what there was to know of each other: jobs, religion, politics. There was nothing to hide. Although most lines were taken down or stretched empty in winter, whenever the weather was fair, they were employed without self-consciousness, as just another part of the domestic day.
Now, as I think of the communities with which I am the most familiar—a Midwestern, metropolitan, upwardly mobile spread—I know only a handful of residents who use clotheslines. Certainly no one with small children. Certainly no one with small children and a full-time job. And certainly no one with a penchant for privacy, a preference more and more people seem to hold. Some folks have rigged lines in their homes, and I do have friends who are more diligent than I am about treating lacy underclothes with the respect they deserve, placing them carefully and discreetly on a drying rack in the basement. But in general, when I conjure the yards of my fellow city dwellers and next-door neighbors in the leafy, lake-bordered Minneapolis suburb where I now live, I spot nary a flapping undershirt anywhere.
All our laundry now lives inside.
I don’t remember this ever being a conversation.
I don’t remember this ever being a choice.
When my husband and I moved into our home, built in 1979, there was no remnant of a clothesline, just a basement corner set aside for the washer and dryer, which is what we expected. How does this happen? A silent move from one way of life to another? The exchanging of the old for the new? The corner video store to Netflix, the instant dinners to delivered organic salads, the free-range kid to the scheduled son—the newest cell phone safely in his back pocket. There are cycles to everything, of course, and what individuals choose and don’t choose connects closely to their beliefs about themselves and their place in the world, as well as their degree of privilege. But it seems to me that most changes are conscious. That people are aware of what they are giving up. That they at least wave to the past.
I did not notice the clothesline was gone until I looked for it.
How many things in life, I wonder, are like that?
In the Indian Himalaya, it’s customary to see women dipping linens in river water to wash them, scrubbing them against rocks, and spreading them wet and beaten atop a bush. In Nova Scotia, citizens use wooden platforms to stand on while stringing their washing outside in winter when the snow is five feet deep. In the Philippines, despite the complications of high humidity, families line dry because of the germ-killing benefits of ultraviolet light. And across Europe, dryer use is widely considered a practice that is not only hard on clothes but ecologically wasteful while racks and open windows and balconies can serve the same purpose.
In the United States, however—at least since the dryer’s invention in 1938— Americans have steadily chosen to turn the drying of their laundry over to machines, prioritizing convenience above energy waste, privacy above exposure.
Incidentally, a delineation of laundering acceptability has been created: a clean line.
But before that? Before that, families and individuals sent dirty clothes off to laundromats, hired washerwomen to come into their homes, set aside an entire day down by the closest body of water. Or didn’t wash.
Before cotton was commonly used, garments were sturdier, made of material like leather or wool. And people didn’t see a stain on another’s hem and immediately assume a number of insufficiencies regarding the state of that person’s household.
Before that there were also diseases and early death and a general uncleanliness—a particular smell that no one much noticed, at least in the streets—but there wasn’t this controversy. There weren’t newspaper articles about clotheslines. There weren’t calls to local legislature about clotheslines. There weren’t bylaws. There weren’t bans. Nobody shot and killed a man because of how he chose to dry his undershirts.
“Hanging laundry is therapeutic,” someone says.
“It lowers my property value,” another says.
“It’s eco-friendly,” a third responds.
“I don’t care,” the last insists. “I didn’t pay good money to live in a slum.”
Here is what I don’t want my children to lose:
The ability to descend the hill behind our house and explore the marsh. To study the land for soft places. To toe atop a fallen log, to slip, plunging into wet up to their knees. To laugh at the mud staining their shoelaces.
The chance to smell the air back there as the maples and sumac and bloodroot exhale. For the freshness to not be replaced.
The likeliness to feel the sun on their skin and think warmth, not global warming; to think nourishment, not cancer; to sense power, not fear.
To understand gravity by seeing it: wet versus dry.
To ponder a chickadee perched on a thread of telephone wire, antenna, clothesline: that magical act of balance.
I would fight for these things.
There are 89 million residential clothes dryers in the United States, and as the number two home appliance in energy use, estimates suggest that they constitute at least six percent of total residential energy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, per year they emit 32 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
A typical household of four might dry three hundred loads of laundry in a year. For some families, this number is much higher.
While walking through a neighborhood on any given day, one can smell the truth of this: the scent of lavender or botanical mist rising up and out through dryer vents, potpourring the air with limonene and linalool, ethanol and alpha-pinene.
Half a century ago, in a small southwestern Minnesota town, my grandfather owned and operated The Pipestone Laundromat. He died the year before I was born, so I never met him. Still, I know his smell. Every time I would visit my grandmother in the house they shared, I would open her closets, sift through the coats and jackets and dresses and shirts hung neatly along the shoulders of company hangers, and I would inhale that familiar mix of dried cloth and chemical, of compressed motion.
My mother—their daughter—has speculated on her father’s early death, the cause of which was clearly respiratory but never diagnosed to her satisfaction. Had all those hours around chemicals played a part? “They should have worn masks, you know—other protective measures,” she’s told me, “but when you had deadlines, clients at the front desk, absentee workers…”
For years, my grandmother and her oldest son kept the business going, but it was difficult work, requiring more effort for less profit due to diminishing demand. Despite her children’s protests, my grandmother insisted on running the register well into her seventies.
Visiting her and my uncle at the toggery, my brother and I would pass beyond the register into the backroom like diminutive honored guests. It was a strange and wonderful world of steam and presses, bottles with hand-written labels, stacks of extra hangers—hot. On the carousel full of finished garments waiting to be picked up, I drew my fingers against the grain of a fur coat. It was as soft as a child’s downy hair, cleaned, free of every element but itself.
I remember thinking, Who wears a fur coat in southwestern Minnesota?
My grandmother had a few of them—a beaver, a mink, a fox—and in photos, I see her and my grandfather dressed in style: big-framed sunglasses, thick suits and pleated dresses, a Laundry Baron and his duchess, pressed and starched and ready to step into the car and speed off to one of the local dance halls.
But she did not wear those coats when I knew her, not in my memories. In my memories, my grandmother is in her green backyard in a simple loose dress, clothespins between her humming lips, hanging shirts and aprons and sheets on a strung summertime line.
Emily Brisse’s essays have recently appeared in publications including Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Atticus Review, Sweet, and River Teeth. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is a 2018 recipient of a Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She teaches English at Breck School, and lives just outside of Minneapolis with her family.