One of the ironies of modern life is that people will pay for labor-saving devices such as automatic dishwashers, clotheswashers, and dryers, and then pay some more for gym memberships and exercise equipment. While I am not opposed to technology in a general way, I believe we would do well to make more thoughtful choices about the machines we bring into our homes.
Some years back, when my kids were small, I read about how some Mennonite and Amish communities evaluate technology on a case-by-case basis, carefully considering whether a particular device will enhance community, or diminish it. (There is, of course, much variance among the particular communities as to what is and is not allowed.) I decided to apply this kind of thinking to how I cleaned my tile floor. I could use our Kirby vacuum cleaner with hose attachment, or I could use the broom I’d owned since college. The Kirby seemed like it ought to work better; after all, it was a machine, and it had an automatic transmission. But I disliked the way it rattled around behind me on the tiles and occasionally (propelled by the automatic transmission) ran into walls, furniture, and my toes. The engine’s noise irritated me and drove people and cats from the room. The broom was less impressive, but more enjoyable to operate. With no machine to drag behind me, I had greater freedom of movement. I decided to use the broom, and spend my sweeping time listening to Daniel, then about seven years old, practice reading aloud. (The Shaker-style flat broom, patented in 1878, is itself a terrific tool, and a big improvement over the round brooms previously used. Laura Ingalls was very impressed by her first sight of the flat broom purchased by Pa in On the Banks of Plum Creek.)
Other criteria besides community enhancement deserve consideration in the evaluation of any piece of technology. We must consider what the machine will actually do, and what it will cost, in terms of money, personal energy, and other commodities. Some innovations–and these are mostly innovations that happened a good while back, like running water and non-electric washing machines–can be confidently said to significantly improve people’s lives. Truly demanding work is reduced to a more manageable level, and improved hygiene means less exposure to infectious diseases. Other devices can be harder to evaluate in terms of a net gain. Am I saving a small amount of physical labor, but having to work longer hours at a job I don’t like to pay for the machine? Do the maintenance requirements of the machine offset the projected savings in labor? If so, to what degree? Does the machine enable me to do with greater ease something I shouldn’t be doing anyhow? Is its overall tendency to ennoble my life, or to make me stupider, weaker, altogether inferior?
It would be rash to dismiss new things simply because they are new. The wheel and the plow, the forge and the spinning wheel, all were innovations at one time. But we should tread carefully, and think about where a particular tool or machine might lead us.
An eye-opener of a read for me years ago was More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan. The author argues that many household labor-saving devices have not saved much labor at all in the long run, only redistributed it. Chores that were once shared with husbands and children are now done more exclusively by women (how many family members does it take to load and operate a dishwasher, anyway?), and the availability of machines has proportionally raised everybody’s expectations. Women are as busy as ever with housework, but they are working in isolation; and to my own thinking, the work is of a lower quality, with more mental aggravation and less healthful exercise.
We had an opportunity to scale back some of our household technology several months ago, when our electric clothes dryer gave up the ghost in the dead of winter. Instead of forking over a big chunk of change for a new dryer, we elected to fork over a nearly-as-big chunk for a spinning umbrella clothesline.
Well, why not? Electricity doesn’t grow on trees, after all. Questline estimates that a clothes dryer uses more electricity than any other household appliance except the refrigerator, costing between $1,100 and $1,500 to operate over its lifetime. That’s not counting the cost of the appliance itself and any repairs you might choose to pay for, though more and more it seems that the first repair on an appliance costs almost as much as replacing it. Our clothesline, purchased from The Clothesline Shop, was certainly pricey, but is sturdily built and does not have a motor or heating element to fizzle out in a few years.
Wind and sun are abundant natural resources here in north Texas. They are put to good use now, drying our family’s wardrobe. I may say that at times I could do with a little less wind. Often I find myself wanting to say, “Will somebody please switch off this wind until I get this laundry hung? I’ll turn it back on when I’m done.”
In the winter, when we first started hanging clothes outdoors, the wind was not just rough, but also cold. Have you ever heard that the only thing standing between Texas and the North Pole is a barbed-wire fence? It’s true. And besides the cold, there was always the looming threat of rain or sleet. After we bought the clothesline, I found myself more than usually interested of a morning in the weather forecasts Greg found online. “A chance of scattered thunderstorms” was a vague, oft-repeated non-prediction that could mean almost anything.
Winter’s gone now, but the wind remains. I wrestle with it almost every time I hang laundry. I get an appreciable upper body workout from hanging Greg and Daniel’s karate gis, which, when wet, have the approximate weight and stiffness of plywood. Socks and underwear for five people take more or less forever to hang.
On days when laundry-hanging tries my patience, I think about things people do to challenge themselves physically–rock-climbing, marathons, and such. People intentionally submit themselves to exertion and discomfort, often paying for the opportunity, just to see how much they can take. What if housework were approached this way, as a kind of sport? Like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly’s whitewashed fence? “You’ve climbed rocks, you’ve run marathons; but can you survive . . . the laundry challenge?”
I know–it would never go over. And that’s a pity, because work, properly approached, is more fun than play. I like hanging laundry. I like using my muscles to accomplish something that actually needs to be done. I like the mental puzzle of arranging the clothes and linens for maximum efficiency.
Hanging laundry gives me an excuse to enjoy the outdoors without standing there staring at it. I might see a buzzard gliding disconcertingly overhead, or a blue heron pumping its way up from the pond, or a certain cheeky mockingbird (Greg’s nemesis) singing from his favored perch on our stovepipe, or glossy black grackles doing some male posturing.
When Greg is outside and sees me heading to the clothesline with a full basket, he comes over and lends a hand, and we talk intelligently about important things. Laundry-hanging is the kind of chore that seems to stir up Deep Thoughts, perhaps because it gives the left brain something to amuse itself, thereby keeping it out of the way while the right brain rhapsodizes.
Our well-mannered dogs also like to come hang out with me at the clothesline. They stay nearby, quiet, agreeable, and clearly happy just to occupy adjacent space. They have never molested the laundry in any way. If it is hot (or at least hot for a collie), they will stand or lie in the shade cast by the hanging clothes. No doubt the damp fabric gives off some kind of evaporative cooling in addition to providing shelter from the sun: a harmonious arrangement all around.
Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog sells a hand washer, made by the Amish, that we may acquire someday. This manual clothes-washer has an ergonomic swinging handle, apparently easier on the human body than a turning crank. Again I say, why not? I do strength training every other day anyhow; why not put the same muscles to work doing something productive for my family? Perhaps we could even rig a bookstand like some people have on their treadmills; then doing laundry would give me an excuse to read a book for seven minutes or so.
A Mennonite friend, on hearing that we were considering purchasing a hand washer, said, “Wow, y’all are really going extreme.” Well, we’ll see. For now, our electric washer is still hanging in there.