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Clotheslines Are Back, and So Are Their Problems

By Martha Rosenberg Created: December 20, 2009 Last Updated: December 20, 2009
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 (Martha Rosenberg)

(Martha Rosenberg)

The news that clotheslines are back as an environmentally conscious way to dry clothes is both good and bad.

Clotheslines have been glorified as an emblem of the good old days, especially in country and western songs where Mom sings "Amazing Grace" while pinning socks. (Not my mom.) But in the real world they are a mixed blessing.

Sure, nothing beats the fragrant aura of sheets dried amidst pastoral breezes—but how about towels, assuming they even dry? Do they go in the linen closet—or in the garage as emergency sandpaper?

Raise your hand if you've hung wash in the climes like Phoenix or Vegas and found your royal blue shirt converted into a robin's egg blue shirt in about two hours? What does sun like this do to a woman's complexion?

And how about 98 percent humidity environments like New Orleans where nothing every really "dries," matches don't always light, and rice cakes collapse instead of crunch? No electric shocks when you shake hands there!

Just as clothes dried outside adopt fresh-air odors, so do clothes dried in musty basements, which is the more common scenario. And that's not counting clothes that actually fall on the floor and beg rewashing.

But assuming no rain, humidity, or bleaching sun, there are still problems with hanging your wash outside.

Whose Pinzon Italian Percale, 220-threads-per-inch sheets look like they did when they were a wedding present a zillion years ago?

Whose whites are really white when out in the sun—or compared to a neighbor's (see: teeth). And who wants the family's underwear on display—or "fat day" pants—for the world to judge make and model?

What about the 7 for Mankind and Philipp Plein jeans you and your husband bought with your 2007 tax rebate check? (Who knew?) Specifically their resale market?

Actually, clothesline "issues" are the same issues that anyone who frequents the laundromat has: Embarrassment that your colors aren't as bright as those of the woman at the next machine (or worse,the man.)

Shame that your yoga pants look twice as big as everyone else's.

And fear that if you slip off for a Coke, someone will walk off with your Benetton sweater. (Anyone who doubts that good clothes get stolen at the laundromat needs to look at the debris passing for clothes left in the Lost & Found pile.)

The laundromat gives such a glimpse into people's lives that single women even use it to scope out eligible men.

The fact that he does his own wash proves he is single and self-sufficient. If he's at the mat every week, you know he is reliable and conscientious. And if his clothes are clean and well taken care of, especially his underwear, well, you know that much more.

But other women say the most important thing you know about a man at the laundromat is that he can't afford his own washer and dryer, which brings us back to the original reason clotheslines fell into disfavor: They connote poverty.

Many subdivisions and home associations ban outdoor clotheslines for the same reason they ban sofas on the front porch and Dodge Chargers on cinder blocks. Who can forget the maze of clotheslines blotting the landscape in turn-of-the-century immigrant ghettos in the United States—none with clothes you would wear or steal?

But with new awareness of carbon footprints, the clothes dryer is now seen as a juice guzzler like big freezers and refrigerators—especially because clothes will dry by themselves if you are only patient.

So as clotheslines are destigmatized, more families will be hanging their clean laundry in public. And it won't always be possible to tell if the reasons are environmental or economic—especially with college kids, who also tend to have the sofa on the porch.




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