In the backyard of her home near Olympia, Loretta Murphy does something that can get people in trouble, something many neighborhoods ban. She uses a clothesline.
At age 66, she’s never lived without one. “When building this house 51/2 years ago, I designed the yard, and it included the clothesline from the beginning,” said Murphy. “It’s common sense to air dry clothes when the weather permits. It saves energy and it’s good exercise.”
Not everyone has this option. The rules of many homeowners associations forbid drying laundry outdoors, considering clotheslines eyesores that endanger property values. Some allow them if hidden from the street, and others don’t mention them at all. That doesn’t mean no one would complain.
Now, with a recession and more emphasis on living “green,” the revival of clothesline use has created a “flap” all over the nation, louder than sheets hung out on a windy day, and resulted in the “Right to Dry Movement.”
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Its existence raises a question: Why did American society come to scorn something once considered a normal, everyday necessity?
APPLIANCES: SYMBOLS OF PROSPERITY
“It started back in the 1950s,” says Yonn Dierwechter, associate professor with the Urban Studies Program at the University of Washington Tacoma. “In the United States, the world’s first mass consumption/mass production society emerged, especially in suburbia, as more people entered the post-war middle class. Now prosperous in revolutionary ways, we bought dryers and grills, built patios and decks, and discovered the private joys of backyards. We filled up our houses, which drove our modernized economy; we emptied our frontal spaces and forgot all about our porches; and re-imagined our ‘backspaces’ as places sealed off for private recreation, leisure, radios and lawn chemicals. We suburbanized faster than anyone in history and we created ‘a crabgrass frontier,’ but happily jettisoned the real frontier inconveniences.”
Convenience comes with a price. Alexander Lee is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called Project Laundry List, a national organization that promotes clothesline use. Department of Energy statistics from 2001 attribute 5.9 percent of domestic energy use to dryers.
But Lee says that doesn’t take into account gas dryers, use of commercial laundry facilities or those in multifamily residences. Based on his research, his estimate is 10 percent to 15 percent.
HANG-UPS OVER LETTING IT ALL HANG OUT
Using common sense helps improve the clothesline’s public image. Does your exposed underwear say a little more about you than neighbors need to know?
“Mother would hang the sheets and towels on the outside lines and the underwear in the middle,” recalls Murphy. “She hung the clothes with neatness and taught me to put all the like items together, to hang pants from the waist, shirts from the bottom and socks just placed over the line. I pretty much hang my wash the same way.”
Even tidy clotheslines struggle for acceptance.
Some homeowners appreciate having “no clothesline” rules because of concerns over uniformity, aesthetics and the perceived threat to property values. Dierwechter explains that perception: “A clothesline is a great cultural icon when placed in a rural setting, but when placed in the urban setting, we see tenements and think poverty.”
No one thinks poverty when they drive through Bridgewood Estates in Gig Harbor.
Joe Faulkner serves as president of the HOA that strictly prohibits “clothes drying outdoors.” Do people care? “Not once has anyone ever mentioned that they would like to have a clothesline,” he responded, then added, “I would say, strictly speaking for myself, that it would be an issue related to property value. I would have to say that I would view having visible clotheslines as a negative.”
FUTURE OF LAUNDRY IS ON THE LINE
Also in Gig Harbor, Juanita Carbaugh offers professional consulting and management through her company HOA Community Solutions. “I think any reasonable HOA would consider opening this issue up to a vote of their homeowners,” Carbaugh says, “if in fact it appears that there are a large number interested in changing the CC&R’s to accommodate clotheslines or other ‘green movement issues’ that might be restricted in the existing governing documents.”
Realtor Teena Williams, with Re/Max Properties, lives and works in Puyallup. She serves on the Architectural Committee for her HOA in the Windsor Crossing neighborhood. Williams spent her childhood in New Zealand, where clotheslines still prevail.
“My HOA does not allow clotheslines,” Williams says. “I’d like to have a clothesline in order to really utilize the sun’s energy as millions of other people around the world do. I think we are seriously behind the rest of the world in energy efficiency, and I try to do whatever I can to save in my own small way.”
Just as Manifest Destiny moved pioneers from East to West, the Right to Dry movement charges across the nation.
Meanwhile, lifelong clothesline users such as Murphy quietly go on hanging out the wash, and Williams shows homes being sold by older folks who still have clotheslines. She sees young couples excited about them, and nostalgic, because they remember their grandparents having one.
Dierwechter wonders about the evolution of American society: “Maybe putting the clothesline in the back will push us out onto the front porch again. Maybe the smallest little thing – the much-maligned clothesline – is trying to tell us something really big.”
• Heavy-duty permanent T- Post style, $229 through Project Laundry List, or build one with wood or steel posts. www.laundrylist.org
• D.I.Y. pulley type clothesline with a kit from The Clothesline Shop. The Clothesline Shop: www.clotheslineshop.com
• Umbrella styles range from $50 to $300. Try the Greenway Deluxe Bamboo Foldaway Clothesline. $99.99 at Home Depot
• Go high end: Stewi First Lady Rotary Dryer Plus with 220 feet of line, $334.99
• Hills Branded Products, Australia, offers a range of prices and styles. 10-year guarantee.
PORTABLE, FOLDING, RETRACTABLE AND INDOOR/OUTDOOR
• Leifheit, based in Germany, sells premier choices including drying towers. Leifheit: www.soehnleusa.com/Laundry-Care.html
• Hills offers innovative and attractive styles. Some fold against a wall. Hills Branded Products: www.onlinedirect.com.hills.au.
• Don’t miss the Tibbe Line, vinyl sleeves that slip over the line with holes to hold hangers spaced apart for air flow. $14.99 for a package of three. Tibbe Lines: www.tibbeline.com
• Sunline makes a retractable, single-line dryer. $12.99 at Ace Hardware
LAUNDRY SUPPLY RESOURCE
• Project Laundry List sells products by Leifheit, Hills, Stewi, Tibbie and more. Proceeds benefit Right to Dry Movement: www.laundrylist.org