VICKERS/A wash pot potpourri
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 11:30 AM
You can find them today at restored villages like Williamsburg, Virginia, Old Salem, North Carolina, and the Agriculture Museum in Jackson. I am speaking of a wash pot, an object which was essential to every rural household in those days before the arrival of community water systems and rural electric lines.
Wash pots varied in both size and shape. Some were large while others were quite small. They were all black because they were made of cast iron and because of the smoke and soot from the fire built around them. These pots were often placed with their legs on bricks so the fire could circulate not only around but also under them.
The primary purpose (as its name would suggest) was to boil clothes on wash day. Wash day varied according to the whim of the mother of the family whose responsibility it was to see to it that her husband, children, and any visiting relative had clean clothes, towels and bed sheets.
Wood chips from the wood pile were saved to burn around the wash pot. Sometimes a discarded automobile tire was placed under the pot to burn. The burning tire sent up billows of black smoke, but the fire it created was intense.
Once the fire was going, the clothes to be washed were placed in zinc tubs resting on a kind of platform near the well and known as "the wash place." When the clothes had been rubbed on a corrugated apparatus called a "wash board," they were placed in the pot to boil.
After a reasonable amount of time when the clothes had boiled sufficiently, they were lifted out with a "battling stick." Why this stick was known by this name, I have no idea. The name might be derived from the fact that heavy clothes such as men's overalls were placed on a wooden block and beaten with the stick.
Colored and white clothes were never placed in the wash pot at the same time. When each washing was removed from the pot, the clothes were then rinsed through three tubs of clear water and hung out to dry on a clothes line or sometimes on a yard fence.
Although the primary use of a wash pot was to boil clothes on wash day, a wash pot had many other uses. People often made soap in these pots. The soap was made from saved meat scraps and grease that remained after sausage or bacon had been fried. Potash or lye was added to the boiling grease. When the soap became almost firm in the pot, it was poured onto a flat space and allowed to solidify.
Soap had to be made when the moon was full or it would became very dry and not useful. If a woman was with child, she was not allowed to stir in the soap. If she did so, the soap would not solidify.
Before pressure cookers became available to farm families, the wash pot was used in the canning of fruits and vegetables. When the jars had been filled and an aluminum lid resting on a rubber ring was in place, the jars were arranged in the wash pot where they boiled for a certain time in what was called a "hot water bath."
Another common use for the wash pot was in cooking out lard when hogs were killed in the winter. The fat and scrap meat, when cooked down, produced not only lard but cracklings often used in making "cracklin' bread." The dangers of eating food cooked with lard were unheard of at that time, and the word "cholesterol" had not been coined.
Wash pots also played a part in community gatherings, known as a "peanut boiling." Young people of the community would spend an afternoon picking green peanuts from the vines. As the shades of night fell, they built a fire around a wash pot filled with salted water and green peanuts.
When the peanuts boiled for a while, several youngsters would test them and finally declare them ready for everyone to enjoy. The peanuts were then dipped from the pot, placed on a sheet of tin to cool and eaten under a full moon.
A generation of people has grown up without ever having seen a wash pot in use. Today wash pots can be seen in antique shops which deal with items found on farms during the first half of the twentieth century. From time to time, one sees a wash pot being used as a planter for flowers on a front lawn.
There are, however, a few of us still around who remember when a wash pot was as important to a farm family as wagons, harnesses, plows and wood-burning stoves.