Daily life

The washing stone

1:01 PM

If you happen to have visited my Facebook page recently, you must know that I discovered several pictures from my old flat in Bangalore and posted them there. Among said pictures was this one:

washing stone

This, is a washing stone that was located on the upper terrace. This is one of these very interesting picture because I remember sharing it with friends and family in the past. My US based friends almost all without exception asked me what it was, or asked what the purpose of a washing stone was while my Swiss friends and family knew exactly what the thing was and what it’s purpose was in the first place.
I don’t know how things are in the US, but I know why my Swiss friends made the connection instantly. In Switzerland you won’t find a single small town or village, or even the old area of a city not having at least one of these:

swiss wash fountain

Photo credit: http://www.earthwander.com/Switzerland/Valangin/Fountains/3-Fountain/3-Fountain.html

These are public fountains, and they were used to draw water before the arrival of indoor plumbing, and a certain certain architectural feature gives a clue about their second common usage as public clothes washing station: The double basin and the slanted washing stone. Now some of these fountains are more ornate than others, and many had the washing stone slanting straight into one of the basins. The double basin existed so that clothes could be washed in one of them, and rinsed in cleaner water in the second, and while people probably stopped using these fountains post world war 2 to wash their clothes, the stone fountains are part of a cultural heritage and are still standing proud all around the country. Which is probably the reason why all my compatriots identified the stone on my terrace as a washing stone.
Washing machines didn’t really become that common in Switzerland until the end of the 50’s and even then, it was a communal one in the basement of an apartment building which you had to feed with coins to wash a load, then there were and still are the “Laundromats” these public sometimes 24/7 arcade full of washing machines and now dryers in which you paid in coins to wash you load as well. Both are still widespread in the country and many still use them instead of owning a washing machine at home, which is still despite what people might think a significant expense not to mention a space eating device that often takes a whole lot of space in the bathroom. So much so that unless you have a family it makes little sense to have your own at home. In many buildings like the one I grew up with, people need to apply to use the washing machine in the basement and put their name on a schedule with the building’s superintendent, and you used to get the key to the laundry room on your specific designated day and no other, so you had that one day a week to do all your laundry and no other. And because it was in the pre-dryer days, the laundry room in our building had an attached “Hot air room” in which you fed more coins to activate a big hot air blowing machine that would blow on your clothes all neatly clipped to the clothes lines…remember that Switzerland is a country where the weather is lousy enough a solid portion of the year that sun drying them is not an option…at all.
My mom had a washer at home, but still used the laundry room once a week to do the big clothes, mostly because she needed the hot air room. Then when my parents could finally afford one, we got a dryer and let our slot go to others.

Now in India, the concept of having a washing machine at home is a very new concept, and still a luxury for many, but unlike in Switzerland, those who don’t have a washing machine can’t just go to a Laundromat and there is certainly no concept of common washing machine in apartment buildings.  The job however is often relegated to the maid, which was not the case in the pre-washer days in Switzerland where most housewives used to wash their own family’s load.
In Indian independent houses you will still find the washing stone like the one I had, a feature I am sure is disappearing from newer buildings, and is of course absent in apartment buildings where an utility space fitted with a washing machine drain and tap has replaced the stone.
The stone in our home in Bangalore was of the “fancy” type, it was set inside a pool area, and had a concrete block added to act as a sitting stool to make the banging and scrubbing necessary to take the dirt out of clothes a bit more comfortable to whoever has to do it (there is nothing comfy as such doing it…but a stool can make it a bit more bearable).
We had a similar stone and basin area in our home in Chennai, which we used a few times before we got the washing machine, and we used the one in our Bangalore flat a couple of times too, all on these days the water tank attached to the flat would get empty and not fill up. The stone area was on a separate tank, so we did a few batch of emergency laundry up there, as well as a few dish washing sessions.
Some might argue that these are the symbol of a simpler time, and while I agree that the days of yore were probably better off without a good deal of the electronic gadgets we find it hard to do without nowadays, the arrival of washing machines in women’s life was life changing. I heard both my grand ma rave about how of all appliances the 50’s introduced them to, the one they could never let go of was the washing machine as it saved them considerable time in a week, washed clothes better, and also prolonged the life of said clothes. I heard tales of 50’s families where when the matter of making big expenses in the new technologies you would find the washing machine almost always pitted against the TV set and more often than not the washer winning and being purchased first.
Both my grand mas told me tales of taking the clothes to the communal fountain in the good days to wash them when they were kids, and doing the job at home in the winter when fountains were pretty much out of commission (water freezes in many places), they told me about the necessity to boil some water on the stove whenever a few heavily soiled clothes needed a more intensive treatment, and how the front load machines we have more commonly in Switzerland made that job far easier by having a built in heater.

It’s not too surprising than many of my generation asked me what was the purpose of a washing stone, as it is one of these tool of yore people would not really look very fondly at, heck the few times I used ours I hated it, and understood why my grand mas still bless their washing machines and talk about them as life changing devices. Yet there are places in this world, were people still do use them, and all the respect to them…hand washing a whole laundry batch by hand is hard, hard work.


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