I grew up with a space in my home that didn’t exist for most of my friends. It wasn’t a tv room nor a Costco annex, but a place called “the line”.
Today, there’s so much talk about this rudimentary tool, one might think the clothesline was a recently invented cleantech alternative to the dryer. And this may be the secret to its success in America. The clothesline is being freed from all the old stereotypes of social status and gaining cachet by those interested in being a part of the “green” class.
Check the line
When something was missing, we were told to “check the line” or when we
appeared idle: “help me take these out to the line”. Whether we lived
in a home with a backyard or a condo with no outdoor space, my mother
always found a place to hang a piece of rope: between trees or two
pieces of furniture.
The hanging of the line was not a decision, it was just where wet
clothes belong. If asked why she didn’t use her dryer, her reasons were
many: they smell better, the sun bleaches out stains, and of course why
waste money/energy blasting a bunch of hot air at your soggy wardrobe.
To my mother, a clothes dryer was useful only for about 5 minutes- “to
get the wrinkles out”- after that it made as much sense as heating your
home with your oven.
Outdoor laundry is “akin to graffiti”
She never made a secret of her line or tried to hide it from view of
the neighbors, but no one ever complained. So when I read in the Wall
Street Journal last month that Susan Taylor, a woman in an “exclusive
neighborhood” in Bend, Oregon (known for nature lovers and outdoorsy
types), was fighting her housing development for the right to dry her
clothes in the sun, I couldn’t imagine what the fuss was all about.
Apparently, a clothesline is offensive. Susan’s neighbor, interior designer Joan Grundeman, explained to the Journal, “This bombards the senses. It can’t possibly increase property values and make people think this is a nice neighborhood .”
Joan isn’t alone in her aversion to clotheslines. When Meg Wilcox of
Newton, Massachusetts decided to give line drying a try (she wrote in
the local paper that if all 32,000 households in her town stop drying
for one hour/month it would be like taking 117 cars off the road for
one year), her neighbor called it “poor white trash.”
A woman in Aurora, Ontario told the Toronto Star that clotheslines look junkie and that she doesn’t want “to see people’s dirty laundry “.
Obviously, there’s a huge lack of education around clotheslines if she
thinks they’re used for “dirty” laundry. She also thinks they bring
down property values and while she obviously lacks the authority to
serve as an authority, she does represent a certain segment of the
Richard Monson, president of the California Homeowners Associations, who once called hanging laundry “akin to graffiti in your neighborhood” estimated in 2001 that hanging laundry outside can bring down property values by 15%.
Step away from the laundry!
Not everyone agrees with Monson’s math. Pulitzer-prize winning
cartoonist Gary Trudeau lampooned this line of reasoning in his
Doonesbury strip in 2001. When Doonesbury’s father starts using a clothesline after receiving a high energy bill, the neighbors “call it in” and the police arrive to bust the line dryers.
Police: Sir. Step away from the laundry!
Doonesbury’s father: Why? I’m in my own yard.
Police: Clotheslines are banned in this neighborhood, sir!
Father: But I’m trying to save energy.
Police: Sorry sir but outdoor clotheslines are associated with poverty. It reduces property values!
Okay now drop the line! Nice ‘n easy now!
clothesline aversion in North America all began as an issue of social
status. Developers began banning clotheslines so their communities
would appear more middle-class.
While perhaps this could have been used
as an indicator of wealth in the fifties- when electric dryers first
hit the mainstream-, today the majority of North Americans own one
(about 90% in the US and 75% in Canada) and owning a dryer no longer
makes a statement.
Yet the majority of America’s 300,000 homeowner groups continue to have
some type of ban or restriction on clotheslines.
Richard Monson , who
stopped comparing hanging laundry “graffiti” shortly after the
Doonesbury strip, now has a more politically correct explanation for
the bans: “When we talk about areas of communities that are less
desirable, we often associate those with undesirable items that are in
the proximity to the buildings.”
The underwear objection
For Poppy Madden of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it was her “purple panties” on her backyard clothesline- near the two 3 million dollar homes he was building- that drove her neighbor
Robert Strauss to file a complaint with the city. “I objected to walking out of the new home I was building and seeing her underwear. ”
Madden won the right to dry her undergarments outside thanks to a state
law protecting “solar collectors, clotheslines, or other energy devices
based on renewable resources” (More on the controversy in the
faircompanies article Clothesline Wars),
but it appears Strauss never grasped the reasoning behind using a
renewable resource to dry your clothes. He viewed the ruling as a
defeat of progress: “We’re not living in the ’50s. We’re not driving
Edsels. We have air conditioning in our homes now and clothes dryers.”
Granted he made this comment back in 2004 when fewer people were
factoring the environment into their lifestyle choices, but Madden was
aware her need to fight for her right to line dry would be viewed as
absurd by many. “My friends in Europe say, ‘What kind of country do you
live in where people complain about laundry lines?’ ”
A Midwestern value
Before I explore how in Europe the invention of the dryer didn’t wipe
out clotheslines, I want to point out that not everywhere in the US are
clotheslines viewed as archaic.
In the nineties, Bruce Hackett- sociology professor at the University
of California, Davis- performed a clothesline survey on UC Davis
students and families in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
He found that while the California students had negative attitudes toward clotheslines, those in the Midwest- where line drying is part of the culture- see it as a part of everyday life.
“One woman told me that when you move into a new home it’s not really
your home until your clothesline is up and your clothes are on it.”
A land where the washing line still reigns
Although I grew up with a line (in California), during my years living
on my own in San Francisco and New York, I became accustomed to the
laundromat. Often, I would try to limit my dryer use to just one coin’s
worth (8 minutes) and bring my soggy clothes home to hang them over
furniture, but it wasn’t until moving to Spain that I became
reintroduced to the line.
Here in Barcelona nearly everyone has a clothesline no matter how small
your apartment. They are strung out off balconies and out windows-
complete with stylish rain canopies- and the options for indoor hanging
make me wish I had come here before all those years of furniture
Here in Barcelona nearly everyone has a clothesline no matter how
small your apartment. They are strung out off balconies and out
windows- complete with stylish rain canopies- and the options for
indoor hanging make me wish I had come here before all those years of
It’s not just Spain, but clotheslines are common in all of Europe and
Australia , as well. It helps that European washers spin at higher RPMs
and knock all the water out of your clothes so they need less time on
the clothesline. We put our clothes out in the morning and they’re dry
by the afternoon/evening.
Of course, there are some who use a dryer once in awhile. London resident Fiona Heavey (I interviewed her for a clothesline video
in Barcelona) uses hers on occasion just for the last 5 minutes to get
the wrinkles out. “I think culturally in the UK, you’re quite frowned
on, if I said I always used a dryer people would think I was really
A symbol of national identity
Fiona doesn’t just feel culturally impelled to use a line, but she
seems to like all things about them. “There’s one that’s like a tree
and I think it’s supposed to spin around. My favorite is the one that
is on a pulley and you lower it to hang your washing on and then you
pull it up so that it goes really really high and then all of your
washing is blowing about in the breeze so you get a good high wind
there and everything dries very quickly.”
This last clothesline is an Australian invention; it’s called the Hills
Hoist. It is so popular Down Under, that it was featured in the opening
ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and one television reporter
called it “an important Australian icon and a symbol of national identity“.
Garage door lines and automated clothespinning
In the US we’re far from recognizing a clothesline as a symbol of
national identity- it’s questionable whether younger generations have
even seen one outside of movies-, but as the solar dryer trend grows so
do our options.
Michelle and Joel Baker of the Vermont Clothesline Co. started the
company last April after deciding to go back to the clothesline for
their own family and having difficulty finding an attractive option.
Their wooden options with names like “Summer Breeze”, “Garden Party” and “Vermont Farmhouse” do make it easier to feel stylish about buying a line.
I found another online shop- the Clothesline Store- that isn’t as
stylish, but this small, family-owned business in Maine has all the
options I’ve seen here in Europe- a retractable 5-line, a wall-mounted bathroom rack and a wooden drying stand. They also have something resembling that Australian icon- the Hills Hoist (a Breezecatcher umbrella) – and some that seem ideally suited to the American lifestyle: a garage door rail line and even a Cord-o-clip line that installs the clothespins for you .
It’s a lot to choose from and the Clothesline Store’s owner Paul Gay
told me that he’s noticed an increase in the number of calls and emails
from new-to-clothesline customers with the rise in energy prices. He
sees it as common sense: “Hanging out laundry is one of the simplest
and easiest ways to help the environment. It’s hardly rocket science.”
An extra 6 minutes and 30 seconds
The concept of hanging out laundry is not so obvious to everyone.
Jennifer Putnam didn’t purchase her umbrella-style solar dryer until
living through the 2000-2001 California energy crisis. “We
were standing outside by the (electric) meter at one point… My
husband said, ‘Look at how fast that thing is going around.’ I said,
‘The only thing on is the dryer.'”
Of course, many hesitate to make the conversion from a dryer to a line
fearing the time investment. When Kathleen Hughes of the New York Times
made the switch she found hang drying took just “6 minutes and 30 seconds longer” than to stuff everything into the dryer.
It’s a small price to pay for 100% clean energy which may be why
clotheslines are being touted by everyone from Al Gore to the
20-something owners of the Boston eco-clothing story Envi. These latter
made sure to inform me- with pride- during a video interview, “We like to line dry everything to save energy .”
A symbol of “green” class
It’s this almost naive excitment that gives me hope. There’s so much
talk about this rudimentary tool, one might think the clothesline was a
recently invented cleantech alternative to the dryer.
And this may be the secret to its success in America. The clothesline
is being freed from all the old stereotypes of social status and
gaining cachet by those interested in being a part of the “green” class.
Former sporting-goods executive John McLaughlin, who lives down the
street from Susan Taylor (the one featured in the Wall Street Journal
for defying her neighborhood clothesline ban), defends her right to
hang out her laundry, “I don’t think it’s unsightly. I like the values
that go along with it.”
He’s thinking about hanging his own clothesline. And maybe, after
reading the article, a few more of the Journal’s subscribers are
thinking twice about it as well. Given that the average household net worth of their readers is $2.1 million, perhaps clotheslines will soon be a sign of wealth.