Ironing

September 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Old Steel IronsAccording to The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South, “Cleaning clothes over a washtub, bleaching, starching, and pressing them with heavy irons was grueling work that could take all day.” Several narratives I’ve collected describe the backbreaking but precise methodology of ironing. Thomas Rumph’s mother Maizie Glover worked for several white families in Bamberg, SC in the mid-century, and Thomas vividly remembers his mother’s specific technique for ironing.

“Mom shared a double duty, the white families that she actually [and] indirectly worked for as what we called a housekeeper or maid. She also washed clothes for other whites. She ironed clothes (what we called a smoothing iron) hand held. After you took a towel to pick the iron up with, she would rub the iron a piece of cedar limbs to put a coating on the iron, then rub it on a piece of old clothing before ironing the clothing; this method worked until the iron cool off then you would have to put it on the fire near some hot ashes to reheat the iron. This was a repeated process until all the ironing was done.

The ironed shirts could not have wrinkles or iron marks on them. Perfection was required on every ironed piece—starch was applied after washing the shirts by submerging them in the solution of starch, wringing them by hand, and hanging them on a clothesline to dry, The line was mounted on two poles about ten to fifteen apart –the shirts was hung on them to dry—after the shirts was dried, Mother would take them in, maybe the next day, take a bottle of tap [water] and sprinkle them with water to moisten them. This made a perfect situation for ironing these shirts. Read this! It would take a month or two to tell all about what mom was doing, and I haven’t begun to tell you what Dad did!”

Thomas Rumph lives in Augusta, GA with this wife Martha. He grew up on property that was originally part of Woodlands Plantation, near Bamberg, SC, where his ancestors were held as slaves. My ancestors were the owners of Woodlands Plantation. In 1917, Thomas’ father, Jim Rumph, bought a part of the plantation through a cousin of the family, J.D. Copeland. As a young woman, Thomas’s mother, Maizie, married her second husband, the much older Jim Rumph after the death of his first wife, Eliza Rumph. Maizie worked with her husband who was an independent farmer and for white families in Bamberg. She was a beloved member of the community with a kind and generous spirit.

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