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I am not often flabbergasted, but I was this week when I discovered that more than 60 million Americans are forbidden, by locals laws, from having a washing line! Yes, that’s right, they are not allowed to hang out the washing in their own backyard.

This piece of information came my way via an American friend of mine, who has lived in Australia for a long time, but has had to return to the States after the recent devastating floods in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that left her elderly mother homeless.

When she went to sign the lease on a new place it was written into the contract that she was not allowed to have washing hanging in the front or back yards, or on the verandah for that matter, but that is was perfectly OK to have a tumble dryer out there in full view of the neighbourhood. She questioned the logic of this, especially in light of the fact that post flood there was a dire shortage of washing machines and dryers, only to hit a brick wall.  The landlord finally agreed to let her hang washing as long as it was out of sight.

Why, I asked myself?  How had this crazy piece of widespread legislation come into being in the first place when the iconic Hill’s Hoist, with washing gaily flapping on the line, is a common and everyday sight in Australia.  Trying to legislate against it would be seen as laughable.  And, we are not talking about folk in apartments, we are talking about people with a yard who could have a clothes line.

Apparently hanging out the washing was the norm in pre-war America, but then the advent of the suburban ideal was born in the 1950’s. This was partly driven by a push to get women back in the workforce after World War II; the need to sell electricity and the appliances being invented to use it (surprise,surprise), and partly by an idealised notion of progress – clotheslines became a symbol of the life people wanted to leave behind.

Upon the humble clothes line, a battle line has been drawn that embodies a uniquely American clash of ideas about class, liberty and the environment and they have swallowed this hook, line and sinker – well not line.

It may be hard to believe, but clothes lines in America are a symbol of poverty and vulgarity – they believe that having a clothes line not only lowers the tone of a neighbourhood but also the house prices.  These notions are fueled by the self-interest of property developers and steeped in an historical Puritanical prudery.  You can go out into your backyard in bikini but, for heavens sake, don’t hang your undies out.

Arguing over the right to hang laundry on clothes lines which is, in most countries a taken-for-granted way of life, seems almost ridiculous even before the environmental merits are taken into consideration.  Official figures say that in the USA tumble dryers guzzle 15% of household electricity.  The same research shows that if one in three Americans started line drying for five months of the year, 2.2m tonnes of CO2 would have been prevented from entering the atmosphere by 2020.  It’s free solar and wind power, for heaven’s sake.

The comments left on my friends’ social media page concerning her right to a clothes-line paint a vivid picture, incredulity and disbelief from her Aussie friends (“….my sheets smell like sunshine” and “I had to teach my American sister-in-law how to use a clothes peg”), and bristling defensiveness from many of the Americans (“…..he who has the gold makes the rules……the rights of property owners far outweigh environmental goodness or renters rights”).  In America, it seems, the big picture is just not in the frame.

Americans also use the vagaries of weather as an excuse.  What do you do when it rains, they ask?  80% of Americans own a tumble dryer while only 4% of Italians do, so let’s ask them.  “Well, I hang it outside when it is sunny and inside in the basement where the boiler is when it is raining – simple, ciao.”  Which is pretty much what we did in the UK when I was growing up and where sunshine can often be a dream you once had.  Just about every household had a wooden and rope drying rack in the kitchen – the warmest place, which could be lowered and raised. Sitting at the dinner table with my grandma’s long john’s dangling above my head inspired a certain curiosity, but not embarrassment – we were used to it.

If you have never buried your face in a laundry basket of sheets that have been dried in the sun and wind then you are missing out on one of the simple pleasures in life.  And what about that hit of vitamin D while you’re standing at the line, the chat with the neighbours that you wouldn’t otherwise have had while smiling at the bird orchestra and clouds scudding by? While I’m hanging my washing out, or rushing to get it back in, I am often reminded of a beautiful line from a James Taylor song – “the threat of heavy weather was what she knew the best”.

Hanging out the washing is something unhurried – a peaceful contemplative practice – bend, stretch, peg…..bend, stretch, peg. And, doesn’t everybody know that the clothes are cleaner when they are hung out to dry.  Sunlight bleaches the whites whiter and kills bacteria that a cool wash doesn’t AND the clothes last longer.  When I came to Australia in 1975 I lived next door to a lovely American family.  We both had a young family, but I noticed that she never hung out washing.  I was curious, got into a conversation with her about it and challenged her to the ‘undies’ test.  We bought an identical pair of boys red underpants – she washed and dried hers in the dryer and I hung mine on the line.  After six months, hers were red no longer – more a sludge pink, with the elastic gone, while my son’s were still red and good for at least another six months.  She bought a Hills Hoist.  We are still friends.

Unbelievably too, clothes line disputes have lead to tragedy.  In 2008, a man was shot dead in Verona, Mississippi after neighbours argued about hanging laundry outside.

I just can’t imagine how something so illogical has perpetuated for so long and how the Americans have let the washing be draped over their eyes like this. But hang on, wait a minute, haven’t they just endorsed a climate change denier and scientific ignoramus as a presidential candidate?

A bit of Aussie humour from Michael Leunig


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