If you sleep between sheets that have been dried in the open air, you will understand why my wife and I never even thought about saving electricity when we put up the clothesline you see in the picture above. Clotheslines bring their own reward. Clothing dried in the open, sunny air smells so good. And sunlight acts as a sterilizer too.

A clothesline like ours makes hanging out the wash fairly easy. The two lines run through pulleys at either end, from the deck of our house to a tree about fifty feet away. To load a line, one merely stands on the deck with the clothes basket at the ready, and pins on the clothing, one piece at a time, then pulling the line around for the next piece. Reverse the process when taking clothes off the line. I got the idea from Amish friends many years ago. Their line ran from their porch to the side of the barn some distance away.

Over the 30 years we have used this clothesline, I suppose the cost has been about fifty cents a year in replacing the line and the pulleys a couple of times. We have an electric dryer which we use during winter, meaning that it lasts three to four times longer than one would with year-round use. So we do save a little money.

A little more savings come in energy costs. Dr. Kamyar Enshayan, an engineer by degree, working at University of Northern Iowa (see link for contact info), wanted to find out how much savings in electricity could be obtained by using a five dollar clothesline (his clothesline doesn’t have pulleys, just stretches between yard trees and posts), and in cold or wet weather, using lines and folding racks in the basement. He and his wife Laura have been drying clothes this way, with two children, for 12 years. When friends offered him a used electric dryer at reduced price, he bought it, but “we’ve only used it about ten times in two years.”

Since an electric dryer uses on average 1440 KWH per year, he says, you can figure the savings on your electric bill from using a clothes line— about a hundred dollars a year for us. It is when you figure the amount of electricity saved if a whole community or a city would invest in five dollar clotheslines that you get some significant numbers. Dr. Enshayan got his local utility company to help and learned that his town, Cedar Falls, Iowa, spends about $1.3 million to dry clothes every year. His county spends something like $5 million, the city of Des Moines $19 million, and the whole state of Iowa, $117 million. Just to dry clothes.

As Dr. Enshayan likes to point out: “This is not a technological issue; it’s a cultural issue.” Many Americans could easily dry clothes on outdoor and indoor lines, like everyone used to do, but the electric way saves time— maybe a whole forty five minutes a week which the average homeowner will use up driving around looking for bargains, or watching television, or gossiping with friends, or reading jokes on the Internet. We are products of our culture of convenience. In the subdivision where our daughter and her family live, outdoor clotheslines aren’t even allowed although all the house lots are over an acre in size.

What is so horrid about a clothesline? Is this one of modern society’s many revolts against what it demeans as manual labor? Or what it considers being too poor to afford better? Is this our way to canonize convenience? Next thing you know, there will be laws against having gardens in the yard so that those families who don’t do it won’t feel guilty. (Actually there are such regulations, I’ve been told.)

In a talk I gave recently, I used the clothesline example as a rather rewarding and fairly easy way to cut down on energy use. I had even read an article in a rural electric magazine advocating the idea. To my surprise, a lady in the front row raised her hand and, visibly upset, objected to the idea that she give up her electric clothes dryer. She had dried clothes on a line for years, and now, by all that was holy, she intended to use her electric dryer until death do us part, thank you kindly. I was taken aback by her vehemence. She even pointed out that clothes on an outside line can get dirty from polluted air (as if the air in a clothes dryer is never polluted), which I suppose is always a possibility. You wouldn’t hang wash out ahead of a dust storm. Carol and I in the first years of our marriage, when we were so poor we could not even think of buying an electric dryer, resorted to a clothesline, but we made the mistake at first of running it underneath a black walnut tree. The squirrels would drop pieces of walnut hull on the wash occasionally, infuriating Carol by putting brown stains on her immaculately clean cloth diapers. (Cloth diapers are another subject that will draw vehement protests from the culture of convenience.)

The upset lady was proof that Dr. Enshayan is exactly right. This is not a technological issue since indoor or outdoor clotheslines work marvelously well even during power outages, but a cultural one. Questioning the culture of convenience in which we have been brought up is considered an affront to our well-being. Giving up any part of it threatens our identity and the way we measure our worth.

Next time you look for someone to blame for high energy costs or for the unraveling of our environment, look in the mirror.

Photo Credit: Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.

Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life

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