In Berkeley, where it is warm year-round and rain rarely provides relief, ours may be the only family that uses a clothesline to dry laundry. When we lived in a village in Nordfriesland, where overcast skies and cold winds rule every season, we may have been the only family with a dryer.
Germans use clotheslines, Americans use dryers. The preference has nothing to do with the weather. Nor is it a rural versus urban thing. At our El Dorado country cabin, jeans dry in under an hour on sunny days and most days are radiant. Yet our neighbors don’t have a clothesline. In Germany, even city dwellers air dry their wash on balconies in the summer and on collapsible indoor racks in the winter. They make room for the drying racks as needed even in the smallest apartments. These contraptions are marvels of design: they hold an entire load yet take up no more space than an oversized baking sheet when folded up.
With three kids, we had lots of laundry. When we moved to forever overcast Northern Germany, I didn’t want damp clothes taking up bathroom and hallway space - that’s why I bought that dryer. I didn’t use it often, but every time I did, an argument started. My husband considers hanging up wash a matter of honor. He’s more German than me, I guess. He likes to pull out the clogged lint tray to make his point: “see what gets sucked out by the hot air? That’s why air-dried clothes last longer.”
I think the difference in clothes drying conventions has to do with two things: the attitude towards nature and technology on the one hand and conceptions of privacy on the other.
Most Germans could afford a dryer, so the difference in clothes drying conventions isn’t a matter of social class or affluence. Germans are practical and frugal. Why employ a machine when the wind will do? Why use electricity or gas when air suffices? Americans are enamored with convenience and the idea of plugging in to seemingly limitless resources. Whenever possible, let a machine do the work. Once on a cross-country trip, I used a Laundromat in Ely Nevada and I observed a young woman opening a dryer when its cycle was finished. She took out a single pair of bright white shoelaces. That was all.
Now to privacy. It’s not that Germans don’t like it – they do. Generally, they keep doors shut and sheer curtains closed even in the daytime to prevent passersby from looking in. But when it comes to laundry, there’s a shared robust sense that “underneath all appearance, we’re the same. Our clothes get dirty. Yours do too.”
There’s a saying in the US about not hanging out your dirty laundry. Not your clean laundry, either, apparently. Dangling panties and bras? Much too intimate. Better keep them out of the sun, usher them from hamper to machine to dresser drawer, tuck ‘em inside your sheets at the laundromat.
I actually like clotheslines and the stories they tell. In the Sicilian harbor city of Palermo I was delighted by the cheery garlands of dresses and stockings and towels that hung in tiers from lines strung across narrow streets, connecting one family’s balcony to another’s.
Germans don’t hang their wash so visibly. Outdoor clotheslines are in the courtyards of apartment buildings or in backyards. Gazing from train windows, I often had views of them and appreciated the laundry line information: where tiny pants hung next to man sized ones and wee pink shirts next to ample nightgowns, I knew I was passing a family home. A row of black dresses made me think of an old woman, a widow perhaps, living alone in her house. When Germany was divided, I could tell what side I was on by the flapping pieces: magenta undies, brightly flowered skirts and various pairs of jeans meant West, subdued colors and an occasional single pair of jeans was East.
My friend Barbara likens clothes waving on lines to prayer flags, carrying messages on the wind.
When I see shirts and pants fluttering outdoors like excited scarecrows, absorbing breeze and sunlight, I know they will be fresher than anything that emerges from a dryer. I don’t mind the extra work. In fact, I’m not sure it is extra work. I like tending to my things in this tactile way. When I stand on my deck and clip the items to the line, one by one, I appreciate the humble moment of quiet focus. And if the sun is shining, all the better - it will make the dry clothes smell like light.