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Old wash tubs, lye-soap baths, icy watermelon


It has taken 79 years for the soapstone stationary laundry tubs to wear out.

The plumber issued the death certificate earlier this summer. They'd cracked and leaked. These venerable troughs that began their life in the washboard era finally needed replacing.

The cellar tubs came with my family's old Guilford Avenue house when my great-grandfather moved there in 1915. With Grandpop William Stewart were his wife, mother-in-law, two sons, five daughters and the family's pit bulldog.

It's amazing those tubs lasted as long as they did given the stress they endured. All the generations of Stewarts who have lived in the house believed ardently that true cleanliness could be achieved only with homemade lye soap.

Those tubs rarely knew any perfumed and pedigreed Procter & Gamble bars of soap. Ours was strictly the home-manufactured variety, a compound of raw lye mixed with bacon and other cooking grease. It was pinkish in color.

A friend told me recently that he'd never heard of anyone outside of the Depression-hit 1930s ever making her own soap. I replied that I grew up thinking that every serious hausfrau made soap. It was such a common practice in the Guilford Avenue house.

The cellar laundry tubs in later years got hooked up to the hose on the automatic washer, but that was sometime after World War II. For years the lye soap, bluing, bleach, starch and water bubbled away in these caldrons filled with dirty clothes. Then the garments made the trip to the back yard for public display on the clotheslines propped up with wooden poles.

But on hot summer days, other objects found their way into the tubs.

Watermelon night was typical in late July or August, when the days were long and hot.

As the sheets and shirts were hanging in long even rows perpendicular to the alley, a driver, horse and wagon often appeared in that humble thoroughfare behind Guilford Avenue. Some neighborhood alleys had names. Ours did not.

Most times our big watermelons came from an A-raber -- we often called these men hucksters -- who traversed all the alleys of the neighborhoods. They called out, "Sweet water mellon!" But the sound I remember most was the melodic tinkle of the bells their ponies wore.

This sound usually drew the royal court of matriarchs who ruled the house and soapsuds into a major consultation. There was a lengthy discussion about whether the green bomb-shaped thing would be any good. Along the way they probably impugned the honesty of the fruit seller, but whoever said the Stewart clan was an easy sell?

Once purchased, the watermelon got no farther than the cellar wash tub. It went into one of the soapstone wells and a deep bath in cold water. It remained there for the rest of the afternoon.

The watermelon never made it off the ground floor. After the dinner dishes had been washed and put away and the last of the day's iced tea drained, it was time for the watermelon party.

A few neighbors might be called in, too. After all, in the close proximities of those rowhouse back yards, there were few secrets.

The goal of the eating was to keep the inevitable mess confined to one spot. No matter how many seeds fell out, or pink water squirted, or rinds fell on the ground, the slop was minimal in the back yard when the eaters were confined under the overhang of the back porch.

It did not take too long for that household of a dozen members, including the six Kellys of my generation plus assorted friends and neighbors, to eat a whole melon.

Of course, the youngest of the Kellys wound up being covered in watermelon juice.

Sometimes it got so bad my mother made us attack the watermelon while dressed in bathing suits.

On less ambitious nights, she made good sport of the evening by saying, "Everyone into the wash tubs."

Until the age that modesty required private bathing, all the Kelly children stripped and climbed into the soapstone tub for a bath of lye soap and Tide washing powder. The bubbles went everywhere. If the tubs were too big for the infants, there was always a metal basin for the current toddler.

As for the tubs, my father grimaced at the plumber's bill and had a new set installed and is now ready to face the next 79 sudsy years.

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