Dry commentary

With 92 percent of U.S. homes running clothes driers, an inordinate number of Americans wouldn’t recognize clothespins if they were clipped to their noses

GRAFTON — Last night, my friend Bayo called to tell me about her shopping triumph. For several weeks, she'd been searching in stores and online for good-quality wooden clothespins made in America.

Her resolve to locate the perfect clothespins had reached epic proportions, similar to a quest for the Holy Grail. I'd suggested that she search online for the Penley Corporation in West Paris, Maine.

A couple of nights later, Bayo called to report that Penley had laid off its manufacturing employees in 2002. Now it imports and distributes clothespins made by former competitors.

We lamented the loss of jobs in West Paris and the scarcity of durable goods made in our homeland.

“I found them in the housewares aisle at the Giant. Who knew?” she said.

(The Giant is a grocery store that deserves its name. When I lived a few miles from Bayo in Kennett Square, Pa., we called it the “stupormarket.” A discerning shopper might prowl the aisles for an hour, foot-sore and bleary-eyed and rarely finding anything she wants.)

“They weren't made in the USA, but they're sturdy, not like those crappy ones I looked at in Walmart, and they only cost $4.95 plus tax for 100. These are the same ones I saw on Amazon for 13 bucks.”

“Good on ya,” I said.

“You should've been there when the checker scanned them. She might've been old enough to vote, but barely.”

“Let me guess. She didn't know what they were.”

“She recognized them, then looked at me like I was a baby killer and sniped, 'You use a clothesline? My grandmother still does that.'”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I said, 'Yes, I do.'”

“What a twit,” I fumed. “You deserve a commendation from Miss Manners for maintaining your dignity.”

* * *

For two decades, I've fumed and editorialized about the fate of clotheslines. And thanks to Middlebury College graduate Alexander Lee and other clear-thinking activists, I've regained a little hope for our future.

Lee is the founder and former director of Project Laundry List, a nonprofit environmental group that advocates for the “right to dry.”

According to the group's website, “92 percent of single-family homes in the USA had a dryer in 2005. Seventy-seven percent of dryers are electric; others run on propane or gas.”

With statistics like this, I suspect that an inordinate number of Americans wouldn't recognize clothespins if they were clipped to their noses. Never mind that a dryer consumes more energy than any household appliance except a refrigerator.

In my not-so-humble opinion, this is a sorry state of affairs.

Project Laundry List also reports that an estimated 60 million Americans live in approximately 300,000 developments, retirement communities, condos, and mobile-home parks where homeowners' associations (HOAs) prohibit the use of clotheslines.

In neighborhoods where there are no restrictions on eco-friendly behaviors, not all residents avail themselves of “the right to dry.”

In many parts of our “land of the free,” a clothesline is perceived as the stigmata of the poor. There is also the misconception that the sight of laundry swaying on a line might adversely affect property values and social status.

I heard of a man who forbade his wife to hang out their clothes because “what will the neighbors think?” Perhaps his totalitarian attitude was a factor in their divorce.

* * *

When I look across my field at my neighbors' clothesline, I think about how smart they are: saving money, saving energy, reducing air pollution, using sunlight instead of chemicals to disinfect, and preserving the life of their clothes by not subjecting them to the constant rough and tumble of a dryer.

When we take care of our environment, we are taking care of ourselves, too.

Project Laundry List cites a Whirlpool survey of 2,500 consumers. The survey reveals that laundry is the primary responsibility of 76 percent of women and 24 percent of men. Given this lopsided division of labor, it's no surprise that many women say they don't have time to hang out their clothes.

In the mornings when I'm hanging out the laundry, I think of Bayo: small-business owner, wife, and mother of two young children, one with special needs. She goes to work six days a week, and before she goes, she's in her backyard pinning a small mountain of clothes to the line.

“It's a great break in the morning for me - to get the kids up, lunches packed, and off to the school bus by 7:10 - [and] then get my laundry hung out,” she recently wrote in an email.

I smile as I read.

I see the lush canopy of ancient sycamores and tulip trees over Bayo's head and her carefully tended flower gardens. The old white cat and the black kitten loll in the sun close to her feet.

I picture Bayo bending to pluck the damp clothes from the basket and stretching to attach each item to the rope line. (In addition to the other benefits, line drying our clothes provides us with gentle exercise: domestic yoga for body and soul.)

* * *

Bayo lives in Cedarcroft, a development named after the estate where Civil War correspondent, novelist, and poet Bayard Taylor lived. His spacious house, built in 1859, is a National Historic Landmark. About 85 well-constructed, unpretentious, one- and two-story houses were built on the estate from the 1950s through the 1980s.

On www.livingplaces.com, I read that that “the median size of interior space is 2,500 feet. Lot sizes vary from {3/4} of an acre to 3 acres.”

These houses were sited according to the contours of the land. Many old deciduous trees and conifers were left, providing shade, wind breaks, and beauty.

Today, residents young and old walk, bicycle, and skateboard on the quiet, winding roads. When a Cedarcroft home is put on the market, it doesn't stay there long, even in this troublesome economy.

This trend suggests that many people still want to live in a place where houses don't advertise the owners' overinflated egos, where developers allowed nature to flourish and to nurture both humans and wildlife, and where no one gets his or her knickers in a twist when a neighbors' knickers are drying in the sun.

In a county ravaged by residential and commercial sprawl, Cedarcroft is an oasis of sensible, gracious living. A visitor can sit on Bayo's patio, commune with the trees and gardens and temporarily forget the Giant, the Walmart, the strip malls, and the enclaves of “executive homes” that dominate the land and a viewer's field of vision.

In Vermont we all have “the right to dry,” but the vision still haunts me from 350 miles away.

What will happen in states like Pennsylvania, where common sense is woefully uncommon and in many neighborhoods stringing a clothesline is an act of defiance that might result in fines and court appearances?

Will the homely clothespin moulder in a museum where our descendants will see it as a quaint relic from the past? Or will homeowners' associations classify it as contraband, a weapon wielded by revolutionaries to promote a proletariat uprising?

I say “Via la revolution!” Buy clothespins, not guns!

If we buy enough of them, maybe the machinery at Penley Corporation will roll again.

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