The Clothesline Question

Five or so years ago my clothes dryer stopped working. It had been in place, already aging, when I bought the house a dozen years before, and it wasn’t worth repairing.

The death of what we call a “major appliance” is increasingly a traumatic experience for most of us. Life is complicated, and the consumer cult of infinite choice has made it more so. I wasn’t looking forward to venturing into unfamiliar territory where I would have to puzzle over dryer lingo and consider appliance functions I didn’t understand or need.

Then the thought occurred to me that I wasn’t required to replace the dryer. There was a perfectly good backyard behind my house, two apple trees that could support a clothesline, and a fresh sea breeze. I could simply hang the clothes on the line, save the cost of the dryer, avoid the energy use, and get a bit of exercise in the bargain. So that’s what I did.

It’s probably a given that anything you do is going to annoy somebody. A friend found this new practice of mine particularly revolting. “You hang out your clothes?” she asked in horror. It wasn’t something she’d do, and she’d made a fellow who bought land from her to build a house promise never to do it either, she told me. I dismissed her bourgeois pretensions and tried to make drying clothes on the line into an art form, arranging colors, pairing socks, going for a tidy, professional look.

This humble task had the curious effect of reconnecting me to my backyard. I listened to the birds, checked on the plants, watched the crows watching me. As summer progressed, I found I observed things around me in a new way: the sky, the wind, the slant of the sun. I developed practical approaches, hanging the trousers and shirts open to face the wind so that the air flow could make wind socks of the legs and billow out the shirts, saving me a bit of ironing. Slow-drying garments needed the full sun; sheer ones could be where the shade hit early in the afternoon.

I realized that humans have been considering such things for the entire span of our existence on the planet, and it’s only been in the recent past, as we’ve separated ourselves from the world around us, that we’ve stopped thinking about them. I was beginning to really enjoy hanging out the clothes.

When you write a controversial book–and I’ve done that more than once now–you shouldn’t be surprised to have to defend it. In Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives (Shearwater), I’d sympathetically surveyed 200 years of resistance to technology. In our plugged-in culture, that’s asking for trouble. There are convincing and cherished arguments for the benefits of technology–chiefly relating to health, safety, comfort, and convenience–and I expected to hear them. I was prepared to argue that progress hasn’t kept its promise–that the healthy, happy, leisured lifestyles the magazines of my childhood predicted haven’t materialized, at least not for most people. Wars haven’t ended, cancer hasn’t been cured, and along the way we have mislaid things of great value. The corner grocery store, the village green, the doctor who made house calls, the family dinners–they’ve been modernized out of existence but are still missed. The culture, or at least the portion of it with good memories, has sunk into perpetual mourning, and with good reason.

I was ready to point out that what seems like progress isn’t always so. For instance, modern medicine spends a lot of time and energy trying to cure health problems that modern life creates. Modern gym equipment is necessary only because modern conveniences encourage unhealthy inactivity. Modern weapons research is driven by the need to secure the natural resources that modern life chews up with inordinate speed. One technology inevitably creates a problem that only another technology can fix, and the economy has grown dependent upon perpetuating this pattern.

What I wasn’t prepared to defend, however, was my lifestyle. I hadn’t really anticipated that the seemingly innocent act of hanging my clothes on the line rather than using a dryer would alarm and irritate people around the world.

The subject of how I dry my clothes arose when Ken Ringle of The Washington Post interviewed me after my “Luddite” book came out a year ago. How I live my life was apparently worth probing. There is no litmus test for Luddism, I am always careful to point out. One need not live in a mud hut to question our current enthrallment with technology. In truth, I had not taken up the topic of Luddites because I live in a primitive, machineless state, but because technology resisters–those who had, through the ages, protested or challenged the machine–intrigued me. My shingled cottage is old but connected to the grid. I drive a car and I use a computer–albeit reluctantly. I have and use a few basic appliances in my house, I explained to the Post reporter, but my success with the clothesline inspired me to begin eliminating unnecessary technologies from my life.

The Post article was widely reprinted. I had a few nice letters from fellow clothesline connoisseurs, but the attacks were memorable. For an American freelance writer in Costa Rica, I represented “not Luddism” but “sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness at their worst.” She lived, she said, where women were forced to hang their wash on the line and would be grateful not to have to. A critic in New Zealand even wrote a one-act play parodying my Luddite tendencies, in particular my clothesline.

Is it possible to excavate multiple layers of cultural meaning from carrying a basket of wet clothes into the backyard and pinning them to a line? It seems that getting rid of the clothesline, banishing it, regulating it out of existence, becomes the defining act of the advanced society. I’ve heard in the news that Singapore is contemplating an outdoor drying ban.

When precisely did the clothesline become the symbol of oppressed womanhood? Who decided that women would be better off away from their homes and their children, tethered to a conveyor belt or drill press or chicken plucker or computer screen so that they can afford to buy a machine and the energy to run it to relieve them of this simple and not unpleasant task? Who, precisely, defined work at home as onerous and work for hire as desirable? And where does all this anger come from?

Science and technology have become the dominant faith in our society. Questioning the tenets of this creed automatically becomes heresy. I hadn’t reinvented the clothesline–I recently discovered the Laundry List, a clothesline support group that calls its newsletter Hanging Out. But I realized that a line stretched across the backyard had the potential to undermine assumptions the economic system depends upon–namely, the willingness of consumers not simply to desire the new but to consign themselves voluntarily to hard labor in order to acquire it. To question this commitment to technological change, to ask whether we’ve calculated the true cost of our faith in the machine, is to raise the unpleasant thought that some of what we call progress might be little more than an elaborate con job. And people don’t like to admit that they’ve been had.

Has technology really made us happier and healthier? Are we fully conscious of what we have sacrificed for comfort, convenience, and a steady supply of cheap consumer goods? Has progress really kept its promise, or are we literally invested in–our economic system dependent upon–maintaining that illusion unquestioned? Line drying as an act of defiance against a soulless, machine-made culture? Perhaps it’s time to unite behind what the Laundry List calls the Right to Dry, not just because it’s radically simple, but because it’s simply radical.

Nicols Fox is the author of several books, including Spoiled: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It (Penguin, 1998). She lives on an island in Maine, prefers a hand coffee grinder, and hangs out clothes year round. For information on the donation-based newsletter Hanging Out: Box 189, South Royalton, VT 05068 ( This essay is reprinted from the books magazine Ruminator Review (Summer 2003), which covers a wide variety of literary, cultural, and political topics. Subscription: $14/yr. (4 issues) from 1648 Grand Ave., St.Paul, MN 55105.

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