Neil Postman is fond of pointing out that any human innovation needs to be dealt with in ecological terms. That is, when you introduce a new element into an environment, you don’t simply have the old environment plus a new element, you have a new environment. A new element will come into relationship with things, which changes to some degree the relationship those things had with other things, and so on.
Similarly, if you plan to simplify your life by stripping away some element, you can’t look at your new environment as simply the old environment minus the element, you must look at it as an entirely new environment. Moreover, that environment may be severely out of whack after removing the element, requiring many adjustments to get things back into balance.
The key is being willing to accept, and still enjoy, an 1890’s to 1910 standard of living. I’m almost there; but the family is lagging waaay behind, if you know what I mean. It’s tough to convince the wife that washing clothes by hand is a good thing when she has a hard time keeping up with the laundry now.
This is a good place to think ecologically. Start by assuming that we want to do away with the automatic washing machine and dryer. If we simply remove it from the environment without changing anything else, the chore of laundry has just become dramatically more difficult. If the chore was already difficult to manage with an automatic washer and dryer (it certainly is around here), it may now be close to impossible. An attempt to simplify by doing away with the washer and dryer while keeping everything else the same is doomed to fail. Other things need to change before such an attempt could succeed.
One thing we might look at is the current standards of cleanliness that lead to the amount of laundry we commonly do today. We wash clothes often because we expect a clean change of clothes at least once a day. But is that really necessary? Not too long ago it was common to wear some garments (aprons, undershirts) in order to keep other garments (dresses, shirts) clean enough to wear for longer periods. People who do manual labor will often distinguish work clothes from other clothes, and only wash the work clothes when they get intolerably dirty.
As recently as one hundred years ago, laundry was not done as frequently as it is today:
Much time and energy were required on the old washday and it took far longer than today for the laundry to be laying clean in the cupboard. For this reason the white wash was generally only done twice a year. For one reason there was far more important work to do in the summer. Another reason was the mild days of spring and summer were used for a “general cleaning”. The months between the two laundry days were tided over with supplies from the “laundry cupboard”. This explains the large number of shirts and bedclothes contained in a proper dowry. The coloured was cleaned every four weeks as described above – not least because there was not so much of it.
If our rising standards of cleanliness are part of the reason that we launder so frequently, then we need to look at why the standards have risen. Part of it is that being clean is pleasant, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to spend discretionary time on making our lives more pleasant. But another part of it comes from the fact that companies stand to make money from a rising standard of cleanliness. Lever Brothers, the soap company, forced a dramatic increase in that standard (and made a lot of money as a result) by convincing the public that “B.O.” (body odor) was intolerable and a reason for shame—but one that could be easily fixed by frequently washing with their antiseptic soap. Clothing companies benefit from the amount of wear on clothing caused by wearing an article once and then washing it, as well as the extra stress that results when clothing once washed by hand is washed by machine. Whole aisles of supermarkets are devoted to products needed to maintain a certain level of cleanliness.
Is it possible to opt out? I don’t know. Reasonable or not, today’s standards are today’s standards, and they are in large part enforced by social pressure. Would returning to the level of cleanliness practiced by your average non-slovenly citizen of 1830 make you a social pariah? I don’t know, because I don’t know how such a person would smell. Probably it would make you unfit for work like cubicle dwelling, but wouldn’t make much difference to farmers and other manual laborers.
People who look to the past for wisdom on such matters are often dismissed as hopelessly nostalgic. It is not nostalgia. It is a search for answers about how to bring life into balance once certain elements are eliminated.