Nobody hangs their laundry out to dry in Calgary. In fact, there are hardly any clothelines. My grandmother’s house had one, but I don’t think she ever used it. She, like everyone I knew while growing up there, had a washer and dryer set tucked neatly in a musty corner of her basement, across from a half-century-old furnace.
It was an eye-opening experience to travel to Newfoundland as a teenager, where I discovered that St. John’s was precisely the opposite of Calgary: everyone had clotheslines. Clothes hung over alleyways and backyards, billowing in the salty Atlantic breeze like flags of chores vanquished. There was something inexplicably romantic, something timeless, about clothes drying on lines, whether in the city or in a stark outport on the Avalon Peninsula.
Montreal is similar to St. John’s, at least in that regard. Here, the clothesline tradition never really died. Although they’re less prevalent today than in the past, you’ll still see an abundance of them if you wander down the laneways of just about any neighbourhood. Immigrant neighbourhoods in particular have a ton of clotheslines, probably because they’re home to so many people who come from countries where drying your clothes outside is still the norm. I remember, earlier this fall, driving east through St. Michel on the elevated Metropolitan Expressway, staring at long rows of triplexes tied together by strands of billowing clothes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that kind of scene became even more common in the future. That’s because clotheslines are no longer just quaint — they’re fashionable. The growing marketability of anything “green” has led to a resurgence of interest in drying clothes outside. It’s cheaper than clothes dryers, which can consume as much as 900 kilowatt hours of energy per year, and better for your clothes. According to La Presse, which extolled the benefits of clotheslines last summer, the sun eliminates odours and removes stains, and is easier on natural fibres than clothes dryers.
But, as much as I like to know that the sun can whiten my whites, it’s the clothesline aesthetic that really appeals to me. I’m still charmed by the sight of them, which is good because they’re ubiquitous in my back alley from March until November. More than that, though, clotheslines domesticate the street. We’ve spent so much effort over past half-century trying to sterilize our cities, to turn them into machines, that we need these kinds of reminders that they are, first and foremost, places where people live, messy as that may be.
Still, prejudices linger. Many new subdivisions include provisions in house purchase agreements that ban residents from drying their clothes outside. It’s a class thing more than anything else, since clotheslines are still associated by many with poverty. There has been a clear shift in attitude, however. Earlier this month, Ontario’s environment minister announced that he wants to override those clothesline bans.
I’m not alone in enjoying the look of clotheslines, either. There are plenty of Flickr groups dedicated to clotheslines, including one called Les cordes à linge de Montréal.