Outside Edge: A woman’s fight to air her dirty laundry

Article Courtesy of The London Financial Times

By Matthew Engel

Published December 1, 2009

As scientists’ warnings get ever more urgent, the US seems to get ever further away from signing a global deal to combat climate change. Those puzzled by this paradox might be interested in a report that emerged this week from Pennsylvania.

Carin Froehlich of Perkasie (home town of Miss Pennsylvania 1971, apparently) has been warned not to dry her laundry on a clothesline outside, following two complaints from neighbors.

“They said it made the place look like trailer trash,” she told a Reuters correspondent. “They said they did not want to look at my unmentionables.”

This comes as no surprise to me. When we moved from the UK eight years ago to live in the Washington suburbs for a while, we took with us a Hills Hoist, the rotary clothes line that constitutes one of Australia’s great gifts to the world. No one else had such a device, which is not surprising since, I now learn, it was not sold in the US until 2007. But more than that, no one else in the neighborhood – and perhaps the entire state of Maryland – hung their washing outside. Electric driers were ubiquitous.

Fortunately, our neighbors were far too nice to complain, though we lived on a corner and our unmentionables could easily have been seen, and indeed mentioned. This practice must have been shrugged off as just one of our eccentric English habits. Ms Froehlich, however, has fallen foul of the “no hanging” rule, a cultural norm in Perkasie, but elsewhere in the US actually part of the regulations enforced by many communities.

This is not to be confused with the other “no hanging” rule, whereby most states slightly reduce their gargantuan prison populations by using lethal injections instead.

This one is just a very strange and very American prejudice, which is at odds with some of the country’s other priorities: far greater piety than is now normal in Europe (surely sun and wind are part of God’s benison?) and the right to do what the hell you want on your own property. As Ms Froehlich said: “If my husband has a right to have guns in the house, I have a right to hang laundry.”

This seems, however, to clash with two other American traits: the puritan tradition, lingering from the 17th century, and an unshakeable faith in technology, lingering from the 1950s. So now battle is joined between the anti-hangers and environmentalists who accuse driers of being responsible for 6 per cent of domestic US electricity consumption.

Six states have greenishly banned all local anti-hanging rules. And the pro-hangers now have a website, www.laundrylist.org. Its home page urges the Obamas to lead by example, and quotes Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

The Copenhagen summit starts in one weeks’ time, by the way.