Almanac Nostalgia – The Copper


(Image: WikiCommons)


This image of an old copper recently came to my attention in a post on Facebook unleashing a flood of childhood memories for me.


It has been a long time since I have seen one, or for that matter, even thought about one, but it fulfilled an important  role in the day to day life of many families, including mine, during the early stages of my childhood in the 1950s.


Unless you are someone of my vintage or older you’d be ignorant as to the purpose the machine was used.


It is of course, the precursor to the washing machine, and was a very common sight in most household laundries over many, many years. 


A form of copper had been used for laundry purposes since early Victorian times, and developed into the common design formulated between the World Wars to become popular in modern households until the advent of the washing machine.


I remember watching, and helping, my mother on laundry day. With seven members in our family, five of them young active kids prone to dirty clothes in their daily pursuits, there was always plenty of washing to be done. And, as the eldest, I was mum’s helper more often than not. 


Firstly she’d boil the copper up, how I can’t remember but probably some heating mechanism incorporated into the machine. The Lux flakes would be added to the boiling water and stirred by a wooden paddle or pole to create the suds, usually I was allowed this job, sometimes Reckitts Blue was added as a whitener, then finally the clothes to be washed would be tipped into the copper. The items would soak in the boiling sudsy water, occasionally stirred with the paddle or pole. Eventually when mum thought that  step completed, the clothes then needed wringing, to be rinsed, and finally wrung again before being tossed into the cane laundry basket, and carted outside to be pegged onto the clothes line.


Next to the copper was the deep, double cement trough where the wringing and rinsing took place. Some coppers had a mangle (wringer) attached to them or to the trough making the wringing function easier. Placing the washing between the rollers then turning the handle to squeeze out the excess water before the item dropped into the trough for rinsing helped to make things a lot easier.


For some reason I don’t remember a wringer in our laundry but there must have been one. Though I do remember mum wringing out the larger items that she couldn’t complete effectively by hand or those she perhaps couldn’t fit through the wringer. Mum would use the paddle or pole to retrieve an item from the copper, hold it up until the excess water had drained away, fold the item in half, place the centre point around the tap over the trough and commence twisting, eliminating as much water she could until she couldn’t twist any longer. Powerful arms and hands mum must have had! The item would then be placed into the trough filled with clean, cold water for rinsing. The process of wringing and rinsing would be repeated again, often a few times. 


When I think about it now, I really don’t know how mum did it! Mum must have been a superwoman, in fact she was a superwoman!  And all done with tender love, care and patience. 


My youngest brother and sister were both in nappies at some stage together during this time, and to think of the effort required to wash those nappies, yuck! Incomprehensible to the disposable consumers of today’s society.


I recall the excitement when dad bought our first washing machine, it being delivered, set up by the serviceman and mum given a quick lesson into its operation, she was in seventh heaven! 


Mum could not believe washing could be so easy!


So rapt was mum with her new washing machine that she washed and washed for days afterwards, what once took all morning and sometimes more now only took an hour or so. 


The consumer age was upon us and beginning to transform our lives. 


Mum was proud of the fact we were the cleanest family in town!


We sparkled!



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About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    All of Elizabeth’s Housing Trust homes came with a copper in the laundry. Most of the houses were built in the mid-50s, but the coppers were redundant within a decade.

    But what’s this Facebook you are talking about Col?

  2. Women didn’t need to go to gyms in those days Col, they had the copper!

    And the Lux flakes! I remember the Lux flakes. Superseded, I believe, by Velvet soap which was used to clean floors, cars, clothes, and underarms.

  3. Dips, you’ve read my mind…A workout for sure, minus the active wear!

    I’m guessing those sheets were also then ironed before being placed back into the Linen Press… anyone still have a linen press?

    I remember the copper still in use in the 70’s in my grandmothers house..first thing I thought of was the paddle or stick used to move the contents inside it. I think my grandmother continued to use it for bed linen whilst the machine was used for clothes.

    Great read Col.

  4. Howdy Col I can just remember the copper admit not sure if it was at my mums or grandmas place either
    69 or 70 ( I was six or seven ) I remember the physical side of it thank you

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