A Fine Line: The Art of the Clothesline

Living in New York City, one becomes accustomed to the grey area between public and private space. Intimate details are exposed through the most mundane daily tasks. Laundry is one of those inevitable rituals that most New Yorkers have to perform in public. Before laundromats, the clothesline was an intrinsic component of the urban landscape. It is impossible to imagine the archetypal tenement building complete without several strands of white linen connecting each structure.

Sid Grossman (1915-1955), Vacant Lot between Buildings at 148th St., 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 43.131.9.7

Thompson Street Clotheslines. Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ca. 1895, Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.213.

Overlapping in a complex network, each line of garments reads as a household census noting: age, family size, and social status. Bed sheets, undergarments, and women’s hosiery on thin strings allude to bodies not present. Starched white shirts dangle neck-down on tiny tightropes stories high above a precipice of filth-black alleys. A warm summer breeze could bring each garment to life with the weightlessness of guardian angels overlooking the city.

Photographer unknown. Minetta Alley. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2570.

“…they [clotheslines] were useful in many ways besides drying laundry: for running messages and cups of sugar from one apartment to another, or–stretched diagonally down to the ground–for conveying groceries to the elderly infirm or growlers of beer up to the corner saloon. They were characteristic of a life stretched by necessity, out of interiors of apartments as far as possible into the public space beyond.” -Luc Sante 1

Andrew Herman. Hanging laundry. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 43.131.8.40.

Chicago Albumen Works
Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Typical Tenement Fire escape, serving as an extension of the “flat”– Allen Street. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.206.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Greenwich Village Alley with Modern Art Lines. 1905-1920, Museum of the City of New York. 95.74.12

It was inevitable that the City’s great documenters would utilize the presence of the clotheslines as a visual element in depictions of poor and working class neighborhoods. It often added physicality to the frame, serving as a system of measurement of overwhelming heights. Each diagonal line became a symbol of the chaos and intersection of lives and cultures within an imposed vertical grid. The clothing was a recurring character of universal need. The photographer could either promote order or disquiet through composition. At times the wash-line appears uninvited, as unavoidable as a passing vehicle in the corner of the camera frame.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Court of the First Model Tenements in New York City. March 16, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.48.

“…Abbott documented this space as a communal laundry line: ropes with pulleys led from apartments to five-story poles imbedded in concrete. Abbott made two exposures, with the laundry and poles forming different abstract configurations. She later recalled that winter day the laundry frozen stiff and the children huddled together, too cold to move (McQuaid, 375).” -Bonnie Yochelson 2

John Albok (1894-1982). John Albok’s backyard, view of clothesline strung between windows in brick courtyard, 1392 Madison Ave. ca. 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.64.

Charles Von Urban. 505-511 Greenwich Street. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 33.173.130.

Arnold Eagle, Wooden Rear Tenements–Children Playing in Dirt. 1935. Museum of the City of New York. 43.131.11.310.

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). Tudor City from 39th Street. c. 1930-1933. Museum of the City of New York. 39.20.24.

Line drying has largely disappeared from New York as so many traditions of the lower classes in the name of social progress. Industrialized laundries with delivery and drop off were introduced as a convenience service to the middle class at the turn-of-the-century. Electric dryers were developed in the 1930s, but did not become marketable until the late 40s and early 50s. Soon, New Yorkers began to haul their laundry (as most do now) in swollen bags down the narrow passages and steep stairwells of their buildings through the street to laundromats lined with self-service machines and coin dispensers.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Carolyn Laundry, 111 East 128th St., Interior, Box of Laundry. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.6828.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Laundry in Greenwich Village [Women in the laundromat.] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10875.9E

Clothesline poles do remain in the five boroughs–frequently as lanky stems shrinking to the base with rust, waiting to be uprooted by landlords. Recently, neighboring communities have gone so far as to outlaw clotheslines for being eyesores (as detailed in the New York Times article “To Fight Global Warming, Some Hang a Clothesline“). Although it is difficult to imagine anything staying clean for long when hung above the city’s streets, in the twenty-first century the poles have taken on new symbolism for environmentalists seeking their resurrection.

1 Sante, Luc, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Macmillan, 2003.

2 Yochelson, Bonnie, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, The Museum of The City of New York, The New Press, New York, 1997.

7 responses to “A Fine Line: The Art of the Clothesline

  1. Absolutely loved this post, I stayed in New York and it felt quite strange to lug my laundry down the street especially when my clothesline in Australia had been a rope between 2 gumtrees at one stage. Thanks for the memories Cheers Sue

  2. Great post. It spurred me to count the many clotheslines I could see from my bedroom window in Brooklyn this weekend–six!

  3. I am a huge fan of hanging laundry. In my years in NYC I lugged my wet wash in bags up to the roof, where I would hang it in the shadows of the Empire State Building. This was in the 1980s, not so long ago. My neighbors in Chelsea had lines from their apartments. Whenever I travel, I notice laundry lines. Tuscany was full of them this August. And, today, the Berkshires, it is a great drying day! xo Suzi

  4. Pingback: Ask Umbra: Are clotheslines legal in Brooklyn? | Grist

  5. Singalong with my “Love On The Clothesline” tune.
    http://voxerth.net/on-the-clothesline/
    baby likes fresh air and periwinkle skies
    so I dry them knickers and skirts on a clothesline
    baby smiles on laundry day, mighty fine
    cuz I hang my love on the line
    it takes several power plants to dry america’s clothes,
    polluting air, land, water close to our homes
    clothes dryer monsters electric and gas
    they’re a pain in the planet’s biomass
    baby likes pleased trees and turquoise hills
    so I dry our socks and undies on the windowsill
    baby hugs on laundry day, mighty fine
    cuz I put my love on the twine…

  6. The link to this article was sent to us in response to the photo I posted on my husband’s Facebook of a row of white towels on our clothesline. We live in the suburbs so we can hang our clothes on a clothesline to our heart’s desire, except in the winter, of course. We will try our darnest to be even more fiercely artistic with our clothesline. Our greater motivation is harnessing the sun’s energy, setting an example for the younger generations.

  7. Pingback: A clothesline for art, not sheets | Auction Finds

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