Not many women today are familiar with the ritual of ‘white-washing’ as modem homes do not require the procedure; but in my childhood it was the only method of treating fireplaces and the surrounds of wood stoves. The ‘material’ wasn’t purchased in a tin from the local store nor sprayed on from pressure pack containers as we know today; it didn’t cost money and it was called pipe-clay. The discovery of a good patch was much coveted, and the womenfolk would vie goodnaturedly to see who could achieve the whitest fireplace from it.
Many a Sunday afternoon mothers and children would search the damp, fem gullies for the pliable clay but the best patch we found was on our way to school. It was in the roadside gutter near Shady Gully.
After locating a good patch, it would be taken home in a treacle tin, placed in a larger tin, warm water added and stirred until a suitable paste was formed. Large paint brushes weren’t procurable in our part of the bush then, nor could we probably afford them in those years. 80 they were manufactured from stringy bark. Pieces of bark would be cut and bound at one end with twine to form a handle for easier use. Despite all the care in making them, small bits constantly broke off, falling into the mixture. The white-wash would be brushed on the hobs and surrounds over and over again until a good surface was obtained.
At first it would be a greyish colour but as it dried it would gradually whiten. One day we were very excited to find a patch of pipe-clay down at the lake’s edge below Joan Allan’s home. When mixed it produced a creamy yellow colour and became quite a conversation piece in our home ’till our Mother reverted back to the white. to be scraped down until an even surface was regained. Then the process would commence all over again. White washing was quite a tedious procedure!
Strangely there was something else about it which concerned several of the men … their wives developed a craving for it and actually ate the stuff. One worried husband took his wife off to a Bega doctor who assured him it wouldn’t do her any harm, and that she could be lacking in some mineral, perhaps calcium.
When winter was over, the insides of the chimneys would be brushed down with long ti -tree branches, the fireplace cleaned, whitewashed and in some, a lonely pot of aspidistra would be placed. Myoid dictionary states that aspidistra is often regarded as a symbol of dull middle-class respectability, but be assured there wasn’t much middle-class in our little township in those depression years. It would not occur to anyone to pot for their fireplaces, some of the beautiful species of ferns, particularly maiden-hair that grew profusely in our gullies. That popular form of home decoration would come many years later.
There certainly isn’t call for white-wash nowadays, but I still remember how it was used in every Mallacoota home and in the make-shift huts of the seasonal fishermen during the 1930s. Mostly I recall the pride the womenfolk took in their homes no matter how austere some may have been, and how important to them was a white fireplace.