By Barbara Kessler

Drying the laundry on the clothesline faded into disfavor sometime in the mid 20th Century when it descended from the commonplace to become a mark of poverty, even shame.

Consider the vernacular: You wouldn’t want to be “hung out to dry” or caught “airing dirty laundry in public.” Or would you? markel51.jpg

Advocates of “hanging out” have begun to weigh the benefits of air drying the laundry against the energy costs of drying clothes in electric and gas dryers. Their concerns about global warming and energy use are making how we do our laundry the subject for a new public airing – pardon the pun.

About 6 percent of the average household’s electrical energy consumption can be attributed to electrical dryers, says Alexander P. Lee, the founder of Project Laundry List, which serves as a clearinghouse for information about the “right to dry” movement and as a nexus for the growing clamor over this issue. (Government figures for the percentage gas dryers contribute aren’t available.)

Six percent is not a huge figure — until you multiple it by millions of households and recall that even modern society once struggled along pretty successfully without dryers.

Advocates don’t claim that hanging out a clothesline will shut down the United States’ dirty power plants or resolve massive industrial pollution. But they do maintain that switching can make a significant dent in household power use and is largely a win-win situation.

Aside from energy savings, the benefits of air drying include fresher smelling and longer-lasting clothes, says Lee, the 32-year-old New Hampshire lawyer and educator whose website and long term dedication to the issue has made him the unlikely pied piper of natural drying.

In addition, if Martha Stewart’s advice is correct, outdoor drying can result in whiter whites from sun exposure (hooray, we can wash them in cold water too), and it can provide personal exercise for adherents who must haul, reach and clip those shirts and pillowcases to the line, says Lee.

Yes, the Right to Dry movement has picked up quite a tail wind these days. Martha Stewart and The New York Times have taken note (with an April article), as well as a handful of other media outlets in the states and Europe.

“The New York Times article was in the top five most emailed articles eight days after it came out,’’ says Lee. “I think people are excited about this because it’s (hanging out) simple and sort of a no brainer.’’

A sprinkling of legislative activity has even sprung up around the time-honored practice of hanging out the laundry. Rumblings of activity in North Carolina and Vermont are threatening to add states to the so far rather short list of those with existing Right to Dry laws.

Currently, Florida and Utah have Right to Dry laws which keep cities from outlawing the practice. Lee says the movement is spreading in Canada too where many cities hold more tolerant European attitude toward the laundry, seeing it not as a blight but as a part of the landscape. Project Laundry List is showcasing that viewpoint on its website by collecting artist’s works that feature laundry scenes (such as the dynamite painting shown above by British Columbia artist Gretchen Markle), hoping that more Americans will come to appreciate such displays.

Laundry blowing in the wind can be a “colorful and nostalgic” site, says Lee, who credits his mother with instilling in him a frugal Yankee attitude toward the clothesline.

Still, millions of prospective converts live in territory that may be hard to convert to the concept that the neighbor’s billowing brassieres and undulating undies are an artsy addition to the hood.

Some 60 million Americans reside in communities controlled by home owner or condo associations and the vast majority of those have stipulations against hanging laundry on the line.

“The rationale is mainly aesthetics, curb appeal, property values and meeting the expectations of the people living in the community.’’ says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the Community Association Institution in Alexandria, Virginia.

Associations standardly include “hanging out” in their lists of prohibitions to guard against laundry creep. “I had a person say, this lady wants to hang a couple towels…,’’ said Rathbun. “Once you allow one person to hang three towels, how do you tell the neighbors across the street that they can’t hang out all their clothes?’’

Rathbun concedes that he has no research to support the presumed loss of aesthetics or property values in neighborhoods where laundry flaps in the wind. He also notes that his advocacy association supports communities setting their own norms, which may or may not tout a tolerant line toward the laundry line. If a neighborhood wanted to ease restrictions on laundry drying because of concerns about energy issues, then they would be within their rights to do so, as long as they followed their own rules for inviting participation and voting democratically on any changes.

“We as an organization strongly recommend that community associations periodically review all their rules. A rule that made sense 15 or 20 years ago may not make sense today.’’

(There are several places online that sell both indoor and outdoor laundry drying equipment. One online store to get you started is The Clothesline Shop, based in Maine.)

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