Linen cupboards have exercised my mind lately. It started when my friend, writer Louise Allan, re-posted a Facebook memory about sheets she had folded meticulously. She said, I think with  tongue in cheek,

The epitome of housewifeliness — folding the sheets so you can’t tell the difference between the fitted and flat ones.


Linen cupboards
Linen cupboards

Hands up those who have tried to fold flat and fitted sheets together and make them neat? And, importantly, who besides me failed dismally? I imagine it’s the sort of activity most of us try once. And then abandon.

Perfectly folded sheets in perfectly tidy linen cupboards played a part in my life as a young nurse. In the olden days, circa 1955, nurses in training were apprentices. No one actually said that word. But we were used (and often abused)  in all sorts of ways that no self-respecting nurse would tolerate now.

Nursing was considered women’s work. Women’s work involved cleaning, tidying, sorting. Good nurses were also expected to be good women. The rare male nurse was the object of speculation. Why would any man  want to nurse?

Back to the linen cupboards of my youth. Each Sunday afternoon, during one of the twice-weekly visiting periods at Royal Perth Hospital, nurses cleaned. It was assumed that no nursing procedure could take place while visitors were around. And those young nurses had to be gainfully occupied.

The more junior one was, the more menial the task. A couple of steps up from cleaning the pan-room came the linen cupboard. Or linen room, as it may well have been.The step up was a graduation, of sorts. At least there was less contamination in the linen room. And the sheets and towels and pillow slips had a distinctive, almost pleasant odour, fresh from the laundry.

A nurse with one or two stripes on her sleeve, to distinguish her from those junior or senior, entered the linen room. She removed every single item, placed it on a trolley, dusted the shelves and replaced every item. In perfect, perfect order. Folds were placed meticulously, one on top of the one below.

The blankets  were grey, heavy. I don’t remember that they were cleaned between patients.  They did not smell good, and  were often folded haphazardly. We were expected to unfold, shake and refold them. Sometimes on a bad day a young woman did not follow the procedure. But  most of us spent our lives in fear of the wrath of the ward sister. Conformity could have been our middle names.

There was a rumour, more than an urban myth, that some ward sisters sprinkled sand between the folds of the blankets. They took pleasure, so the story goes, in discrediting the poor youngster who had skimped the job.

Perhaps my love of neat piles of linen in a tidy linen cupboard stems from those good old-fashioned nursing days.

The house John and I bought to live in four years after we married was something of a compromise, as marital purchases often are. But it had some endearing, even quirky, features.  I fell in love with  the lovely sunny study. The tiny Harry  Potter room under the stairs took my fancy. But when I saw the linen room, I knew I could live in this house.

I still can’t fold flat and fitted sheets the way they do in the Youtube clips, or the way other people have tried to show me. I’ve found a really good compromise. I half fold, half bundle the fitted sheets, and wrap them in the flat sheets.  The resulting bundle looks OK, although nowhere as neat as it could be. The defiant junior nurse who lives inside my head wants to shout, I DON’T CARE.

These days, like my friend Louise, I have much better things to do with my life than obsess about tidy linen cupboards.



I’d love to read your comments

10 replies on “Linen cupboards then and now”

  1. Haha! I understand completely where this obsession with neatness and cleanliness comes from—it was drummed into women as kids!
    I remember my mother telling us a story from her childhood, about her mother dragging her back (by the ear, mind you) to the linen cupboard and telling her to fold the towels properly. My mother shuffled them around a bit, and went off to play, but once again my grandmother dragged her back to do it properly. By the third time, my grandmother thought my mother was just doing it to annoy her, but my mother had no idea what she was doing wrong. Apparently, she was putting the towels on the shelf so the edges faced outwards, not the neat, curved, folded side.
    I was raised with these values, too, and told cleanliness was next to godliness. Well, if that’s the case, god would be shaking his head at me and marking a bit ‘X’ next to my name.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Louise. I don’t think my brother ever had to tidy anything, just my sister and me. But then he was the baby…

      That’s a lovely story about your mother, too. I think we women are often too hard on our daughters, without thinking what we are doing. I hope my daughters have forgiven me for the times I stuffed up badly. And my sons, too, for that matter. Sometimes I cringe at the mistakes I made as a mother and a person when my kids were growing up. It was all too easy to bark orders and think they understood what I wanted.

  2. Your linen cupboard has always been a thing of wonder for me. Clean, fresh, smelling slightly sweet floweral fragrance but always NEAT!!!! (Well relatively anyway!)
    I have to admit… A chore I didn’t mind too much whilst living at Hardy road was cleaning out the linen cupboard. It was extremely satisfying!!!!
    Nowadays- I’m content if I can simply pull out the right sheet for the right bed without rummaging….

    1. Thanks, Claire. I do like it neat. Your time for neat linen will come when your three babies are a bit older and you have less important things to do. There is something intensely satisfying about tidying a cupboard, although I once or twice attempted to tidy the one at Hardy Road and didn’t quite get it.

  3. Have to admit to weirdly enjoying a well ordered linen closet …. and being able to put my hands on a complete set of bedsheets without foraging. My mother’s cupboard was always a ‘boorach’ as we’d say in Scotland … very messy … so perhaps I’ve swung too far the opposite way?! Simple pleasures!

    1. Nothing weird about a well-ordered linen closet, Rachel! And I agree about sets of sheets being together and neat. Just the process of folding the damned things gets to me! Love the word ‘boorach’. I must get you to teach me how to say it. It looks a bit like a swear word. Thanks for the comment, btw.

  4. Ah well the olden days!! The linen room was a blessed relief and provided a great space to weep in or let off steam in!!Thanks for the memories!! Rosiex.

    1. Hello, Rosemary. I missed your comment, sorry. Yes, the linen cupboard was the place to cry those tears of sadness at the suffering or death of a loved patient. I also admit to crying tears of abject misery after a trouncing from a senior nurse, or horrors the ward sister. And sometimes I cried tears of total frustration at the unfairness of the whole damned system of apprenticeship nursing.

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