In connection with Susan’s blog about an 1800 white muslin gown, a reader asked us a lot of questions about hygiene and laundry.
How often did they bathe?
How often did they wash their clothes?
How did they?
How would they have laundered one of those huge silk or velvet dresses?
How many dresses did they have?
The answers would take up many blogs. We’ve already written a bunch about bathing (click the bathing label at right).
Today and Friday I’ll offer a few paragraphs of the dissertation one could write about laundry.
As Bill Bryson points out in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “Because there were no detergents before the 1850s, most laundry loads had to be soaked in soapy water or lye for hours, then pounded and scrubbed with vigor, boiled for an hour or more, rinsed repeatedly, wrung out by hand or (after about 1850) fed through a roller, and carried outside to be draped over a hedge or spread on a lawn to dry.” By the 19th century, what had once been a seasonal, then monthly job, became a weekly one.
This offers a clue why Christina Hardyment, in Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses, says our idea of Monday as washday is misleading. That was the day the washing was started—otherwise it might not get done by the end of the week, when people wanted to put on their Sunday best.
According to The Complete Servant, “The foul linen is given out to [the laundry maid] on Monday morning, and returned clean, on Friday night or Saturday morning.—Wages from £8. to £15. a year.”
Hardly a princely sum for a hot, stinking, exhausting job (laundry maids had muscles!). In large households, the work kept a team of laundry maids busy all week. Only consider what they’d be washing: a week’s worth of tablecloths, napkins, towels, sheets, pillowcases—IOW all the household linens used by family and servants—along with most of the clothing, including shirts, everybody’s underwear, caps, neckcloths, aprons.
And that’s only the washing. What about the ironing?
More to come on Friday about those velvets and other things . . .
Above left: Rowlandson, Washing Day.
Below right: Women at work in an unidentified laundry, possibly in Boston, c. 1905. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA