Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Laundry never ends

Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Loretta reports:

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


Anonymous said...

interesting, can't wait to read more on this topic! :)

Chris Woodyard said...

Were there bleaching yards in urban areas? Or did they hang the laundry on lines? I'm always intrigued by how carefully the linens are positioned--like a jigsaw puzzle--to make the most of the area.

Anonymous said...

I'm not new to Susan's books but I am new to following your blog but am loving it! Loretta your books have been added to my list! I don't know if you've discussed or mentioned this book yet. And I admit I haven't read it yet myself but others I know have said good things about it. The book is Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America by Kathleen M. Brown
(2009). I believe it addresses bathing as well as laundry.

nightsmusic said...

Speaking of rollers...I used a wringer washer until I was in my 20's because that's what my mother had. A wringer washer and a clothes line. She finally accepted an automatic washing machine when my now DH and I brought one through the door on a dolly and refused to take it back out.

My grandmother once told me many years ago that the really old rollers could very easily take a finger off if the laundress wasn't careful. Don't know about the really old ones, but my mother's could!

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