Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Laundry in the 1800's by E. AYERS

As I face my own dreaded pile of laundry, knowing it will take up a good portion of my evening and probably part of the next day, I thought of a fun bit of trivia to share. Okay, anything is better than shifting those piles from floor to washer followed by moving to the dryer. Then as soon as the buzzer sounds we must run immediately to hang or fold everything, because we all know it will wrinkle in a matter of seconds or so it seems. We face that detested chore as a time crunch. But what did people do in the west, or in most of America, during 1800's?
Laundry doesn't seem to clean itself. The laundry fairies have refused to come to my house since the day I married, and that happened to all those gals back in the 1800's who left the comfort of the east and moved west. They had to do their own laundry. And one of the first things they learned to do was keep whatever they were wearing as dry as possible. So before they tackled the wet, messy job, they reached between their feet to the back hem of the skirt. Grabbing the hem, they pulled it forward and up where they tucked it into their waistband..Then they might put their smock over it.  That's not going to show in the advertisements because it wasn't very proper. and parts of their legs or ankles might show.

Since laundry swells daily, it needs equipment to keep it from becoming out of hand and multiplying too quickly. In the 1800's, that meant a laundry bat, a washboard, a tub, water, a fire to heat the water, and a bar of soap. Clothes were shaken to remove any dirt that might fall away from them and then they were dropped into the hot water and rubbed with a bar of soap before being rubbed on the washboard, maybe with more soap. If you were lucky you might have another tub to rinse them.
So what's the laundry bat used for and what is it? It's a stick that is flattened on one end - think of a very short oar. It was used for plunging the dirty laundry around in the very hot water and lifting the item out without burning your hands. Think about those sheets and other large items. It was also handy if the clothes were washed in the river or a pond. They could put those filthy pants on a stone and beat them clean with the bat.

You washed the least dirty items and unmentionables first in the tub. And those unmentionables were never hung in "public." Often they were placed on a rope that was hung in the house. And you hoped that hubby never saw them because a man, even a husband, should never see such things if you were lady. You washed the dirtiest last, otherwise you'd be depositing more dirt on the clothes then you were removing.

Monday became washday. It was a leftover tradition from Europe that went back to Roman days where often the women got together on Monday in the town square and at least tried to chat or have fun while doing this all-day chore. And of course, it was source of pride to have clean laundry, and enviable if yours was whitest.

Laundry soap became readily available in flakes around the time of the Civil War. It was just soap that was flaked from a large block of soap and packaged in boxes. But it was the names on the soap and the pretty pictures that captured the attention of women. Blocks of soap still remained very popular through the 1950's. Wouldn't it be nice to use soap with names like Sunlight? Having a catchy name on laundry detergent is still important today. And much like today, there were additives that could be placed either in the soap or the water such as starch or bluing. Permanent press had not yet been invented so they had to iron everything, and starch made everything look crispy and nice when it was ironed. Bluing made the whites look whiter. Although going back a few hundred years, they added a yellow color to the laundry soap to give things a creamy look. Apparently that was more in vogue than white.
Even in the 1970's, I can remember adding starch to the rinse water of my husband's shirts. Then instead of drying them, I would roll them up and place them in the bottom of the refrigerator to be ironed the next day. Ugh! What a chore.

Eventually women were lucky enough to get a new fangled tool called a wringer. Oh what a treat! Now they could feed that laundry though the wringer and get most of the soapy water out before going into the rinse water and then the wringer could be placed on that tub and it would wring the water out so that items could easily be hung. Of course, you didn't want your fingers caught in that wringer, also called a mangle! Fingers might get broken or horrendously squashed. You had to pay attention. Maybe that was easier to avoid when it was hand cranked, but technology wasn't too far behind.

Actual washing machines began to crop up in the later 1800's. But the earliest ones were hand cranked and were still in use through most of the 1900's anyplace where electricity didn't exist. But those city folks who had electricity could also use a home-style washing machine that ran on electricity - that I do remember. And I remember that the clothes had to be fed through the rollers. A grandmother had one. I was fascinated with it because what we had at home was a white metal box. And I remember my mom complaining when we were lacking electricity because snow had taken the lines down, and if she had kept her old washer, we could still wash clothes. That meant the chore would have fallen on my dad - I think I know why he got rid of it.


  1. I remember going into the basement with my mom and watching her use the wringer to do laundry. Then hanging the laundry. She was so happy when we moved to California and got a regular washer and dryer.

    1. They were very common because they lasted forever! I think that's why my grandmother held onto hers. Someday our grandkids will look at our "old" washer with the same thoughts that we once had about those old wringer washers. Thanks for stopping by, Jill.

    2. LOL.. Thanks for the good little reminders about the fun days of the past! Gave me a chuckle. We still have Sunlight bar soap here in NZ, and a dishwashing liquid as well. labels not much different. :)
      And I have a dryer, but it's rarely used, other than in the depths of winter when it's constantly raining. I'm astonished when I return to the states and see everyone using dryers in perfectly lovely weather!

  2. I am not fond of laundry, especially of ironing (Ugh), and am grateful for permanent-press fabrics. I remember my dad talking about a girl whose long hair got caught in the mangle and how much trouble it was for her to escape. Good post!

  3. Enjoyed your post, haven't thought about bluing in many many years. Very nostalgic. Thankful for all the Mod Cons.

  4. I love to do laundry. I don't mind folding it, but putting it away is not something I seem to get done right away. Maybe it's because I'm a Pisces I love to do things with water except mop floors.
    Mom always hung clothes on the line and I remember how fresh it smelled. The bed clothes must have soaked up plenty of sunshine and vitamin D because I had no problem sleeping in them.
    I think the real queen of laundry was my maternal grandmother. She used to use lye soap and 20 Mule Team Borax to soak things. She washed the laundry on the back porch of her farm house with a wringer washer. It had two tubs--one for washing and one for rinsing with a hand crank ringer between them. Having the cleanest clothes and the whitest sheets. It took all day.
    Loved your article, E. Women certainly worked hard back then. We probably take our mechanical luxuries for granted. Of course, most women work outside the home these days, so it would be a major problem if we didn't have the conveniences we have today.
    All the best.


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