History of laundry
Mar 29, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
There are many tasks we do in our modern lives: prepping for breakfast (lunch, dinner – and don’t forget about elevensies), handling spreadsheets, keeping the car from breaking down, navigating conference calls, and going on Starbucks runs. Plus, there’s the whole getting up early for flea markets, hitting garage sales and thrift shops in the wee hours of your weekend mornings, and getting pesky price stickers off your finds. That’s a lot to cram into your planner, right? You may even catch yourself thinking that things seem inconvenient, maybe even taxing. But oh my vintage loving friends, come with me on a journey through the history of laundry, and then let’s talk inconvenient and taxing.
I don’t know much about laundry, except I like the idea of it. I love feeling like things are all nice and clean. Nothing like a lazy Sunday afternoon spent with the dogs curled up by my side, a book in hand, and the gentle noise of the dryer as my soundtrack. But then… the dreaded folding! It happens every time. I play the game of “how long can I just keep taking stuff out of the dryer and avoid putting it away.” And ironing – don’t get me started. You may be thinking we’re laundry soul mates or you may be thinking I’m a complainer. I say a heartfelt “rock on” to the kindred spirits out there and a “well, you may be onto something” to the naysayers. It’s a big tent over here! But let me tell you about laundry in the 1800s. I guarantee ya – it was no lazy Sunday with a good book…
Let’s start with the tools. No project can be accomplished without the right equipment. Laundry is no exception. First you have your giant tub of warm water, a washboard, soap, and if you were lucky – a clothesline in a well-ventilated location. As these were the days before the beloved washing machine (invented around the mid-1800s, but not commonplace for another 50 or so years), some women may have had a plunger or paddle. This long stick (sometimes with protrusions on the end) did what the agitator in a washing machine does today – except what powered it wasn’t electricity, but arm power!
You may be thinking that’s a simple list, but let’s walk through the logistics. Do you think that warm water just magically appeared? Oh no my friend. This was a result of getting the water from a well or pump, then heating it in a large pot, to where it is is nice and boiling. If you were lucky you had the space to do this over an open fire and get the laundry scrubbed up then and there. Fun fact: for a Victorian estate, you may be talking nearly 200 pounds of firewood to get your laundry water ready to go. Can you imagine organizing this feat?? You need a staff on site for the wood chopping alone! For the families who may have been crammed into apartments (thanks Industrial Revolution!) the surroundings meant you were getting the water hot, then removing it from the flame to your small back room for laundering. Can you feel the sweat beading up already? And the sauna-like humidity of that tiny space as you worked to wash and then hang up the clothes?
Schedule-wise the laundry routine of yesteryear was not flexible like it is today. One day a week would be designated for the task. Boiling the water, adding the soap (and maybe it’s newfangled cousin, starch), scrubbing clean each article over the washboard, ringing it out, hanging, waiting for it to dry, and then ironing… that’s a full day’s work. It’s no wonder they relegated this to one day a week. You can imagine that with this much effort being made to get your clothes clean you needed to limit what you washed to the bare necessities. Outer layers were rarely washed (and therefore preserved well – even to this day!) and removable pieces were built into clothing designs. Removable collars and cuffs, which got the most wear and tear, helped laundry day get down to a more manageable size.
The soap used in this day and age was commercially sold – and lye was still very popular – but folks could make it at home as well if they had the means. (Just a little fat, ash, and salt.) Could you imagine making your own Tide? Not to mention you’re getting an incredible workout from the act of laundering itself, now you gotta make the soap too?? You may be wondering what our Victorian counterparts used for stain removal – good old chalk. Yep, try that one on for size next time your hamburger misses your mouth…
As the century wore on, tubs went from wooden construction to metal, clotheslines and hanging racks became sturdier, things like box mangles were more mass-produced, and women began to tackle this job for steady employment (because now the middle class didn’t want to deal with their laundry either!).
Dear reader, now that we’re strolled through the sticky and tedious history of laundry, I feel like I have a whole new appreciation for the modern conveniences we enjoy. Excuse me while I go hug my washing machine…