Today, I am happy to host Maria Grace, author Regency era fiction, including the Given Good Principles series, prequels to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. After reading Grace’s fascinating post about how laundry was done 200 years ago, I can picture our ancestors laughing at us when we complain about waiting for our machines to just get done already.—Kim
By Maria Grace
I love wash day, don’t you? Ah, no, that’s what I thought. I don’t really either. But at least we can be grateful that, thanks to the modern conveniences of the washer and dryer, it is no longer nearly so arduous as it was for our ancestors.
Today, we gather the laundry and sort it, more or less, less if you’re one of my teenage sons. If it is a good day, we check for stains, pretreat the stains, then throw it in the machine. Later we wander back to switch it to the dryer, muttering under our breath because the washer doesn’t have a buzzer to let us know it is done. At the sound of the buzzer, we return to dry, sweet smelling laundry, ready to fold and put away. Oh the horrors of it all!
How our 18th and early 19th ancestors century would envy us. For them, laundry definitely did not take place on a weekly basis and when it happened, it was a multiday, all hands on deck experience. The ladies of the house, unless they were very high born, would work alongside the servants (at least until the Victorian era, when more shunned the activity) in order to get the enormous task finished.
Sorting the Laundry
The wealthier a family, the more clothing they possessed, longer they could stretch the time between washdays. Interestingly, the bulk of the laundry consisted of “body linen.” Worn next to the skin, undershirts, shifts, chemises, and the like protected finer garments from skin oils and sweat that soiled clothing more than dirt from the outside. Consequently these fine garments were rarely laundered. These two facts explain why so much silk and wool clothing of the period survives for us to see now. Victorians added removable cuffs and collars to their garments for the same reasons. Looking at my guys’ dress shirts, I can see the wisdom of removable–and replaceable–elements to increase the garment’s lifespan.
Laundry days were carefully planned out and executed in order to make best use of the resources. The process might begin the night before, with sorting the laundry. Lights, darks, flannels, calicos, and fine clothing would all be separated and a special pile dedicated to the most heavily soiled items. Often, the dirtiest laundry was set to soak in soapy water or lye the night before the actual process began to minimize the time and effort spent scrubbing the next day. All this sounds rather familiar, but the real work has not even started yet.
Getting Ready to Wash
Firewood might be gathered the day before, but if not, the laundress would need to move 150-200 pounds of wood to the laundry site to feed fires sufficient for a moderate estate’s laundry. That alone sounds like a day’s worth of effort, but for her it was only the beginning. Once wood was gathered and fires started, water had to be hauled to fill the copper boiler and additional wash and rinse basins.
Laundresses preferred copper boilers because they did not rust and stain the clothing the way iron would. The typical boiler would need 20-40 gallons per load with an additional 10 gallons for scrub and rinse water. Depending on the location of the water source, this process alone could require miles of walking burdened with heavy yokes of water by the time the day was over.
Of Lye and Laundry Bats
The laundress placed clothes in boiling water to loosen dirt, agitating them by hand with a washing bat, a 2- to 3-foot-long wooden paddle. After a quarter of an hour in the boiler, she removed the articles to a large basin of warm water to treat any remaining soiled areas with lye soap or other stain treatment.
A variety of preparations might be used on stained clothing. Chalk, brick dust, and pipe clay were used on greasy stains. Alcohol treated grass stains and kerosene, bloodstains. Milk was thought to remove urine stains and fruit. Ironically, urine, due to the ammonia content was often used for bleaching as were lemon and onion juice. Makes modern eyes water just thinking about the process.
To prevent fading, colored garments like calicos were not soaked or washed with lye or soda. They were washed in cold or lukewarm water by hand, rather than agitated with a bat. Ox-gall might be added to the water to help preserve the color.
Obtaining ox-gall meant sending a glass bottle to the butcher, who would drain the liquid of cows’ gall bladders into it. Doesn’t that sound like what you want to add to your next wash cycle? Yeah, me too. If that wasn’t enough, an article that needed starching would be dipped in water that potatoes or rice had been cooked in and saved for laundry day. Laundresses were cautioned to make sure that the starch water had not soured or gone moldy before dipping clothing into it. Just one more appetizing thought to add to our washday pleasantries.
Out of the Wash and on to Drying
Finally, after boiling, washing and rinsing, garments had to be prepared for drying. To speed drying, excess water had to be removed from the wet fabric. A wealthy household might employ a box mangle, a large contraption that wound laundry around rollers then rolled a heavy box over them to extract excess water. Few households could afford such a luxury.
More often, two people would work together to wring the water from the laundry by twisting. Afterwards, clothes would be hung on clotheslines (usually without clothespins), bushes, hedgerows, wooden frames or laid over the lawn to dry. Inclement weather forced drying inside to kitchen and attic spaces.
As if this was not enough, after the laundry finally dried, nearly every article required pressing of some form. But the history of ironing is a subject for another post.
(All images in this post are in the public domain or used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Kristina Harris. Victorian Laundry (or, Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Live Then?)
Michael Olmert. Laundries: Largest Buildings in the Eighteenth-Century Backyard
Victoria Rumble. Victorian Era Laundry & Housekeeping
Free Google Books digitized originals
Madam Johnson’s Present Every young woman’s companion in useful and universal knowledge (1770)
About Maria Grace
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was 10 years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes 10 meals at a time, so she only cooks twice a month.
She can be contacted at author (dot) MariaGrace (at )gmail (dot) com. You can find her on:
- Facebook: facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace
- Amazon: amazon.com/author/mariagrace
- her website, AuthorMariaGrace.com
If you like Grace’s post on laundry from 200 years ago, you might also like a deleted scene from my second, yet-to-be published novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, set in the days of Charlemagne.—Kim