Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Laundry Day in the 18th Century
Ever wonder how the laundry got done before the days of washers and dryers?
Not long ago I needed to write a scene in one of my novels, set on the New York frontier of 1784, that takes place during the washing of a tub full of laundry. While I've researched laundry practicalities in the 18th century before (a major character in an earlier novel is the laundress on a small plantation), I'd never written a scene where the stage business (what each character in the scene is doing) was heavily dependent upon the step-by-step process of getting the laundry done.
The Complexities of Wash Day in the 18th Century. It's a three page article that explained the process succinctly but in enough detail for me to build my scene around.
A typical 18th century laundry day routine:
~ Up before dawn to chop or gather firewood for the kettle in the yard
~ Haul water from the creek or the well. Lots of water.
~ Fill the kettle and light the fire
~ Sort the laundry
~ Boil the first load, agitating it with a stick
~ Transfer the load piece by piece to the wash tub
~ Scrub each piece of laundry
~ Try various harsh means, such as lemon juice, to get out stubborn stains
~ Transfer each piece of laundry to rinse tub
~ Rinse each garment
~ Wring each garment
~ Spread each garment to dry on the bushes or hang on a line
~ Gather or chop more wood
~ Haul more water
~ Begin the next load
Obviously some aspects of what are often called "simpler times" weren't at all simple, but full of tedious, back-breaking work. I hereby promise never to complain about having to do my laundry at the laundromat near my house, where all I have to do is load the washers, put in my coins, then sit back and read a good book until they're done. Then transfer them to the dryers and go back to my book until they're done. Then fold them and take them home. A week's worth of laundry done in 90 minutes, much of that spent with my nose in a book. Compared to what this task would have required in the 18th century, it's hardly worth calling a chore.
the wash house at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's plantation home in Virginia. Included is a list of the laundry accoutrement inventoried upon the President's death in 1799, and its value. The Washingtons owned nine wash tubs at that time. Their appraised value? $4.50. I delight in stumbling across little details like this in my research, so I can occasionally name the price my characters would have paid for their purchases, whether at a trading post, town shoppe, or the village square on market day... when and if they were fortunate enough to have hard coin to spend. Much buying and selling in the late 18th century was still done through barter, at a time before our country began issuing its own coinage and nearly every sort of money under the sun was in circulation.
But that's another topic for another post!