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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Laundry Day in the 18th Century

Lori Benton here, with my maiden post for Colonial Quills. It's an honor and a joy to be included amongst this group of talented and knowledgeable historical fiction scribes.

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.

I Googled the subject for a quick refresher and found this wonderful link I thought worth sharing for anyone wishing to see just how sweet most of us have it in these modern days: 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

And there's still the pressing and the ironing to get done!

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.

Want more on 18th century laundry? Here's an article about 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!


  1. I always hang my clothes (inside in winter and yes they are very wrinkled) but for a month or more I did laundry by hand and I can tell you that wringing out jeans and corduroys got pretty tough on the hands and arms. Definitely good 'research'.

    I can see why they wore things more than once. ahem.

    Nice post Lori!

  2. Debra, wringing out jeans? That does sound tough on the hands. Since I do my laundry at a laundromat once a week, for in between times I've learned the fine art of spot cleaning. :) Our 18th century great-great-greats must have been SUCH strong women. I can remember my husband's grandmother, who lived on a farm and raised cattle, had the strongest hands in the family. If a jar needed opening, you took it to grandma, not grandpa!

  3. Reminds me of camping trips as a child and washing stuff and rinsing it in the lake or with fresh pumped water. Just think - in many places people still must wash and dry their clothes just as you described. We are so blessed to live in a free and prosperous country.

  4. Interesting post, Lori. For those not fortunate enough to have a wash "house" how would they manage this, in 100 degree heat? Or freezing, even? Back-breaking, sweat-inducing work indeed.

  5. Very interesting post, Lori, and (as I listen to my dryer tumbling right now) rather horrifying.:-) My hubs comes in so dirty from work, I shudder to think of washing his clothes out by hand, and oh, what about in the winter!? I'm ashamed to say I complain inwardly sometimes just having to fold them and hang them all up... that is so not good. After reading your article I will try to be more thankful! We are truly blessed.

  6. Doree, they would have a kettle over a fire in the yard, and a row of tubs to scrub and rinse set on benches to help spare their backs. That's how I set it in the scene in my novel. I can only imagine (and have done so, of course) just how hot and muggy a task that had to be in summer. I suppose one would start it as early in the day as possible.

  7. Diana, we are SO blessed! The more I learn about 18th century life, especially that on the frontier, lacking what few amenities were available back then, the more respect I earn for the women who raised and cared for their families in those times.

  8. Lot's of work! Great post, I learned so much!

  9. And those not fortune enough to have the luxuries of a washboard and tub had to resort to a "knucklebuster" and the local stream. ;-) (Or so said the sign in the colonial museum I visited last week, LOL.)

    Awesome post, Lori!!

  10. My sister asked for a washboard for Christmas one year. We live in Louisiana, we get hit by hurricanes. The last two knocked our power out for five days. We spend most of the time the power is out, outside cleaning up. Clothes get nasty real fast.

    Hence the washboard! Last time, my sister was washing clothes out by the pool, without a washboard. Now we have one, and a laundry sink in the outside bathroom.

    I think I'd rather wash clothes in Louisiana in the summer than be in the kitchen with the fire going 24/7. I've stood in an open-fire kitchen at the end of April. Down here, that's as hot as summer up north. Not fun! At least the laundry ladies had the occasional breeze and the heat didn't collect around them.

  11. Fay, thanks!

    Roseanna, yes, it did get even harder than boiling laundry in a kettle!

    Rachel, so you know all about this stuff! Goodness, I used to live back east, but further up the coast, so the hurricanes were usually fizzling out by the time they reached us. I agree, I'd rather be doing laundry in the open air than shut up in a wash house, except for getting the wash done in bad weather.

  12. Wonderful details, Lori. Boy, I will never complain about doing laundry again! We are so blessed, and how quickly we forget that!

  13. Thanks, Joan. I've sometimes wondered if one of the reasons God nudged me toward historical fiction was to help me remember just how blessed I am. :)

  14. Another good reminder of what it means to "work". Can you image treating our clothes today in this manner? They'd fall apart in 2 or 3 washings. Clothes back then were much sturdier than what we wear now. They had to be!

  15. Was waiting for this! Anyway, I remember living on my grandfather's farm in the Adirondacks; they had a well, and my mom used a hand pump to pump the buckets of water. Then she and my grandmother had to boil it on a cast iron stove. After that, I remember when my Dad and grandfather had to wring out the laundry--"the man's job" (for strength)And that was in the fifties! (yes-s-s, 20th century :) Thanks, Lori--a great post-- Makes for a very authentic scene!

  16. Pegg, I suspect you are right. I don't do much sewing, but those few things I have sewn (kitchen curtains, those aren't TOO hard), are much sturdier than ones I've bought. Clothing in the 18C was oftentimes a work of art, with so much attention paid to detail, too. I can spend a lot of time paging through a book like What Clothes Reveal, by Linda Baumgarten, just feasting my eyes.

  17. Pat, Thanks for sharing that memory. Because you have lived (all your life I think?) in the area where that particular batch of fictional laundry of mine got done, I'm always trying to see between the lines of your posts about NY! Sigh. One day I'll get there myself, if that book is ever contracted, somewhere before the final edits get done.

    And I'm all for men helping with the laundry. :)

  18. I can't imagine doing laundry the way they did. We are so spoiled.

  19. Teresa, It's been so long since I visited Colonial Williamsburg. I was a child, and really have no memory of it. It's on my list of places I must see whenever I'm anywhere reasonably near there again. It's very dry here too in southern Oregon. Even at the laundromat I don't bother drying the clothes all the way. Just put stuff on hangers damp, then hang them up for an hour when I get home. That does the trick.

    Jennifer, We are too. :) But then, we have time to help preserve the lifeways of the past through our fiction, instead of devoting every spare moment to keeping clean and fed. So I guess spoiled by convenience and technology isn't always the worst state to find oneself in. :)

  20. The things we take for granted! What an ordeal. The housewife must have got pretty upset when a freshly laundered garment got dirty quickly, like a spill or something. With all of the conveniences that we have today it seems like many people have little respect for a woman who keeps house. I have great esteems for these ladies. They must have been in terrific shape considering all of the hard work they had to do. At least they must have been pretty sturdy. And maybe that's what a man found attractive...a hardy woman who'd make a good wife.

    Thanks for the great article, Lori!

  21. Lori, Nice work. I was just reading some recipes in my files for how to get stains out, how to wash delicate things like silk, etc. If you are interested, drop me an email and I'll get them to you. Though I doubt upstate NY would have much silk stocking wearing in the eighteenth century, not on the true frontier anyway.

  22. Great article, Lori. Makes me tired reading!! Am feeling thankful. Same with cooking over an open hearth, etc. It's hard to understand or imagine today. That's the appeal of historicals, I guess! I've always been intrigued/surprised that 18th-c. gowns still have stains beneath the arms (ones in CW and other collections) as I guess there was no remedy for those. Think of dancing in 100 degree heat in a silk gown beneath the light of burning candles!! Oh my...

  23. Lori, At 16 (1974) I was carrying water from a creek 1/4 mile away from the school bus my family lived in. We boiled and srubbed our laundry in a cauldron over a kindling fire once a week. Oh, the memories! They will be in my book.


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