A lot of women’s pop history focuses on biographies of incredible women and that’s great because there are so many incredible women. However, any woman for whom you can write a biography is not normal. The vast majority of women have lived and died without leaving more than a birth certificate or a marriage license to mark their passing, and maybe not even so much as that. So this episode is the start of a new series called Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife, and it is in honor of the ordinary women, who were not queens or nobles or inventors or writers or professionals in anything except caring for their own families and homes as best they could.
The earliest women didn’t do any laundry because they didn’t wear any clothes. And by the time I’m done here you may well decide that that is, after all, the most sensible suggestion.
But ancient peoples decided clothes were a good idea. The earliest attempts were vegetation and animal pelts. I doubt that either received much in the way of laundering. Eventually humanity learned how to spin plant or animal fibers into thread and thread into fabric, and this was extremely time consuming, so fabric had to be reusable. Laundry has been on the household chore list ever since.
The most obvious way to wash clothes is to take it to your available river, lake, or other body of water and give it a good rinse. Even today there are still parts of the world where women who do their laundry in precisely that way.
But water alone may not be enough, so you find yourself a good rock to pound it with, or maybe some sand to rub it with to dislodge all the dirt and—I gotta say it—the vermin.
Somewhere along the way people discovered that rubbing with certain substances might save you some of that pounding and help the job along. If you live in the right part of the world and the season is right, there are some plants that make lather and act as a natural soap. So in northern Europe you’d use soapwort, in the American Southwest yucca, in India reetha, in China Chinese honeylocust.
But you might not be in the right place or season for that, and there are some other choices that are more readily available.
The one mentioned most often is lye, and many sources leave it at that, as if you know what that is, which I didn’t. So in case you are similarly ignorant, lye is made by gathering up the wood ashes from your fire, mixing it with water, and filtering it, probably through gravel and sand. The water that comes out is lye. Why anyone ever thought “Oh, I’ll use ashes on my clothes and that will make them cleaner,” I don’t know, but it does actually work because lye can dissolve grease and oil. As you can imagine it is the prime ingredient for making soap all over the world, since anyone who had a wood fire had the necessary supplies. It’s also caustic. When it’s strong, it can cause chemical burns on your skin, but Health and Safety Regulations weren’t a thing, so never mind that.
To make something we’d recognize as soap, you mix that lye water with animal fat, yet another substance I wouldn’t have thought of as a cleaner, but cultures all over the world were cleverer than me and they thought of it. The oldest soap that has been discovered is from Babylon in 2800 BCE and it is fats boiled with ashes (Soaps & Detergent History). That’s soap.
I don’t know whether the Babylonians were using that soap on their clothes or their skin or their dishes. We are now into the historical period, but detailed explanations of laundry are few. So there’s little to say until we get to the Roman period. Wealth and urbanization bring two laundry problems: more clothes and less likelihood that you live right next to a handy stream or river.
The Romans were practical folks and they found a practical solution: commercial laundries. I’d hesitate to say that no housewife was slaving over her family’s laundry, but some lucky women were sending it out for professional cleaning. We know this from a few references by classic writers and also because we can see the remains. A woman doing laundry in a stream leaves no trace. But we do have traces of Roman professional launderers, or fullers as they were called. Fullers also felted wool, so there’s sometimes some confusion about what they did, but at least some of them were washing clothes at least some of the time.
They worked in buildings with a front desk for checking in and checking out, piped-in water, and rectangular basins where they poured in the clothes, the water, and the chemicals.
Image: Mural from the fullonica in Pompeii, Wikimedia Commons
Then they began stomping around with bare feet like kids in a fountain. And were these chemicals our time-honored lye and animal fat? No. (Or okay maybe they were some of the time.) But the chemical most often mentioned in the sources for Roman laundries was from a source even more readily available than lye, and it was urine. Yes, urine. Maybe even aged urine. Yet another substance that I would not have thought would make anything cleaner. But it turns out that urine contains ammonia, which is a cleaning agent.
Said urine was collected on the streets. If you needed a leak, you found a urinal, where your liquid waste was collected and presto: laundry detergent. This was so widespread the emperor Vespasian even managed to tax the urine and raise money for the state, so think about that next time you grumble that the government taxes everything. In a few places there is even piping that leads directly from the street urinal to the fuller’s shop. These Romans thought of everything.
Now what I wonder (and my sources don’t make clear) is whether women used these taxable urinals or whether they were for men only like most street pissing is today. But whether Roman women supplied the detergent or not, there seems to be a general assumption that the workers stomping their feet in it were men. I fully approve of the concept of men doing laundry, but these were probably enslaved men, so that’s not good, and if not slaves, they were very low class. The writer Cicero made plenty of enemies, Cleopatra among them, and when some of the enemies wanted to tarnish his reputation they spread a rumor that he was the son of a fuller.
But all things come to an end, and Rome as a major power certainly did. Those commercial fulleries depended on precise urban planning and complex engineering to pipe in the water and urine and use it efficiently between treading stalls at slightly different heights and angles (Bradley and Flohr). Romans were good at that. Other people less so.
When engineering fails, there’s always the old standby: the back-breaking labor of the poor and powerless. In medieval Europe that meant women. This is when laundry became specifically women’s work. And if I am saying less about other parts of the world it is because I don’t have sources. I would be very surprised if ancient China did not have some system in their urban centers, but I don’t know what it was. If you do, please send me a source. Ditto for ancient India, Mexico, or anywhere.
Even in those empires however, I think we can assume that a large segment of the population had nothing but water, lye, and their own bodily waste to work with. Plus rocks or a stick.
There’s a very wide variety of washing bats that have been handed down through the ages and cultures, all serving the purpose of beating out the dirt.
Source: Karl Ragnar Gjertsen on Wikimedia Commons
The washboard was a fairly recent invention in the history of laundry, and seems to have been a mostly American phenomenon. Urine, by the way, was still used, but it was discreetly called “chamber lye.”
In winter doing the laundry would have been freezing. Literally. In summer, it hot and buggy. Hard, heavy work however you look at it. Not until after the Renaissance is there the first hint of a development, and it comes in multiple forms.
First, as wealth increases you once again have more clothes, which means more laundry. And there was fancy stuff like ruffs meaning those ridiculous stiff white collars that make so many European portraits look like heads are being served on a platter.
Achieving that look required starch, which you made by boiling the bran of various herbs including the cuckoo-pint flower, then letting it sit for three days, then straining it, then dipping clothes in, then polishing them with slickstone (History of Starching), which sounds like a whole lot of work to achieve a ridiculous effect, but no one ever accused me of understanding fashion.
But the Renaissance also brought some other ideas too. In the 1500s, an Italian inventor drew plans for a washing machine, and a variety of others popped up over the next couple centuries, but don’t imagine that these made women’s lives easy. Most of them stayed firmly in the idea category. And even if the odd woman here or there had one in the flesh, they were hardly an electric miracle. They were basically a wooden tub with a hand crank for agitating the contents. Guess who still had to do the cranking? And the filling? And the draining?
As urban centers grew, the more common solution in continental Europe (and particularly in France) was the lavoir. This was a public area, probably constructed near the water source with publicly maintained and available basins. Some communities built roofs over the lavoir to try to ease the experience for women.
Image: Women doing laundry at San Remo, Italy, Wikimedia Commons
Most women were still doing laundry by hand and if they weren’t, they were hiring other women to do it by hand. And this brings us to the 19th century where finally, finally, we get good sources. Prior to this virtually no one wrote about laundry because why would they? Laundry was for lower class people to do.
In the 19th century, the stars aligned and you’ve got books being printed so cheaply that many women could afford them, and they had grown up with enough spare time and attention that they knew how to read. At the same time the separate spheres idea is preaching that the home is a woman’s domain and running it is a woman’s profession. Therefore your success and self worth and social standing as a woman depend at least partially on you being really good at it.
Add all those factors together and what you get is a very large market for books on all the things your mother probably told you, but you weren’t listening. Or maybe you didn’t have a mother. Or she could afford more servants than you can. Or whatever. The point is domestic guilt and insecurity are way older than Pinterest.
In Britain, the domestic Bible of choice was Mrs. Eliza Warren’s How I Managed My House on 200 Pounds a Year. In America, we had Catherine Beecher, older sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe. While Harriet took on slavery with bestselling fiction, Catherine took on the woes of the housewife with several decades’ worth of bestselling nonfiction. She gives detailed instructions on what is involved in doing a family’s laundry.
For starters, Catherine assumes that you are not standing in a stream to do this. That’s partly because in a stream you can’t control the water temperature, but mostly because it wasn’t an option. Urban women probably got their water from a shared pump. Frontier women likely from a well.
On the other hand, some products were commercially available. By the mid-19th century many American and European women could buy soap. But it came in a block. You had to shave off bits of it to get your suds. The better your soap, the less pounding you have to do, but at least Catherine does not recommend urine. Here is what she does recommend for laundry, which she calls “the most trying department of housekeeping.”
“First you must gather your materials, namely: plenty of soft water, lye, soda, and borax. . . Two wash-forms are needed; one for the two tubs in which to put the suds, and the other for bluing and starching-tubs. Four tubs, of different sizes, are necessary; also, a large wooden dipper, (as metal is apt to rust;) two or three pails; a grooved washboard; a clothes-line, (sea-grass or horse-hair is best;) a wash-stick to move clothes when boiling, and a wooden fork to take them out. Soap-dishes, made to hook on the tubs, save soap and time. Provide, also, a clothes-bag, in which to boil clothes; an indigo-bag, of double flannel; a starch-strainer, of coarse linen; a bottle of ox-gall for calicoes; a supply of starch, neither sour nor musty; several dozens of clothes-pins, which are cleft sticks, used to fasten clothes on the line; a bottle of dissolved gum-arabic; two clothes-baskets; and a brass or copper kettle, for boiling clothes, as iron is apt to rust.” (Beecher, 112-113).
There may be a few items in there that you do not keep in your laundry room. Borax is a mineral deposit found in many places where there are seasonal lakes, such as the American West. As the lakes evaporate, borax is left behind. Catherine would have purchased her borax. The indigo bag (or bluing) was, in fact, blue. Catherine would have purchased it too. It came in a little bag and was made from the plant indigo or the mineral cobalt, or, after 1826, a synthetic. Its purpose was to counteract the natural yellowing of white clothes. Now I always thought that yellow plus blue equals green, but apparently it equals white. Then there’s the beef’s gall. Catherine tells you how to get that. She says “Send a junk-bottle to the butcher, and have several gall-bladders emptied into it. Keep it salted, and in a cool place. Some persons perfume it; but fresh air removes the unpleasant smell which it gives, when used for clothes” (Beecher, 116-117). Hmm. Lovely. The gum arabic was imported from West Africa.
Once you’ve assembled this mountain of equipment, you are ready to begin, and here’s what you do:
“Assort the clothes, and put those most soiled in soak the night before. Never pour hot water on them, as it sets the dirt. In assorting clothes, put the flannels in one lot, the colored clothes in another, the coarse white ones in a third, and the fine clothes in a fourth lot. Wash the fine clothes in one tub of suds. When clothes are very much soiled, a second suds is needful, turning them wrong side out. Put them in the boiling-bag, and boil them in strong suds for half an hour, and not much more. Move them, while boiling, with the clothes-stick. Take them out of the boiling-bag, and put them into a tub of water, and rub the dirtiest places again, if need be. Throw them into the rinsing-water, and then wring them out, and put them into the bluing-water. Put the articles to be stiffened into a clothes-basket by themselves, and, just before hanging out, dip them in starch, clapping it in, so as to have them equally stiff in all parts. Hang white clothes in the sun, and colored ones (wrong side out) in the shade. Fasten them with clothes-pins. Then wash the coarser white articles in the same manner. Then wash the colored clothes. These must not be soaked, nor have lye or soda put in the water, and they ought not to lie wet long before hanging out, as it injures their colors. Beef’s-gall, one spoonful to two pailfuls of suds, improves calicoes. Lastly, wash the flannels in suds as hot as the hand can bear. Never rub on soap, as this shrinks them in spots. Wring them out of the first suds, and throw them into another tub of hot suds, turning them wrong side out. Then throw them into hot bluing-water. Do not put bluing into suds, as it makes specks in the flannel. Never leave flannels long in water, nor put them in cold or lukewarm water. Before hanging them out, shake and stretch them. Some housekeepers have a close closet, made with slats across the top. On these slats, they put their flannels, when ready to hang out, and then burn brimstone under them, for ten minutes” (Beecher, 113-114).
Quite honestly this sounded like hell even before we got to the brimstone. This process will take you all day. None of these chemicals are good for the skin. They had none of your tough-on-grease, soft-on-your-hands varieties. Everyone from the Romans on mentioned something about launderer’s hands (or feet) being prone to chapping, redness, cracking, and infection. It was part of the job. You will use 50 gallons of water which means 400 pounds, every ounce of which is carried by you (Strasser, 105).
In Victorian times Monday was reserved for the gargantuan task. That’s because as terrible as the washing itself was, at least it was more or less under your control. The drying was in the hands of the weather gods. If you lived in the blessed dry heat of my original hometown, all well and good, but if you live in a place that believes in precipitation, heaven had better help you because not much else will. In theory the clothes would be dry enough to iron by Tuesday. But maybe not. Maybe rain and high humidity exist solely to torment you. Harriet Beecher Stowe certainly thought so when she wrote in an anguished letter that “the clothes will not dry and no wet thing ever does” (McFarland, 46).
If you lived in a big household, you might invest in a mangle, which was not an instrument of torture, but two rollers that you cranked (again by hand). You fed each item of clothing between the rollers and it squeezed out more water than you could get out by hand.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
But even so, it might take days for the laundry to dry. That’s why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Ma was speaking of an aspiration when she gave her version of the little poem:
Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday
The clothes had to be clean and dry to wear your best on Sunday, see? And you never knew how long that was really going to take, so you’d best start on Monday. Another take on the same idea came from a slightly more emotional angle via Mother Goose:
They that wash on Monday
Have all the week to dry;
They that wash on Tuesday
Are not so much awry;
They that wash on Wednesday
Are not so much to blame;
They that wash on Thursday
Wash for shame;
They that wash on Friday
Wash for need;
And they that wash on Saturday,
Oh, slovens are indeed!
Thanks Mother Goose, a liberal dose of guilt is just what a busy housewife needs, and I haven’t even gotten started talking about the ironing. Assuming the weather cooperates and your clothes dry overnight, are you done? No, of course you’re not. Because Tuesday we iron. In my house the iron is an electronic gadget that sits on the top shelf in the laundry and collects dust. But I have the benefit of synthetic, wrinkle-resistant fabrics and tumble drying. If you’ve squeezed every drop you can out of your 100% cotton or whatever, ironing is not nearly so skippable.
A well-equipped housewife had a set of 3 to 6 irons. You lit your fire or stove, placed a flat piece of sheet iron over it, put your irons on that to heat up. Meanwhile you took your dry clothes and dampened them. Yes, the ones you just hoped and prayed would dry, you get them slightly wet.
When the irons are hot, you try one out on a piece of spare cloth because if it’s too hot, it will scorch your clothes. If it’s not hot enough it won’t get the job done. Overall, ironing Tuesday was not as physically demanding as washing Monday. But in summer it would have been skin-meltingly hot and burning yourself (or a small child running amok nearby) was all too likely.
Overall, laundry really was the worst task. Studies have shown that when women had any discretionary income, this is exactly where they spent it: paying someone else to do the laundry (Strasser, 105).
But other help was on the horizon. The 19th century saw thousands of patents for different washing machines, eight of which were actually available to American women by the end of the century. You generally had to feed it one item at a time, hand crank, and haul just as much water as before (Strasser, 116).
The first electric machine for homes hit the market in 1914. So goodbye to cranking, but it still didn’t fill or drain itself, and it definitely didn’t spin dry. Even so, women cottoned on to this idea quickly. By 1921, 70% of all washing machines were electric and by the end of the 20s, 44% of all American nonfarm homes with electricity had one (Strasser, 119).
After World War II, production exploded and ads convinced American women to buy not their first washing machine, but an upgrade to their current one. The new instructions (according to the ads) were “put ’em in—set the dials—take ’em out. For the Laundromat is automatic!—it fills itself with water, washes, rinses, spins the clothes amazingly dry and shuts itself off” (Strasser, 268). American women were deeply impressed.
According to historian Susan Strasser, the automatic washer did not actually reduce laundry time. It only restructured it because American women did laundry all the time now, not just on Monday. They owned more clothes, and they washed them more, and they still had to hang everything dry (Strasser, 268). Dryers grew in functionality and popularity later than washers, but American women began purchasing them in large numbers in the late 40s and 50s.
If you notice I keep harping on the word American it is because the world was still chock full of women doing laundry in the more traditional manner. In 1958, only 3.2% of Japanese women had a washing machine (Klaffke, 196). As late as the 1970s, an enormous number of rural women in China were still using lye as their only clothing detergent (Eyferth).
Even today there are places where washers and dryers are scarce. The Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai is a famous open-air laundry, employing thousands of men to wash clothes by hand. There’s even a Guinness World Record for most number of people to hand wash clothes in a single location at the same time (Most People Hand-Washing Fabrics). When I lived in Europe, I had a washer, but not a dryer, which was not unusual there. There are still some even in the United States who do not live in a building or community with electricity and running water, most notably on the reservations. Not all women are living a laundry dream.
If you do own your own washer and dryer, then you are lucky beyond the wildest imagination of your foremothers. But every silver lining has a cloud and believe it or not, there are a few downsides to relieving women of the worst of their tasks. Not so many that I’m heading back out to the creek with my washing bat, but a few. Monday morning at the stream, lavoir, well, or pump used to be a social time for women, as everyone was there. Neighbors chatted as they hung their laundry in the back yard. The work was exhausting, but some women took pride in their skill. It took knowledge and experience to get your whites brilliant and your collars stiff. Nowadays, I get neither a social experience nor a thrill of accomplishment from doing my laundry. As we’ll see throughout this series, the growth of technology was good for women in countless ways, but it also made the housework more isolated and less valued.
For poor women laundry was a source of income. Large numbers of single women could get jobs either in the homes of the wealthy or (later on) in commercial laundries. Even larger numbers of married women made side money or in some cases entirely supported their families by taking laundry in. Hard work, yes, but you were still your own boss and it dovetailed nicely with caring for your own home and family. The rise of home washing machines coincided with other job opportunities for single women. But for married women? Not so much.
So there were downsides to be sure, but none of that convinces me to break out a washboard. If laundry is on your to-do list today, I hope you enjoy it just a little bit more for knowing just how bad it could have been.
Beecher, Catherine E. Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1873, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/55734/55734-h/55734-h.htm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.
Bradley, M. “It all comes out in the wash: Looking harder at the Roman fullonica,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 15 (2002), 21-44.
Eyferth, Jacob. “Less for More: Rural Women’s Overwork and Underconsumption in Mao’s China.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 41 (2015): 65–84. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26273630.
Flohr, Miko. “Cleaning the Laundries Report of the 2006 Season.” Rivista Di Studi Pompeiani 18 (2007): 131–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44291156.
Flohr, Miko. The World of the Fullo: Work, Economy, and Society in Roman Italy. United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2013.
“History of Starching Clothing and Household Linen – Middle Ages, Renaissance, Victorian Starch Products.” Oldandinteresting.com, 21 July 2010, oldandinteresting.com/laundry-starch-history.aspx. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.
Klaffke, Pamela. Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping. Vancouver, B.C., Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003.
Mcfarland, Philip. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Grove Pr, 2008.
“Most People Hand-Washing Fabric Simultaneously (Single Location).” Guinness World Records, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-people-hand-washing-clothes-simultaneously-(single-location). Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.
“Poem: They That Wash on Monday by Mother Goose.” Www.poetrynook.com, http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/they-wash-monday. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.
“Soaps & Detergents History | the American Cleaning Institute (ACI).” Cleaninginstitute.org, American Cleaning Institute, 2017, www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/why-clean/soaps-detergents-history. Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.
Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. 1932. New York, Harper Collins, 1971.