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Washday Blues: how did they keep clean?

February 10, 2011

    Until fairly recently washing was a difficult and physically demanding job.  In the Tudor period outer garments belonging to the wealthy could not easily be washed, only brushed and aired for freshness, sometimes being hung in the approach to a (private rather than communal) garderobe so that the ammonia fumes would disinfect clothes from infestations.  The fine fabrics;  silks,  brocades and velvets, would not stand up to the harsh alkaline soaps available. As  the fashions of the day demanded slashed, embroidered and padded garments   sometimes stuffed with bran or card these were worn until they were  either too unsavoury or too unfashionable.  They were then discarded after anything reusable like trims had been removed and entered an active second hand clothes market.  At a time when every item of clothing was   hand made from beginning to end clothing was a valuable commodity and the poor had few scruples about stripping bodies or stealing clothes let alone buying used clothing.

The fabric used next to the skin was usually linen.  This was because it  could resist the tough washing process in the days before deodorants.  In order to loosen grease and dirt the clothes were first bucked.  This   involved soaking them in tubs of lye, a harsh alkaline made from water  which had been repeatedly  trickled through wood ash.   Sometimes the clothes were layered  up, balanced on sticks, in a large barrel ( a buck tub) and the buck was patiently poured through them a number of times. This is a possible origin of the term ‘passing the buck’.

The next process was the actual washing to remove the lye before it caused damage to the material.  Clothes were taken to the nearest stream or river and either batted with wooden poles (washing bats) or trodden – a process still done in some parts of the world.  Soap might also be   used to remove stubborn marks.

Another well known bleaching agent, and one that was freely available to all was human urine. Men can apparently produce a stronger and more efficient liquid than women, and once allowed to stand for a few days in an open bucket this ammoniated very efficiently. Dirty clothes would be allowed to soak in this before furthering laundering with soap. Back in the time of the Romans, urine was considered so valuable to the laundry trade that great tubs were left on street corners for passers by to fill and the unpleasant job of the laundresses was to walk the dirt out of the clothes by treading them whilst in the urine. In fact it was only during the twentieth century that remote crofts in Harris stopped having a peetub outside the back doors as the urine was still used to full the world famous Harris tweed.

Some soap was made at home or by itinerant soap makers.  It involved boiling animal fat, most usually mutton, in vats of lye. When the mixture had reduced and started to harden it was either shaped by hand or poured into wetted moulds to dry and harden properly. The process was smelly, messy and potentially dangerous and produced a harsh, caustic alkaline soap. Sometimes the mixture would be reboiled more than once and be sieved and pressed before  scents were added if the mixture was for personal use.  In 1524 it was   recorded as costing  1d per pound and soap makers could be fined for  selling  their soap ‘too wet’ so that it weighed more.  Country folk boiled  up saponaria or soapwort to give a frothy and slightly greasy feeling cleansing lather which, when in bloom produces a delicate scent.

Clothes then had to be dried.  Although there is evidence of line drying by the late 17th century, before then clothes were spread on bushes or laid or pegged out in  communal drying fields, like Moorfields or Spitalfields in London.  In the 1570‘s records   for Southampton show a man sentenced to have his hands chopped off for stealing clothes from the communal fields which shows how the clothes were valued and the seriousness of the crime. Clothes pegs were not invented until late in the 18th century and underwent a number of changes in design. They were usually hawked from door to door by journeymen peddlers or travellers.

For the most part, from medieval times onwards, clothes were kept in presses or chests. Only the wealthy had clothes to spare, and for them it was customary to save up the washing and then devote a few days to doing a ‘grete wash’: even the size of the laundry could become a means of showing status! Curiously, to us, a great wash often took place during the coldest weather, and at full moon. This may seem like old wives’ tales, but it was believed that the sun could ‘set’ or fix a stain in clothes, but moonlight could bleach it. Having an elderly velvet and brocade garment with grease stains round the neck I once tried this and the result was surprisingly efficient. The combined effect of a sharp dry frost and the moon certainly loosened the dirt, and once the garment had thawed out (clothes can go stiff in frost and cracking them causes damage) most of the marks could be brushed out.

Right up to Edwardian times, if you look closely at paintings and even photos, formal dinner tables did not have beautifully smooth tablecloths over them: they clearly show crisp fold lines from where they have been stored in linen cupboards. The same was true of linen garments and aprons. Irons were a development of the Industrial Revolution. By the middle of the nineteenth  century most homes of even moderate means would have had one or two that could be heated before the range. For large houses with dedicated laundries, there were stoves with fittings around which could hold a vast array of differing sizes of iron, from goose irons weighing 5lb or more (for tweeds and heavy tailored items) right down to dainty ones only a few inches long for ironing baby clothes, lace and ruffles. Amelia Potts is a lady inventor worth mentioning as she invented the only significantly differently shaped iron: it has a double ended point so it looks more like a boat which makes it very efficient in use. Many of these irons also had wooden handles which acted as insulators. Other variants include the slug iron which had an insert to be heated before the fire – supposedly cleaner but more fiddly.

Smoothing stones made of glass were known, certainly by the 18th century. Mangles were originally used to remove wrinkles from material and to press in folds and were huge wooden affairs, filled with large stones that were moved on rollers. The heavy iron and wooden roller mangles that date from the mid 19th century were still in use in many homes up to the start of World War 2.

wooden roller mangle, photographed at Gressenhall working farm and museum, Norfolk

wooden roller mangle, photographed at Gressenhall working farm and museum, Norfolk

Even in the 1930s it was still a common sight to see these wheeled out into yards for use on washday. They were extremely efficient as wringers and became used principally to remove surplus water from laundry, especially the heavy sheets. However, their one disadvantage when used with wet washing was their tendency to leave wood stains so it was customary to wrap wet washing in a piece of Holland cloth, or plain undyed linen, to prevent this happening. The heavy mangles in their turn were superseded by more lightweight versions, with a collapsible A frame which would hold a zinc tub and adjustable rubber rollers.

Acme wringer being demonstrated at an event

Acme wringer being demonstrated at an event

Advertising during World War 2 exhorts any evacuated mother who owned one of these ACME wringers to take it with them to their place of evacuation where it would ensure instant popularity. Given that most evacuees had to travel quite a distance to safety, carrying one of these would also ensure a bad back for the rest of the war, too.  After the war, during the 1950s and 60s, there were advances in petrochemical applications and the use of modern detergents became widespread, being favoured over the traditional soapflakes. It spelt death for the faithful wringers, as detergent residues reacted with the rubber rollers and made them granulate and disintegrate. However, by then the spin dryer had developed as had more efficient electric washing machines, and the two became incorporated into one labour saving gadget.

The old children’s song ‘Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron’ tells us it took all week to complete the tasks associated with laundry: Monday, washing. Tuesday, hanging out, Wednesday, starching. Thursday, ironing, Friday, folding and Saturday, airing of her linen –oh, that the poor maid only has Sunday when she goes to church when she can enjoy all the hard work. Admittedly this is an exaggeration, but what with sorting and soaking, scrubbing, drying, starching (which I haven’t touched on yet) ironing, folding away with lavender and mending, laundry certainly used to be far more arduous than it is today

View of the Acme wringer showing the moveable side flaps that directed run off water into the tub beneath

View of the Acme wringer showing the moveable side flaps that directed run off water into the tub beneath

  1. Hanna Lessinger permalink

    In Sicily, as late as the 1950s, convents doing a “great wash” that sounds very like the medieval/Tudor procedure added bay leaves to the water in which clothes were soaked to alleviate the somewhat sour smell that clothes soaked in soapy water for long periods develop. See the memoire “Bitter Almonds”.

    • sjstockdale permalink

      Thank you for adding this. I have no evidence either way to suggest whether this was a common practice though bay trees were grown in monastic gardens because of their medicinal qualities.

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