In reading Undressing Mr. Darcy, this phrase leaped off my computer screen:
Another of Beau Brummel’s innovations was the semi-starched cravat: a neck cloth folded and arranged exquisitely carefully beneath chin and shirt front. It is reported washerwoman fainted when he introduced this. And no wonder, on top of everything they had to wash, iron, and mend they now had this semi-starched neck cloth: not full starch so it could be done with all the others, no, it had to be semi starched.
Until recently I would not have singled out this phrase, but as I have been reading about scullery maids (click on link), the enormity of their tasks (and those of washer women and the lowly house maids) have begun to hit me in a real sense. Imagine cleaning dishes or doing laundry in an era when there was no running water piped into the house. The very rich might have a private cistern or well nearby, but for the majority of households during the 19th century and before, water had to be carried into the house from a distance. The town pump or well, while centrally situated in a village or city square, might not be conveniently located near one’s house. In addition to the village well, households in the country could also rely on local streams, rivers, or lakes for their source of water, but again, these bodies of water were probably located some distance away.
Whatever the chore, water had to be carried back to the house by the servants of an upper class house or by the mistress or a maid of all work of a modest household. According to Digital History, Washing, boiling and rinsing a single load of laundry used about 50 gallons of water. Over the course of a year she walked 148 miles toting water and carried over 36 tons of water. Homes without running water also lacked the simplest way to dispose garbage: sinks with drains. This meant that women had to remove dirty dishwater, kitchen slops, and, worst of all, the contents of chamberpots from their house by hand.
One can just imagine how many buckets of water were required for one hot steaming bath. It is no wonder, then, that people of that era took infrequent baths.
It is also documented that the women of those bygone days universally dreaded laundry days. In fact, because of the sheer enormity of the task, people had a habit of changing their shirts and underwear only once a week. A chemise, which was worn next to the body, was washed more frequently than a gown. These shapeless undergarments were made of white linen, muslin, or cotton so that they could take the frequent harsh treatment of boiling and pounding in lye without losing shape or color. According to Reflections on Early Modern Laundry, “undergarments were not permanently gathered at the neckline and sleeves, but made with casings and drawstrings so the garment could be laid out flat for drying and ironing.”
In the absence of electric dryers, laundry had to dry naturally. This could be a problem during cold dank winters when clothes took forever to dry. One can now understand why Beau Brummel’s penchant for wearing white, lightly starched cravats (and he often went through a bundle before being satisfied of the results) would make a laundress faint.
Here are two more descriptions of washing and doing laundry before modern conveniences took over. The first one is from Digital History:
On Sunday evenings, a housewife soaked clothing in tubs of warm water. When she woke up the next morning, she had to scrub the laundry on a rough washboard and rub it with soap made from lye, which severely irritated her hands. Next, she placed the laundry in big vats of boiling water and stirred the clothes about with a long pole to prevent the clothes from developing yellow spots. Then she lifted the clothes out of the vats with a washstick, rinsed the clothes twice, once in plain water and once with bluing, wrung the clothes out and hung them out to dry. At this point, clothes would be pressed with heavy flatirons and collars would be stiffened with starch.
The most interesting bit of information about laundering in the 19th century and before was the following excerpt from Reflections on Early Modern Laundry:
First, remember that many of the fabrics that they used, especially the wools, are things that we now usually dry-clean because they are difficult to wash. Woolen garments had to be washed separately in cold water to avoid shrinkage and pilling. I will not even address the issue of trying to clean silks, brocades, and other luxury fabrics …
Dyes were not color-fast, and fabrics shrank at different rates. If you read the descriptions of how to wash a “good” dress, the laundress started by removing the trimming and the buttons. Then she separated the lining from the garment itself (picking the seams). If the skirt was full enough that the weight of the wet fabric would cause it to stretch unevenly, she took the skirt off the bodice and took the gores apart at the seams. Then she washed it, dried it, checked to see if the lining and the garment still matched up in size, made any necessary adjustments, and sewed it back together.
Laundry: Reflections on Early Modern Laundry: This online article explains how laundry techniques hardly changed at all between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Digital History: Housework in late 19th Century America:Find a detailed description of the 19th century American housewife’s duties on this site. They are not so vastly different than those of the ordinary housewife in England.
Victorian Baths: Addresses how cleanliness and hygiene were tackled during the late 19th century.
Click on the English Heritage Site for a view of a laundry room.
Paintings of laundry maids by Henry Robert Morland, circa 1785
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