I usually complain about not having a dishwasher. I hate—hate—washing dishes! Aside from it being dreary it’s a waste of my modern-day time. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some “old school” but not when it comes to chores. Maybe you feel the same way? Maybe you really hate doing laundry? (They don’t even show the servants who do laundry on Downton Abbey—nobody wants to see that!) If so, you may not hate it as much after this nugget of perspective…
“…THE HERCULEAN TASK WHICH ALL WOMEN DREAD…”
So stated Nevada diarist Rachel Haskell in the 1860’s, and it sounds to me like it might be an understatement. Here are the steps required to properly launder clothing and linens in the nineteenth century:
Sort—by color, fabric and degree of cleanliness.
Soak—overnight in separate tubs of warm water to loosen the grime.
Drain Water—from each tub.
Heat Water—add soap (shaved off a bar) and pour over garments, scrubbing each individually on a washboard, paying extra attention to trouble spots.
Boil—insert garments into large copper boiler on stove.
Remove from Boiler—address trouble spots again.
Rinse—in plain water.
Rinse—again! But this time with bluing added to the water.
Wring—again! But this time as dry as you can.
Starch—dip garments that require stiffening in starch, then wring again—that’s four wringings per garment!
Hang—on line to dry.
Ta-da! Done! Easy-peasy! Oh wait! Remember the sorting step? That was just the cleanest clothes which you do first, while those dry, go back and do the progressively dirtier and coarser batches that you separated the day before. And since Laundry Day is Monday, you did the sorting and soaking on Sunday, the day of rest.
Why do laundry on Monday? Because Sunday is when people “changed their clothes.” I can’t quite get my head around that. Or my nose.
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK
As awful as this task seems, when we break it down, it’s even worse. No running water, gas or electricity added even more work, starting with going down to the town pump or what-have-you and hauling the water back to your home!
Water is heavy. One wash cycle used about 50 gallons of water, which weighs 400 pounds! Not to mention the bucket or wash boiler you are lugging it in weighs 40-50 pounds – no light weight plastic jobbies in the 1860’s. Obviously one can’t carry 50 gallons of water at once, so add on multiple trips to the water source and back.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
So your clothes are dry, what’s next? Ironing of course! No such thing as wrinkle-free fabrics back in the day, but that was no excuse for rumpled attire, so the day after Laundry Day was Ironing Day. Sweet.
Here is your ever-so-easy guide to ironing:
Dampen—That’s right! Dampen your dry clothes! Just sprinkle water over them either by hand or using a wet wisk broom. I vote for the broom.
Roll—the garments in a cloth and leave sit for one to twelve hours (yep, that’s a half day right there), depending on the type of fabric.
Heat—three to six irons…on sheet iron on the hearth (watch out for ashes) or on the stove.
Rub—each iron with beeswax before use.
Test—each iron when first pulled from the heat source on a piece of paper or cloth to avoid scorching clothes.
Iron—on a table or board covered with a wool ironing blanket and cotton over-sheet.
Ok, now you’re done! This “great domestic dread of the household” (our friend Rachel Haskell again) alone seems enough to limit the wardrobe size of the average family.
In fact, this task was so despised that even families of little means, given the opportunity, would source out the work.
On the bright side, waiting in line at the well provided an opportunity for socializing, and on wash day other chores were set aside…not that there would be time or energy for anything else…other than cooking of course.
Cooking is also a “favorite” of mine, likely due to my aversion to washing dishes. Now that I realize I don’t have to haul and boil the water I use, maybe doing dishes isn’t so bad after all! When it comes to housekeeping, I am truly a twenty-first century gal.
What’s your least favorite chore? What are some things you really appreciate about life today? Share in the comments!
Glenda Sparrow says
I’m exhausted just reading this! Could you research if nudist colonies were more popular during the days of washing clothes by hand?
Judith Baker says
Dishwasher? I have one in perfect working order. May have used it 3-5 times tops. For 27 years, and at a variety of addresses, I’ve always used the dishwasher as a file cabinet. The silverware feature is perfect for markers, pens, and pencils.
You have provided two topics to discuss with my mother who will be 89 yrs in July.
Thank you Christina.
Lorraine Chick says
Of course you had to dampen the clothes before you ironed but the more “modern” method of dampening was to use a sprinkler bottle. A bottle with a top that had small holes in it. You’d fill the bottle with water and pop the top on it. Hooray for permanent press and steam irons!