Nobody likes doing laundry. If you play a lot of sports, you probably generate your share of dirty clothes. We have a very active family. All of my kids play sports, and this past summer my oldest son also had a job working for a sculptor. All summer long he came home from work billowing with marble or granite dust. So my family generates a lot of laundry. (I made my son strip off his dusty clothes on the back porch and walk straight into the bathroom in his boxers.) If you’re a kid, I hope you help with the laundry, because it’s a really, really, boring chore and the task shouldn’t fall to just one person in your house.
It’s really only when your washing machine breaks, as ours did awhile ago, that you truly appreciate how lucky we are to have modern appliances. Yes, it’s boring to wash, dry, fold, and put away laundry, but at least we don’t have to lug the water in and out by ourselves, or plunge our work-roughened hands into boiling water filled with caustic substances, or take clothes apart and wash the delicate components and then stitch them back together.
Doing laundry has always been a chore, but it used to be a huge chore. I’m reading a fascinating book right now: Judith Flanders’ Inside the Victorian Home. She has an extensive chapter about laundry.
During the nineteenth century, doing laundry was expensive and time consuming, and a large part of a household budget. Just the amount of coal it took to boil the water all day was a major expense for many households.* If you were poor, you probably didn’t wash your clothes very often. If you were a middle class woman, and had only one servant, you and your servant probably devoted two full days per week to the task. If a family could afford a laundress to come in to the home, she had to be paid, of course, and the laundress expected perks–beer three times a day and gin and water at night.** Or, in parts of our country, the awful task of laundry was done by slaves.
As Bill Bryson points out in his amazing book, At Home, laundry staff in a good-sized English household might have to deal with six or seven hundred items of clothing or linens every week. And prior to the 1850s, not only were there no detergents, there was no running water. Water had to be lugged and dumped and heated over a fire. As Bryson reports, most loads had to be soaked in soapy water or lye for hours, “then pounded and scrubbed with vigor, boiled for an hour or more, rinsed repeatedly, wrung out by hand or (after about 1850) fed through a roller, and carried outside to be draped over a hedge or spread on a lawn to dry.” And delicate stuff like velvet or lace often had to be taken apart, washed separately, and then sewn back together. Linens were often soaked in stale urine (which contains ammonia), or in a diluted solution containing poultry dung, which would bleach the fabric. But then everything had to be rewashed to get the smell out.
Before detergents were available, a bar of soap had to be shaved, cut into pieces, and dissolved in boiling water to form a jelly, which was then rubbed into the linens. “Blueing” was used to counteract yellowed whites and make them white again. Just imagining the amount of wringing out, rinsing, wringing out again, boiling, wringing out, draping, makes my head pound. Add to that items with impermanent dyes, shrinkable woolens, delicate muslins, all of which had to be treated differently and carefully.
Then came the starching and the ironing.