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Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Laundry the old way


I was fortunate perhaps to be raised in a time and place by an old fashioned family when learning to hand wash was considered an essential as well as having a twin tub.  If this was out of commission however water was heated either on the range or in the copper.
We  had an electric copper – essentially a big zinc barrel on three legs with a heating element and a tap – but I was made familiar by tales with the copper in the shared wash house that was a big vat over an enclosed fire, built of brick but otherwise not unlike the stoke hole of a steam train. 
There was no ‘delicates’ setting in a vat of boiling water so learning to dip off water and what temperature was required for each garment was just a part of life. 
So I learned first hand the skills with which Jane Austen would have been equally familiar and probably hated just as much.
In the pantry was a bar of green soap much the same as the bars of soap sold in the Regency; it was a pre-war piece of kit, and as there were in my youth bars sold as bars it had just got left there, a foot or so of soap off which it had once been customary to saw a bar as one needed it.   We also had Reckitt’s blue bag [incidentally containing the same ingredients as are nowadays included in washing powders that wash whiter than white] which imparted a blue lustre to the wash and counteracted yellow stains of sweat.  This was however a modern piece of kit that had not made its first appearance until 1850.   However the use of a blueing agent to disguise yellow stains was known of at least as early as the 18th century, called stone blue.  [Amelia Chambers, The ladies best companion; or, a golden treasure for the fair sex (1775)]

 washboard, washing tub and dolly

Washing involved wetting the soap and rubbing up a lather; we lived at first in an area of soft water and had no need to add a splash of vinegar to the water to get a lather up as we had to once we had moved.  The most heavily soiled areas of the washing were thoroughly rubbed with soap; some of these may have been already soaking to lift stains, plain water for most stains, cold water with salt for blood.   Soap had been  grated into the hot water of the wash tub and beaten to a lather with the washing stick [I was very glad to use soap flakes when we moved to a big town and could get them easily] and into this the soaped washing went.  Then it was a question of rubbing the fabric against itself and for those stubborn stains up and down on the washing board. After this it must be wrung out – it’s a knack to twist with the wrists to wring efficiently, some people never get it however strong their wrists are – and set in the big butler sink to have the pump worked vigorously to rinse it well.  We missed the pump in town.  Also in the area of hard water the final rinse had to have vinegar in or the hard water inhibited softness in the garments.  Then wrung out again and pegged on the line to dry.
We never had a washing dolly – an implement like a small three-legged stool on a pole to pound the washing with – but my great-great grandmother, who took in washing  between acting as local midwife had had one, and I learned about it by word of mouth.  She also kept the ‘whites bag’: spare nightdresses, a sheet or two and baby clothes for those families too poor for the mother to have a second nightgown or pair of sheets  when they had been soiled by her lying in or to have clothes for a new baby.
They were a rough bunch some of those to whom my GGgrandmother gave her services; my great grandmother used to assist her mother – before she grew up and married a Master Baker – and when she was thirteen a man came in to find his wife in the throes of birth and unable to give him his marital rights so he said to my great gran ‘you’ll do’ and started undoing his trousers.
My great gran, who subsequently reared suffragettes, promptly bit the offending article. 
Not perhaps entirely germane to the business of laundry; and yet perhaps indicative of country attitudes to the level in society of a washerwoman whose daughter was definitely not considered inviolate, when that girl’s father was permanently disabled from the exigencies of his harsh life as a fisherman.

Note; even in the Regency, washing was generally dried by being laid on the grass outside rather than pegged on a washing line. No such thing as a clothes peg until at least the 1830’s…….

Right, down to the nitty gritty.
Frankly most of these notes are going to be as germane to the Medieval, Renaissance or Regency period and all points in between; right up to the invention of washing machines and modern washing powders, and actually if you have real silk garments, eschewing the modern conveniences and using a few tips below is going to lengthen the life of those garments.
 So let’s start with the luxury fabrics that are too expensive to spoil in the wash. 
This covers velvet before the era of velveteen/ velveret etc and brocades and some damasks.
Silk is an animal fibre and so is susceptible to rotting by strong alkali substances – like most lyes or soaps.  Wool survives if well rinsed but silk is more tender. Oh and by the way another strong alkali substance is sweat so be aware armpits are going to rot if not properly treated.  This is the major reason that linen chemises were worn – to soak up the sweat and protect expensive overgarments which were frankly laundered as little as possible.  Visible stains were dealt with and otherwise, unless the clothes stood up and begged they were left severely alone.
Small stains might be rubbed with fuller’s earth moistened with lye to lift them.

How do you launder silk though, I hear you ask?  Easy actually, if fiddlesome and potentially expensive.  Soak the stained area – and this works very well on sweat stains – overnight in warmed white wine or white wine vinegar.  The acid of the vinegar or wine counteracts the alkaline sweat if anyone is interested.  It is then sponged off with a damp sponge or cloth.  Stubborn stains could be rubbed gently using soapwort which is nothing like as harsh as lye based soap and washed out in cold water.
Why cold?  Because some of the dyes were likely to run and this was more likely in
warm or hot water.  Satin stains with water marking so dealing with a stain in a place that showed was a drastic business indeed, because either the whole garment had to be wetted – potentially a problem for having colours run into each other – or one had to put up with a line where the wetting extended to.
And then of course it would need ironing and silk burns at a low temperature, not forgetting that velvet must be ironed face to face with other velvet so as not to lose the pile. 
Wearing anything made of silk became a statement ‘I am so rich I have servants to do everything, I don’t need to get dirty’.
Even so, seriously stained garments were ‘turned’ if there was no other way to hide a stain, where damask obviously was more economical than brocade, since a damask has the reverse pattern on its back, and brocade has the floating wefts.  When brocades and cloth of tissue with metal threads in could not be made over any more they were burned to recover the metal in Renaissance times; by the Regency the occupation of ‘drizzling’ or shredding gold braid or brocade had come into use as a means for an indifferent needlewoman to occupy her hands in reclaiming the gold threads.

Wool is another animal fibre and is equally susceptible to sweat and strong lyes as silk; though being a harder-wearing fibre it can take a lye-based soap because it will take being ruthlessly beaten, whacked, rubbed, rinsed out and wrung.   Some wools are finer and need more gentle treatment than others of course.  Wool cannot be washed at a high temperature as it will degrade and shrink so this is something a laundress must be aware of.  The custom in the Renaissance was to use cold or tepid water.   Mrs Rundell [1806] recommends for the preservation of flannel and to prevent shrinkage to pour on boiling water the first time of washing and let it cool on its own but I confess to being dubious of this.
A high quality wool should have been through so many processes of being shrunk and stretched in being well fulled that it ought not to deform unless ill treated. It is however susceptible to pulling out of shape when wet and by the time we get to the Regency those form-fitting coats by Weston or Scott need to be treated with care.

Linen is a vegetable fibre and can survive boiling water; those chemises and drawers – drawers were worn off and on throughout history -  could be ruthlessly boiled to regain their whiteness. 
Mrs Rundell gives some examples of how to get stains out of Linen.

"Acid stains wet the part, and lay it on some salt of wormwood.  Then rub it without diluting it with more water. Another way: let the cloth imbibe a little water without dipping, and hold the part over a lighted match [NOT what we would think of as a match]: the spot will be removed by the sulphurous gasses. Another way: tie up in the stained part some pearl-ash[potash baked in a kiln]; then scrape some soap into cold soft water to make a lather and boil the linen till the stain disappears.
Wine, fruit etc after they have been long in the linen. Rub the part on each side with yellow soap.  Then lay on a mixture of starch in cold water, very thick; rub it well in and expose the linen to the sun and air till the stain comes out.  If not removed in three or four days, rub that off, and renew the process.  When dry, it may be sprinkled with a little water. 
Many other stains may be taken out by dipping the linen in sour buttermilk and drying in a hot sun.  Then wash it in cold water and dry it, two or three times a day.
For Iron Moulds [rust stains] Iron moulds should be wetted; then laid on a hot water-plate and a little essential salt of lemons[citric acid] put on the part.  If the linen becomes dry, wet it and renew the process; observing that the plate is kept boiling hot."
Mrs Rundell adds a warning about false advertising:
"Note; Much of the powder sold under the name of salt of lemons is a spurious preparation; and therefore it is necessary to dip the linen in a good deal of water and wash it as soon as the stain is removed to prevent the part from being worn into holes by the acid.
For Mildew Mix soft soap with starch, powdered, half as much salt, and the juice of a lemon; lay it on the part of both sides with a painter’s brush.  Let it lie on the grass day and night, till the stain comes out"

 Muslins can be washed fairly hot, unless they have delicate embroidery on them when they need to be treated with more delicacy.  However the trick in keeping muslins looking nice is in the starching.  Starch can spoil the look of a delicate cloth by clogging it, so it is important to mix up a thick solution of starch and starch the muslins in it while it is still quite hot, and then with much skill clap the fabric between the hands to release the starch from between the threads.  This can damage fine lace so placing the muslin between sheets of linen to remove the excess starch and leaving it rolled within that for an hour or two until ready to iron.

Muslins of course are only to be found later on: though cotton was known about in the period of the Renaissance it was not widely used, at least not in England.  And the linen lawns would not have been starched; starch was not discovered until the middle of the 16th Century.  It enabled the very silly fashion of outsized ruffs which also necessitated the invention of the goffering iron to crimp them.

To store, brush pelts with fine oils and store in chests or between presses of cypress wood with a layer of bay leaves or pine needles. 
If wet and stiff, oil with grease, remove oil with fuller’s earth.
Remove ordinary dirt by putting in fuller’s earth or chalk or similar and beating.

I notice none of the books say anything about blood – presumably it was too indelicate a subject to mention but every woman was expected to just know how to deal with blood stains.  Now being allergic to biological washing powder I’m glad to have had that knowledge passed on: soak the stained garment overnight in cold water to which should be added a good shake of salt.  By morning the stain should have gone, though if it had dried in it might need a second treatment, or to be treated with citric acid like rust stains.


Irons were flat irons or sad irons that were heated in fire or oven [if the former needing to be wiped free of cinders] and used until they cooled down.  Naturally they must not be too hot for the fabric; silk requires a much lower temperature than wool, which is lower yet than cotton or linen. A skilled laundress could tell the temperature either by spitting onto the face of the iron and seeing how it subliminated, or by holding the plate near the back of her hand [my preferred method].
By the Regency, the idea had occurred of heating a block of stone or metal in the fire that slid inside a hollow iron.  Some had closing doors, some did not.  

There were also specialist irons for different tasks; the long narrow ‘goose’ or tailor’s iron for pressing out seams, the long narrow sleeve iron, the hatter’s iron for finishing the brim of a beaver, miniature irons for small spaces, the puff or egg iron for odd shaped, curved pieces of fabric, and the goffering iron for small pleats.  A rocking iron with a crinkled surface that pressed onto a counterpart crinkled surface introduced pleats too. 


  1. Ok, what interest me here is the notion that one would lay washing out on the grass--because if you are taking up a substantial washing task (sheets, for example), you need a considerable amount of empty, grassy space: not dedicated to agriculture, but merely open, and either unclaimed or decorative. So my question is: does this have implications for WHO'S clothes get cleaned?? Does laying sheets out on the grass automatically funtion as a tip-off that we are dealing with gentry or more comfortably situated families, who have the extra land and/or are in a position to delegate the task of washing to other women (although this was honest, albeit dangerous--thinking of your ancestor there--work for younger women in the early modern period)?? And does this mean that when clothespins do appear, and are used in the fast-growing cities, and in the rural areas, they are an automatic class marker for families without land and space??

    Thanks again for a really interesting & informative post!


  2. Generally washing was laid out on the village green, so this was common ground. In the towns this is a different matter.... one had to find land where one might.
    Beau Brummel had his laundry taken out into the country to wash [remembering that Richmond was out in the country] to avoid the smuts of the city, so washing in the city was a fraught and hazardous business in any case.
    I have to say I wonder what happened on windy days when the garments had dried just enough to fill with wind and went off like a kite.... having myself lost the odd pillowcase off the line in a stiff breeze and needing to chase them.

  3. On the village green eh? I was wondering about that because there was less common land by the sixteenth century...and urban population goes from about 10 to 20% of the European population during the early modern period...

    And is there concern about one person walking off with another's sheets...or is there an honor system that makes this difficult in a close community??

    Thanks for addressing this!