History of laundry

Rivers, rocks, washing bats, boards

Washing clothes in the river is still the normal way of doing laundry in many less-developed parts of the world. Even in prosperous parts of the world riverside washing went on well into the 19th century, or longer in rural areas – even when the river was frozen. Stains might be treated at home before being taken to the river. You could take special tools with you to the river to help the work: like a washing bat or a board to scrub on. Washing bats and beetles were also useful for laundering elsewhere, and have been used for centuries, sometimes for smoothing dry cloth too.16th century laundry.jpg

Squarish washing bats could double up as a scrub board. Simple wooden boards can be taken to the riverside, or rocks at the edge of the water may be used as scrubbing surfaces.  Two other techniques for shifting dirt are slapping clothes or trampling with bare feet. washerwomen renaissance.jpg

Lye, bucking, soaking

Soaking laundry in lye, cold or hot, was an important way of tackling white and off-white cloth. It was called bucking, and aimed to whiten as well as cleanse. Coloured fabrics were less usual than today, especially for basic items like sheets and shirts. Ashes and urine were the most important substances for mixing a good “lye”. As well as helping to remove stains and encourage a white colour, these act as good de-greasing agents.

treading laundry.jpg

Bucking involved lengthy soaking and was not a weekly wash. Until the idea of a once-a-week wash developed, people tended to have a big laundry session at intervals of several weeks or even months. Many women had agricultural and food preparation duties that would make it impossible for them to “waste” time on hours of laundry work every week. If you were rich you had lots of household linen, shirts, underclothing etc. and stored up the dirty stuff for future washing. If you were poor your things just didn’t get washed very often. Fine clothing, lace collars and so on were laundered separately.

Soap, mainly soft soap made from ash lye and animal fat, was used by washerwomen whose employers paid for it. Soap was rarely used by the poorest people in medieval times but by the 18th century soap was fairly widespread: sometimes kept for finer clothing and for tackling stains, not used for the whole wash. Starch and bluing were available for better quality linen and clothing. A visitor to England just before 1700 sounded a little surprised at how much soap was used in London:

(reference from: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/history-of-laundry.aspx)

wooden washtubs.jpg

Tools for laundry by hand

– A wash tub

– Bar of laundry soap

– A wash board – made for washing, not decoration

– clothing line and racking for drying
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