Posts Tagged ‘regency laundry’

The script in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1810 cartoon states:

“Ah! My old Friend I wish you had called
at some more convenient time but this is washing
day — I have nothing to give you but cold Fish, cold Tripe
& cold potatoes — you smell soap suds a mile!
Ah Jack, Jack you don’t know these Comforts!
you are a Bachelor!”

In Rowlandson’s image, two well fed men are seen smiling. The host is apologetic, for his guest will not get anything but cold collations, probably leftovers from the previous day. His wife and maid are seen toiling over a bucket, their hands probably raw and red from the effects of harsh lye soap. Neither of them will have the time to look to his comforts or make a hot meal, which is why he is apologizing to his unexpected guest. Since laundering was not considered man’s work, he had to “suffer” the lack of his wife’s and servant’s attentions until the wash was done.

Doing the wash in a stream, 1806

First Boyle all the Cloaths with soap, and then wash them..” – John Harrower, indentured servant, writing to his wife (June 14, 1774)

Doing the wash in the Regency era was no small task, and housewives had to set aside two days to perform this dreaded duty, for it meant hauling water, boiling the cottons and linens, washing them with pungent lye soap, which burnt the skin, rinsing the clothes in clean water, which meant hauling more water from the well or a nearby stream, twisting the cloths to remove as much water as possible, hanging the clothes to dry, and then praying that rain would stay away long enough for the sun to perform its duty as a dryer. If one had to do laundry in a town or city, one had to pray that coal soot would not drift upon the clean clothes in a cramped back yard before they dried.

The Victorian scullery in a fine household included a copper for boiling water, a wringer, press, and ironing board.

Doing laundry was so enormous an undertaking, that unless the household were of a great size and boasted many servants, the mistress of the house and her daughters would frequently pitch in with the servants. There were chemises to be laundered, bed and table linens, towels, shirts, muslin dresses, handkerchiefs, socks, and the like. First the clothes would have to be treated for stains, the muslins and silks most delicately. After the wash had dried, ironing would commence, another laborious task.

Drying damp clothes over chair backs in front of a fireplace. Elizabeth Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner at the Lambton Inn, Pride and Prejudice, 1980

Chemises and shirts, which were worn next to the skin, were purposefully made with sturdier cloth so that these inner garments could withstand rougher treatment and more frequent washing. People tended to own more under garments for this reason. Outer clothes were subject to less frequent laundering because they were made of finer stuff, though one must wonder at the cleanliness of trailing hems, the edges of collars and sleeves, and armpits in the days before daily baths became popular, when air conditioning was just a distant dream, and when sweat must have stained clothes in a most visible manner. Is it no wonder that a majority of the Regency fashions that have survived to this day belonged to the rich, who probably wore their fashionable outfits once or twice before purchasing others?

 For more on the topic:

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Copyright @ Jane Austen’s World

Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.
Hannah Woolley, The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677

The Last Shift, Carrington Bowles

Urine for spot cleaning? Yes, you read the first word correctly.  Since the middle ages, professionals belonging to guilds manufactured soap and candles, for both products required tallow. They traditionally manufactured soaps from sodium or potassium salt or alkalis present in plant materials, and boiled the ingredients with animal fat. In the 19th century, it was discovered how to make caustic soda from brine. Soap makers no longer relied on cut wood to make soap and the cleaning industry was never the same again.

Before innovations during the Industrial Revolution changed laundry day forever, it was generally known that that alkaline substances, such as bleach or ash, dissolved or disintegrated stains and soils, enhancing the water’s ability to clean clothes.

Urine is alkaline, and since the days of ancient Rome, this by-product of the human body was used as a bleaching agent. “Pecunia non olet — money does not stink”,  Emperor Vespasian reportedly said when he started taxing this trade.*

Yes, urine stinks. But so do bleach and vinegar, a weak acid. The stinking ingredient that turns us off and that makes urine such a good cleaning agent – ammonia – is a substance that our modern cleaning products include in abundance.**  Eighteenth century English wool manufacturers used both urine and sheep or pig manure for washing. In addition, urine also sets dye. (The seller of my beautiful little handmade rug from Turkey cautioned that its vegetable dyes were set with goat urine. Twenty years after its purchase, the rug no longer smells, but its fragile colors must be vigilantly protected from direct sunlight.)

As recently as the early 20th century, urine was collected in barrels in Japan and fermented for use in laundering. The Japanese threw the contents of their slop jar into the barrel, then separated the feces from the liquid urine. The feces were used as fertilizer to enrich the soil, and the urine was collected by laundry shops, who fermented the liquid and used it  as a bleaching agent by pounding it into the cloth. – Edible Soap, A Harmless Natural Soap for the Family. It is the fermentation process that probably made urine safe to handle, much like fermented beer or distilled alcohol were safe to drink in the days before sterilization.

Urine from the animal of choice was also used to improve the complexion. Samuel Pepys’ wife decided to try the urine of puppies (‘puppy-dog water’), for instance, in March 1664 (Diary of Samuel Pepys). This may have been less foolish than spending a hundred bucks on a small pot of modern-day moisturiser, since the ‘active’ ingredient in urine is urea, and urea creams are inexpensive, effective and regularly recommended by dermatologists. – The Thirteenth Depository: A Wheel of Time Blog

This YouTube video uses urine to demonstrate that it is as powerful a cleanser as commercial products.

More on the Topic

*The Historical Development for Washing Laundrys

**Pepys Diary

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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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