Thursday, February 11, 2010

Washerwomen and Laundresses

While you wait at the nauseatingly retro laundromat, praying for your clothing to be fully dried so you can get home before 1:00 am, I hope I can enlighten you as to the convenience of these coin-operated communal cleaning devices. Clean clothing was a lot more inconvenient in the past which is why many people went without. A woman of wealth had many fine articles of clothing and a man of taste requires at least seven clean shirts a week. That is unless you were Charles James Fox, in which case you were lucky if he even made it outside his house in something other than his nightshirt. But for those who enjoy good hygiene, an essential article of your household would have to be a laundress or a washerwoman in the least.

Linen was to the 18th century as cotton is today. Not only was it what men's shirts were made with but also many undergarments and linens. Cleaning the pure white material was not as simple as throwing it in the wash on a warm/cold setting. Linen particularly had to be boiled in vats. Clothing also couldn't be considered clean until you had scrubbed it until your knuckles were raw. Soap, bleach, lye, and starch were used in the laundering process. The various materials also had to be dried and ironed. Some garments had to literally taken apart and sewn together again to prevent damage in the washing process. The whole process was back-breaking and extremely time consuming. If normal household servants took on the laundry for the whole house, you could depend on none of the regular tasks of the day being completed.

Due to the overall hassle of "doing the laundry" washerwomen were quite the essential. Just as our contemporary colleges provide launderettes for students to learn firsthand about mixing colors and whites, men going to university in the 18th century were provided with a laundress to keep their bed linens and clothing clean and mended. Of course this meant any young laundresses with easy access to bachelors' dorms were common victims to upper class charms and would find themselves doing more than laundering.

But beside resisting the charms of dashing young students, being a laundress or washerwoman wasn't the worst way for a woman to make a living. There was always a steady stream of work, and although it was difficult and time consuming it would feed you and your children. Washing and mending clothing for a living was one of the top occupations for women for around 600 years. Of course those statistics exclude the most ancient of female professions, but that was for those who couldn't take the (steaming) heat!

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS POST!
Heather, you are seriously like a celebrity at my book club.

K. L. said...

Oh la, if one based opinion on the paintings alone, what a romantic and lovely thing, to be a washerwoman. Fair skin, gently smiling, and so clean! But in reality, as you describe it, hard work, tho steady. Think of the muscles you could develop! Thanks for another wonderful post. Katherine Louise

nightsmusic said...

We had a clothesline and wringer washer until I bought my mother an automatic washer when I was 30. Though the wringer made it easier to get most of the water out of the clothes, the water itself had to be carted, heated, drained and everything ironed. Everything.

You have no idea how much I appreciate my washing machine :o)

Heather Carroll said...

@Anon, *Blush* I must say, I quite like the idea of a book club celeb! Now I'll be strutting around like a rake all day. I'm glad you liked the post!

@KL, Yes Henry Morland had an obvious fetish based on his paintings. I can only imagine what he had his poor wife doing! She probably hated the sight of laundry!

@NightMusic, Wow I can't even imagine! It takes me long enough to do my laundry the easy way!

Muse in the Fog said...

What an awesome and interesting post...as usual :)

Ms. Lucy said...

I love your writing:) The ending in particular had me in stitches!

I would love to hire a launderess- I so need help with my laundry! And college boys needing a launderess- that is special indeed. Can you imagine that today? Hi mom...who..oh yeah, the girl..she's the launderess I told you about;
Great post.

Heather Carroll said...

Why thank you! Yes, can you just imagine college boys with their own personal washerwoman? My eyes are rolling just thinking about it.

Emmeline Cartwright said...

wonderful article!

Lauren said...

Their hands do not seem raw at all!!

Leah said...

I think all their hands look rather too good to be a laundress's. But then, MEN painted them, so what do you expect? I bet THEY never did their own laundry.

Sasha said...

fantastic! No more complaints from me on laundry day!

Helen said...

Do you happen to have a source or citation for the images in this post? I am very interested in a couple and would like to find more information about them.

Heather Carroll said...

Hi Helen, the images are by Henry Robert Morland, I hope that helps!