In our day, doing laundry is a task that can be sandwiched between other commitments. Our labor is little; we throw clothes into the washer and then the dryer; we hang them up or fold them; once in a while we iron something. Our modern conveniences make this possible - our electric appliances and our wash-and-wear clothes.
Our counterparts a hundred years ago did not have it so easy. Before the turn of the century, a woman's work in general was not only extremely time-consuming, leaving her little time for anything else, but also physically exhausting.Laundry, of all women's chores, was the most hated and the one for which she would most often (if she had the money) hire help. One woman called it "the herculean task which all women dread." Just one wash, one boiling and one rinse used about 50 gallons of water, weighing 400 pounds. This water had to be lugged in buckets from a well or pump (or faucet for some) to the fireplace or stove to be heated and then to the washtub. The clothes made of natural fibers were heavier than the synthetics and blends used today. They had to be wrung out between each change of water; the water had to be continually dumped and refilled for the many washes and rinses of each batch of clothes.
In most households, an entire Monday was spent washing. Monday was generally chosen because most people changed their outer clothes on Sunday. Washday put the entire family in upheaval. The meals were cold and other housework went undone. Children probably had irritable mothers that day.
Dirty clothes had been put to soak Saturday night to get a head start on the job, and Monday morning began early. The white cottons and linens, which made up the bulk of the wash (bed linens, men's shirts, table linens, underclothes, nightclothes, children's dresses, etc.), were either wrung out by hand after their soak or put through a hand-turned wringer. Then they were put back into the large metal washtub, which was refilled with warm soapy water. If soft rainwater wasn't used, a water softener such as borax or lye was added.
Today we use powdered detergent, which pours conveniently from a box; 100 years ago, women used bar soap, which had to be scraped into a small amount of hot water, mixed and dissolved, and the gel added to the washwater. This bar soap was available in stores, ready-made, or could be homemade by boiling together lye, made from rainwater and ashes, and grease, saved from the family's meals. Some women even used parts of alkali plants such as soapwort or yucca in place of soap. (In some southern Utah settlements women used yucca plants for their laundry, as well as for shampooing their hair.) Bleaching agents such as saltpeter were often added to the washwater.
In today's washing machines, agitators swish the clothes around in the water to get them clean, but then, women had to rub and rub the clothes, usually with a washboard, to get them clean. There might be one soapy wash or two, and then the clothes went into a big kettle of boiling, soapy water to bleach them white. Then they were carefully rinsed to get rid of all traces of soap and cleaning agents. This was necessary to prevent the harsh chemicals from making holes in the fabrics. Blueing (ultramarine or indigo dye) was added to the final rinse to further help these whites keep their whiteness. Then the clothes that needed extra stiffness were dipped in starch, made at home from potatoes.
Colored clothes had their unique challenges, as dyes then weren't colorfast. Specific chemicals could be used as color fixatives for different colors. Colored clothes weren't boiled or bleached, as were the whites.
Woolens (used in winter underwear and many outer clothes) had to be handled delicately or they would shrink and mat. They could not be soaked and had to be washed in tepid water. Silks were home dry-cleaned with strong chemicals.
After washing, the clothes were hung outside to dry. Sun was nature's bleach for the whites, but the colored clothes were hung in the shade. Winter or summer, the clothes were hung out on the line, and certainly this task was more pleasant in the summer. Only when it was raining did women sometimes hang things inside, and if so, the family had the misery of wet clothes hanging around and above them.
Tuesday was ironing day. Women dampened the clothes, let them partially dry and then ironed them. The irons had to be held with a piece of cloth covering the hot metal handle. Some had wooden handles. The irons didn't retain heat very long; if one owned only one iron, there would be many pauses to reheat the iron. Those with more than one iron could have one heating on the cast-iron stove while another was being used and could iron virtually without stopping.
Today, because of wash-and-wear clothes, we find it rare to use the iron for anything but quick touch-ups, but for great-grandma ironing was a laborious chore. Men's shirts had to be starched just so; there were special ironing boards for women's sleeves, men's shirts, and for women's skirts and petticoats (they wore several at a time). There were even special ironing boards for the rows of delicate frills and lace that decorated so much of the clothing. In movies and TV we see 19th century wom-en wearing gorgeous, elegant dresses - but rarely do we stop to think what it would be like to iron one of them.
Stain removal was an art and a science to the women living then. We try to remove the stains and, if unsuccessful, throw an item of clothing away; but these women, of necessity, had to know how to make their clothes last. The clothes represented a great investment of time and care, if sewn by themselves, or of money if ready-made. The women were familiar with the fabrics and types of stains. Removing stains was done prior to washing. Ink from pens, candle wax, dust and mud from the roads were just some of the stains the homemaker had to contend with. Food substances such as egg white, egg yolk, cream of tartar, and rhubarb were used to get out specific types of stains. Even chemicals that we would now consider too dangerous to use, were used for stain removal. Examples: benzene, chloroform, lead acetate, hydrocloric acid and oxalic acid were in common use. Women were warned not to use some of these things if they had any sores or broken skin on their hands, as they could be absorbed into the body.
By the time washday and ironing day were finally over, women probably breathed a sigh of relief. One author (in 1900) tried to find a brighter side to the whole business and wrote:
Soap and rub, sing and scrub,
Sing at the washing-tub,
Joyful in drudgery, queen of your toil!
Could the woman of 1888 see us in 1988, she would call us truly liberated.