Laundry in the Victorian Era
Keeping clothes clean in the Victorian era was no easy task.
Laundry day for Victorian women (both the lady of the house and the domestic service staff) was called “Blue Monday,” named for the bluing agent used in rinse water—but the work took days. Laundry was so strenuous a job that women were warned in household how-to books about the hazards of straining their backs and muscles while doing laundry. While wealthy families like the Fricks were able to send out their wash or hire a laundress, many were left taking on the difficult chore of laundry themselves.
Wash began on Sunday, when stained clothes were soaked overnight in warm water. In fact, getting water was, in and of itself, a hard task, especially if you didn’t have a pump in your kitchen and were forced to go to the well. Moreover, once fetched, the water had to be heated manually on the stove in a special wash boiler.
The next morning, on Monday, the clothes would be rubbed, scrubbed, and scoured in a washing tub, and often wrung out by hand. Homemade soap, made from water, wood ash, and lard, was used to clean the family’s clothes, but there were many different soap recipes for different kinds of fabric. Making the soap was a chore in iteself and the process itself could take up to a week! Many women used a “dolly,” a wooden stick with pins attached to the bottom, that fit into the tub to spin around the load of clothes. Only the dirtiest clothes, with the worst stains, were scrubbed on a washboard, because scrubbing on metal could damage fabric.
Once the clothes had been washed and wrung damp, they were hung on a clothesline outside to dry. And the task wasn’t over yet—the next day, starching and ironing had to be done before the clothes could be worn. Starch was often made at home from wheat, potato gratings, and rice. Even with starch, almost all clothes had to be ironed, a process that entailed setting “sad” irons (the Victorian meaning of “sad” was “heavy”) on the stove to heat, and then carefully ironing the clothes before the iron cooled too much. And naturally, tools had to be cleaned and floors had to be mopped after laundry was done.
As time went on, technology improved, as new kinds of irons and various types of mechanical washers were invented (the latter was received with great skepticism). To learn more about domestic life in the Gilded Age, join us this summer for a special Clayton tour, Duty and Devotion, which highlights the women of Clayton, including those working behind-the-scenes.
Blue Monday, Canada Science and Technology Museum, http://www.sciencetech.technomuses.ca/english/colleciton/wash1.cfm.
Kristina Harris, Victorian Laundry, http://www.vintageconnection.net/VictorianLaundry.htm.
Christina Walkley and Vanda Foster, Crinolines and Crimping Irons (London: Peter Owen, 1978).