Friday, September 16, 2016

The life of a laundress

Several years ago we visited a 'living museum', a house set up and furnished just as it would have been in the early 1900's. The couple who owned and occupied the house tried, as far as possible, to live as the occupants would have lived in that era. The one concession they had made to modern life was the washing machine sitting in a corner of the laundry. They admitted that washing their clothes and bedding the old fashioned way was just too much work, and they couldn't bear to wear their clothes over and over again, as people once did.

Their comments came to mind when I began looking at what the life of a laundress in the 19th century involved. My great great grandmother, Susan Whybrew (nee Mason) described herself as a laundress in the 1891 census, and several newspaper items about her make reference indirectly to this role.

It's likely, for instance, that the bundle Susan was carrying along the street when she slipped and sprained her ankle in 1899 was laundry being returned to a customer (The Essex County Standard West Suffolk Gazette, and Eastern Counties Advertiser (Colchester, England), Saturday, June 03, 1899; pg. 7).

When we see how much work was involved in being a laundress we can also perhaps understand why Susan thought her 20 year old daughter Harriet should have paid her for washing her collar and cuffs (Essex Standard, 20 October 1888, p 8) . Delicate lace collars and cuffs were usually made removable so that they could be washed, dried and starched separately, but this all added to the work load.

'Twas on a Monday morning...

Until the invention of the electric-powered washing machine in the early 1900's, washing clothes was a long, laborious task. Before the turn of the century many homes had no running water on tap, particularly in working class areas, so the water had first to be carried from a pump or well. This was likely to be at the bottom of a hill or down the street. A full wash required many gallons of water.

The water then had to  be heated in a copper, a large metal boiler set in a brick firebox in the corner of the kitchen or scullery, until it was hot enough to dissolve the soap and the grease on the clothes. The fire would be lit very early in the morning to have the water ready for the laundry after breakfast.

The clothes (which must often have been quite smelly) had to be sorted, soaked if necessary, treated for stains, then washed in a wooden tub or stone trough, using a bar of lye soap and a wooden 'dolly' to agitate and pound them. White clothes and sheets, as well as tougher, dirtier work clothes, were often boiled (separately) in the copper itself. After being put through a wringer, rinsed twice and starched, the wet clothes were wrung out and flattened using a mangle, and then hung to dry - outside in rural areas, but inside on racks in industrial areas where soot and other particles polluted the atmosphere.

Once the clothes were dry they were ironed using a heavy flat iron heated on the stove. Often several irons would be used, so that one could be in use while the others were re-heating. The whole process of soaking, washing, drying and ironing took several days, so the laundry was usually started on a Monday in order to have it done by Saturday afternoon.

Families saved up their laundry for as long as possible so that it could all be done at once, typically every few weeks if they had enough clothes to last that long. Nothing was put in the wash that could be spot-cleaned, and even underwear was worn several times before being washed. If they could afford to pay someone else to do their laundry, they did.

An unladylike occupation

Being a laundress, working independently or in a commercial laundry in one of the bigger cities, was one of the few occupations open to married women and widows. It could mean the difference between making ends meet and destitution for those without a husband's income or for women whose husbands had seasonal jobs, or who were poorly paid, as was the case for common soldiers such as David Whybrew.

Being a laundress allowed mothers to work at home and keep their children with them, though they were occupied with washing and ironing from early in the morning to late at night. The children were often used as unpaid labour to help with tasks such as carrying water, turning the mangle and hanging clothes. They also had to live with the steamy atmosphere, lines of wet washing, and the smell of damp clothes and laundry soap.

Because laundresses were often poorly educated, physically strong, independent women, who effectively ran their own businesses, they were considered 'unladylike' and lacking in social respectability. As a soldier's wife, Susan Whybrew was already pretty close to the bottom of the social heap. Being a laundress simply added another layer to her outsider status. Nevertheless, her labours helped to keep her family afloat.


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