Thursday, March 30, 2017

Eighteenth Century Laundry Day

by Kathy Fischer-Brown

In my last post I discussed some of the more fascinating aspects of researching and writing historical fiction. You might even remember my mention of how incorporating details from the research into the writing helps bring the period and setting alive for me as well as for the reader. These details also go a long way toward keeping the characters in their place and time—and the author from creating annoying anachronisms. These aspects of dress, furniture, food and its preparation, travel, and accomplishing the day-to-day tasks, which we today might take for granted, are among those little motes that add to the “feel” of the time.

This has never been more true when you consider how laundry was done back in the mid- to late 1700s. Here in the early 21st century, tossing a load of wash into a machine (top loading or the newer, more efficient front loaders), adding your choice of liquid or powdered detergent, softener and whitener is pretty much a no brainer. The cleansing agent even comes with its own handy measuring cup; temperature settings involve nothing more than the turn of a dial (or press of a button), as does the size of the load and water level. In many cases, you can even choose an extra rinse or spin. When the load is finished, the machine beeps, lest you’ve gone on to something else in the 20-or so minutes it takes for the cycle to complete and let it slip your mind. Then you toss the whole mass of t-shirts, socks, towels, and what-not, into the other machine; add a dryer sheet; set the temperature (for wash and wear, permanent press, or delicate); flip the switch; and for another 30-40 minutes you can play ball with the dogs in the yard, run to the supermarket for those much-needed ingredients for your mid-week supper, or catch up on the latest episode of the TV show you’d DVR’d the night before. (Or on my case, you research some more and/or write.)

Even with these modern conveniences as a part of my life, I hate doing laundry. But while writing the opening scene of Where the River Narrows, my contribution (along with Ron Crouch) to BWL’s “Canadian Historical Brides” series (Quebec), I realized just how lucky I am.

First, consider how difficult a task it was to schlep and heat enough water to wash bed linens, under garments, shirts, tablecloths, and a host of incidentals for a considerably sized family and their servants. Consider also that “wash day” (with these and other complications) was more likely a monthly affair rather than the two- or three-times a week event here in the present. And then consider that, even as it was an all-day, coordinated event, it had to be done, and was done in all seasons and all weather.

From an interesting site ( I found when looking into this aspect of the life of Elisabeth Van Alen (the book’s heroine), I found the following:

Water would have been carried to the boiling cauldron in buckets carried on the shoulders with a yoke. Assuming that each of these buckets holds 2 ½ gallons, the laundress would be able to transport 5 gallons per trip. … The boiler used to hold the heated water generally held 20-40 gallons of water per individual load, thus requiring a minimum 4 trips per load of laundry. (Not including 10 more gallons for the scrub and rinse water!)

Fortunately for Elisabeth, her family home is situated on the Mohawk River, with a creek flowing down from the hills on the east side of their house. But this little treatise from the Woodville Plantation in Bridgeville, PA, also points out that fire was vital to heating this water, along with the trials and tribulations of amassing enough wood:

Generally on wash day, the laundress and her crew would awaken at 4:30 AM in order to gather wood and prepare the fires used to heat the water. On an average day, cooking fires would require approximately 30 large pieces of wood to prepare all three meals for the day. The amount used on laundry day would most likely be double that amount, or 50-60 large pieces of wood. Laundry fires were generally larger, and the heavier, knotty wood chunks that were unsuitable for the controlled cooking fires would have been used during the laundering process. Assuming that a large piece of split wood weighs approximately 3 pounds, an 18th century laundress would be required to move 150-200 pounds of wood, prior to even beginning the task at hand.

Then there was the matter of soap. Or the lack of it. And getting out stains (no miracle spray leave-on-and-throw-in-the-machine wonders). 

Commercially-made soap could be bought, but it was very expensive and not always available, especially out on the New York frontier in 1774. So, this was something that was made at home (along with candles) from animal fats and the accumulated ashes from the fireplace(s). Lye was caustic and not easy on the hands, to put it mildly (no pun intended). But it did its job well. This concoction was added to the “copper,” usually a large pot that would also double as cooking vessel, which was placed over the fire built from those unwieldy logs lugged in for the purpose and those 30-40 gallons of water hauled from the creek. It was a hot and sticky job, agitating the contents with paddles, then extricating the steaming articles, rinsing and wringing them before setting them to dry. 

The favored method of drying was to spread the wash on low-lying bushes in the sun, or laying them out on the grasssomething about the effects of chlorophyll. (Remember, this description is about what it was like during clement weather; imagine doing laundry in the depths of winter!) There were clothes lines back then, but the clothespin hadn’t yet been invented. And when everything was dry, there was the task of smoothing out the wrinkles.

The iron was an item that not every household could afford. And even if they could afford an iron, they would have to own at least two. These were flat-irons or “sad irons” (from the word “solid,” which is exactly what they were). Heavy, cumbersome beasts, they demanded to be kept close to the fire to stay hot. Which, in turn, led to the unfortunate eventuality of their picking up soot and grime, and…you guessed it…smearing smudgeif not burning holes—over the stuff you just spent the better part of the day sweating and and toiling over to get clean. One innovation of the time was the box-iron, which happily did away with scorching. These irons had a hinged door on the back and were fitted with an iron insert that could be kept hot and swapped out with another to prevent burning your linens. More common though—and a lot less hazardous—was the linen press: a table with a parallel board attached, which, when the screws were tightened over folded linens, did the job just right without hot slugs and scorching irons.

Starching was also done, a task that I am most thankful has lost its popularily. But they did it on a common basis. Without Niagara Spray Starch. Instead, they used water collected after cooking potatoes. (Fascinating how they made ample and varied use of pretty much everything they raised, produced, or created with their hands.)

Most well-to-do families of this period employed servants to do laundry and other menial chores, but Elisabeth’s family lives under extenuating circumstances. These compel her not only to supervise but to take charge and participate in many a mundane task, such as laundry, and organizing the family's meager staff. Qualities that will serve her well later on in the story when the American Revolution turns her world upside-down. When her home and lands are confiscated by Rebels, she and what remains of her family, is forced to flee to Canada. And as Shakespeare once said, “Thereby hangs a tale.

I hope you enjoyed this little journey into the past. Please check out the first installments of Book We Loves “Canadian Historical Brides series of novels. Comments are always welcome :-)

Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh’s Daughter, Courting the DevilThe Partisan’s Wife, and The Return of Tachlanad, her 2016 release, an epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of Kathy’s books are available in e-book and in paperback from Amazon, Kobo, and other online retailers.