|From 'Splendor Solis', 1531
For the last few days I’ve been preoccupied with the state of the weather. Any cloud scudding over the horizon, abruptly enfeebled sunshine or a bluster of wind could herald RAIN. We’ve run out of oil here at home, and this means that our stove is out of action and I’m missing it badly. It’s not so much the difficulty of being unable to cook (cup-a-soups were invented for moments like these, and Sunday lunch can be cooked on a fire outside). It’s not that the house is developing a dampish, bone-creeping kind of chill that reminds me of visiting decommissioned rural churches in winter, or caves… No. It’s that I can’t dry the darned washing unless conditions outside are exactly favourable.
So of course I’ve been thinking about the difficulties faced by women trying to maintain a supply of clean family linen in the past, and with a renewed respect for the vastly effortful nature of it. Laundry gets but a passing mention on the whole in contemporary accounts, for obvious reasons, but here’s a rag-bag of laundry thoughts gleaned from random corners. Some of the most ordinary domestic tasks in history seem shrouded in mystery, and laundry is no exception. But it now seems generally accepted that all but the very poorest kept the undergarments close to their bodies clean and freshly changed – the shirts and shifts and smocks and chemises known as small linen. It was the outer garments that were less frequently, if ever, washed. Brushed sometimes, shaken, sprinkled with a variety of powders and herbal mixtures, dabbed at with concoctions and remedies for stains (not enough space here today for talk of outerwear, nor bleaching, starch or indigo; maybe another time). But clean linen though, that was the sure and outward sign of a respectable housewife. Not everyone approved. Defoe complains that where ‘our grandfathers were content with shifting their linen perhaps twice a week, our nicer gentlemen have brought it to two clean shirts a day.’
Gervase Markham advises in The English Housewife (1615), ‘Let the housewife’s garments be comely, cleanly and strong’. In the kitchen ‘she must be cleanly both in body and garments’. And household linen such as bedsheets, napkins, towels and tablecloths were also to be spotless. William Harrison (1535-1593) comments in his ‘The Description of England’: ‘Our inns are very well furnished with napery, bedding and tapestry, especially with napery; for beside the linen used at the tables, which is commonly washed daily, is such and so much as belongeth unto the estate and calling of the guest. Each comer is sure to lie in clean sheets, wherein no man hath been lodged since they came from the laundress or out of the water wherein they were last washed.’
How did they do it? Bucking with lye was done first. (Lye being of course an alkaline solution made from ash and water.) Dirty linen was loosely folded into tubs or troughs and the lye poured over, soaking the cloth, then emptied, sometimes repeatedly until the liquor ran clear. (Bucking tubs were often on a stand, and had a spigot near the bottom for draining easily into a low vessel underneath.) Then, linen was rinsed in fresh water and beaten with washing bats known as beetles or battledores (which look like modern cricket or ping-pong bats) to loosen the dirt, or paddled with feet. Soap wasn’t always used - for example William Harrison mentions in his ‘Descriptions’ how ‘in some places women do scour and wet their clothes with [swine’s] dung, as others do with hemlocks and nettles, but such is the savor of the clothes touched withal that I cannot abide to wear them on my body, more than such as are scoured with the refuse soap.’ No kidding.
|From WH Payne's 'Microcosm', 1806
In England we were quite backward on the soap front – Spain and Italy were making fine soaps centuries before we’d even started basic commercial soapboiling. The cheapest sort here, unless you made it yourself, was soft and harsh ‘black soap’, stored in barrels and bought by the pound. Crown soap was a better quality of soft all-purpose soap – Benjamin Franklin has a recipe from his sister in England that sounds a bit too challenging and costly to be readily homemade: ‘eighteen bushels of ashes, one bushel of stone lime, three pounds of tallow, fifteen pounds of the purest Barbary wax of a lovely green colour and a peck of salt.’
|Jean-Francois Millet, 'Les Lavandieres'
Once thoroughly cleaned by being beaten with beetles on rocks or boards at the tub in the yard or washhouse or river’s edge, linen was squeezed or wrung out, sometimes on posts, and then set to dry – usually on the open grass, or draped across bushes or hedges, or poles. Sometimes (particularly when inside or in great-house laundries), clothes horses were used, called variously wooden maids or maidens, washing horses or more poetically ‘winter hedges’. Pegs, apparently, didn’t appear till later, so windy gusts must have added a bit of frisson to drying days.
Skimming through rural, low-to-middling-status probate inventories on the shelf doesn’t provide much of a clue about predominant practice in individual households – whether they washed at home or in local rivers. I can see occasional appearances of wash-related things such as ‘one lie trowe [lye trough] praysed at 3s’ belonging to one John Weblie, husbandman, in 1639. There are a few other references, especially in inns, to large bucking tubs, bucking pots, baskets or closebucks (a bucket being a small bucking tub, funny how only the diminutive has stuck). In the inventory of the more well-to-do Samuel Codrington Esquire, 1709, ‘three washing tubbs’ appear in the barn, maybe not surprising, considering the quantity of ‘Linnen: two dozen and nine damask Napkins, two dozen of diaper Napkins, one dozen and tenn Huckaback napkins, five dozen and eleaven Flax napkins, eight tablecloths of the same, some old diaper napkins, eleaven diaper and damask tablecloths, two Holland Sideboard Cloths, three pairs and one sheet of Holland, four pair and one of Dowlas Sheet, seaven pair and one sheet of Flax, three coarse pair of Canvas sheets, five Canvas Bolster-Cases, two long Towells, eight pillow Cases and one large Callico Window Curtain…’
|Paddling with feet etc - 17th century
The 18th-century inventories sometimes list an ‘Ironing Box with clamps’, which took a slug of heated-up metal inside a cavity for smoothing linen under its base. (Other more primitive ironing tools still in use included sleeker stones or smoothers, which were round or mushroom-shaped handheld objects for polishing cloth, sometimes used in conjunction with wax.)
|Daniel Ridgeway Knight, 'Washerwomen'
I can’t see a single reference in these inventories to washing beetles, paddles or bats, because low value items wouldn’t have warranted an individual entry, they were costed in a lump together at the end e.g. ‘the rest of the goodes left unpraysed’, or ‘all other Impellments of the house within and without’. Overall it’s hard to tell whether these are households that actually possessed designated washing equipment such as tubs with which they washed at home, or whether they had to walk (sometimes considerable distance) to running water where they could wash on the banks of streams, brooks or rivers, beating the clothes on rocks or boards, then lugging them, wet and heavy, all the way home again…
NB. Apologies for the inclusion of 19th-century pictures: it’s just that they illustrate the basic equipment in action so clearly.
|Jahn Ekenaes, 'Women doing laundry' 1891
And likewise this one, of women washing through holes in the ice, surely demonstrates near-heroic housewifely efforts necessary in the past. Even in a long winter, the need for clean small linen and bedsheets didn’t go away…
Which reminds me – it was the first frost here last night and there’s a definite turn of the year towards winter. Is that a black cloud banking threateningly behind those trees? It is? Ok I’m off – I’ve got linen to rescue.