22 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: The Life of a Washerwoman

By Elizabeth Lane

Among the family treasures in my home is my Great-Grandma Magelby's battered old copper wash boiler. It measures 20 inches across by 13 inches high and sits on a three-legged iron stand, which supported it over the fire. On one side of the lip, where the soapy water was always dumped out, the copper has been corroded away. It makes the old tub less presentable but even more precious. When I look at it I imagine her dumping out the wash water time after time, week after week, over the years of her life.

Washing clothes in those old days wasn't a job for sissies. To give you an idea of what was involved, here's a list of instructions, written by a grandmother to a new bride. The spelling errors are from the original. I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it's a fun read and probably pretty accurate.


Build fire in backyard to heat kettle of rain water.
Set tubs so smoke wont blow in eyes if wind is pert.
Shave one hole cake of lie soap in boiling water.
Sort things, make 3 piles--1 pile white, 1 pile colored, 1 pile work britches and rags.
To make starch, stir flour in cool water to smooth, then thin down with boiling water.
Take white things, rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard, and boil, then rub colored don't boil just wrench and starch.
Take things out of kettle with broom stick handle, then wrench and starch.
Hang old rags on fence.
Spread tea towels on grass.
Pour wrench water in flower bed.
Scrub porch with hot soapy water.
Turn tubs upside down.
Go put on clean dress, smooth hair with hair combs.
Brew cup of tea, sit and rock a spell and count your blessings.

Monday was the traditional day for washing. In many communities there was competition among housewives to see who could get their wash hung first and whose whites were the whitest. In good weather the washing and drying could be done outdoors. In the winter the job had to be done in the kitchen, with lines strung wherever they would fit. Starched clothes were sprinkled and rolled up to await Tuesday--the traditional ironing day.

The above list mentions "lie soap". Most people made their own soap in those days out of lye (which came from wood ash) and fat. The soap was used for bathing as well as laundry. My mom's sister swore by homemade lye soap and made it all her life. We always used to save our bacon drippings to give her for soap. Here are a couple of recipes I found.

Boiled Soap (for cooking outdoors in a kettle)
32 pounds lard
16 quarts soft water
8 cans lye

Boil two hours and then add one more gallon of water. Stir and remove fire from kettle and pour into molds.

Cold Soap
6 lbs melted fat
1 can lye
2 1/2 pints water

Add lye to water and dissolve. When container which holds the lye water is warm, add the fat and stir until cool. Pour into a cloth lined box, or a box that has been dipped in cold water, and cover. Cut soap into squares when set.

The modern age of the washing machine dawned with the invention of a self contained electric machine in the first decade of the 20th Century. In 1922 Howard Snyder placed a circular plate studded with four vertical fins at the bottom of a tub and attached it to a drive shaft to make the first agitator washer. Some time later, rollers were added above the tub for wringing out clothes. My mother used an old Maytag of this style for most of my growing up years. She taught school all week and spent most of her Saturdays doing the wash. We've come along way with our modern automatic washers that known how and when to wash, rinse and spin. So give your washing machine a hug today.

Elizabeth Lane has written more than thirty historical romances, several set in the early 20th century. Her latest is CHRISTMAS MOON, a time travel set in present day and 1870s Wyoming, available in print and Kindle from Amazon.com, and in other e-formats from E-Reads. Watch for her latest Harlequin Historical, THE WIDOWED BRIDE, in March 2011.