Monday Wash Day by Stephanie Grace Whitson
Have you ever purchased a book that guarantees to help you “take control of your time and life,” “manage your household,” “get organized” or “conquer the messies"? If so, you are part of a long line of homemakers seeking answers and experts offering to provide them. Remembering her own pioneer childhood, Laura Ingalls Wilder explained her mother’s household management system this way: “Each day had its own proper work. Ma used to say, wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.” [from Little House in the Big Woods]
Assigning specific chores to specific days of the week is memorialized in countless tea towels embroidered over the years.
It can be difficult for us to understand why on earth an entire day was set aside for things we accomplish in minutes. I do laundry as an afterthought. I walk by the washer/dryer on my way to work in my home office. If there’s a load ready, I start it. As I walk by later on my way to get coffee or lunch, I transfer to the dryer and move on. Later in the day, I fold and put away. I never thought to be thankful for the orange/blue/white jugs of laundry soap perched atop the machine that saves me from staging something like the set-up at right once a week. But since I began writing about 19th century women, that has changed.
First, there was the set-up. “The list of utensils for the laundry includes wash boiler, wringer, washboard, washing machine, three or four tubs, two or three pails, clothes stick, dipper, and large and small clothes baskets.” Soaking overnight or for at least a few hours was recommended “to soften the dirt and loosen it by swelling the fabric.” “Rubbing” was recommended for neck, wristbands, “and other spots which are especially soiled or greasy.” Next came boiling (a first boiling and a second boiling were considered ideal), then rinsing. “It is customary to lift the clothes from the boiler directly into a tub of cold rinsing water, rinse thoroughly, wring out into a second rinsing water, and continue rinsing until all trace of soap disappears.” “After the final rinsing … articles must be wrung out, rolled in bundles, and sorted, starched pieces being placed in one basket and unstarched ones in another, and hung up to dry at once.”
Oh, wait … starch and bluing and soap. Many women made their own. Here’s a recipe for soap found in Alice Kirk Grierson’s recipe book. Mrs. Grierson’s husband served in the Tenth Cavalry in the West between 1866 and 1888.
Fry out fourteen pounds of grease; to this add ten pounds potash dissolved in just boiling water enough to cover the lumps. In two or three days pour the mixture several pailfuls of boiling water (Be careful to use boiling water, as that cooks it). Keep on adding water as fast as the soap thickens until your barrel is full of nice, sweet soap. It must be stirred hard every time the water is put into the barrel until it is entirely mixed.
Is it any wonder women were thrilled when they could buy commercially produced soap?
A “Plan for Wash Day” published in 1908 recommended that a woman “get up at daylight and get the washing out of the way as early as possible. It is surprising how much can be accomplished early in the morning before the regular routing of the day begins.” (It’s also surprising how tired I feel just having read about doing the laundry in the “good old days.”)
In the early 1900s, a farm wife named Nellie Jones wrote, “I wish it could be burnt into the consciousness of every man and every woman that washing under average farm conditions is a man’s work, not a woman’s, measured by expenditure of strength.” I think Nellie would have loved this humorous photo produced in 1901 in response to the suffrage movement.
Best-selling, award-winning author Stephanie Grace Whitson has been writing Christian fiction since 1994, when she signed her first contract with Thomas Nelson Publishers. Since then, she's added a couple dozen titles to her list of published books, received her MA in Historical Studies from Nebraska Wesleyan University, and become a grandmother. She is a frequent guest speaker/lecturer on a variety of historical and inspirational topics for both civic organizations and church groups. Her husband and blended family, her church, historical research, antique quilts, and Kitty—her motorcycle—all rank high on her list of “favorite things.” To learn more, visit www.stephaniewhitson.com or www.Facebook.com/stephaniegracewhitson.
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