Glamorous it was not. Backbreaking, long hours bent over a washtub and kettle made this profession perhaps one of the hardest jobs women have had through the centuries. Scrubbing laundry for one's family is one thing but for a company of soldiers? Not an assignment for any fading lily or simpering coquette.
So who were these washer-folk who served the Union and the Confederacy during our country's War Between the States? Statistically, they vary. There were men launderers. Convalescent soldiers might be tasked with wash at an army hospital, or the slaves of wealthier officers and soldiers. But most often they were women. Some were freed slaves, contraband, and indentured. Others were wives of soldiers, widows, or even indigent women seeking a modest income and the one-meal-a-day ration the army provided them. Respectable women whose reputation was expected to be above reproach, complete with written character references.
The United States army had commissioned laundry service since 1802. During the Civil War the laundress was the most common role for women in the armed services, and dwindled until in the 1880's when the official position was terminated. That is to say, no pay or rations were offered.
Some served in garrisons, some at army hospitals, while a number traveled on campaigns with the army. At the height of their ranks, each company of up to 100 soldiers had four laundresses. These four would share an army-provided tent, a hatchet for chopping firewood, a kettle, and two mess pans to share between them. Pay would either be administered directly from the company they served, or from individual soldiers, under the direction of the captain at the pay tables. Their wages preceded the Sutler's in priority. Often they were looked after as sisters, mothers, like adopted family, and they would strike deals for help with hauling water or firewood in exchange for extra care, such as darning or bluing or starching. But there are records of laundresses married to soldiers killed in battle who married again within the company, in some cases more than once or twice.
Though wives of officers held a higher social rank, the army laundress held more rights. For instance, if an officer was killed, the wife had only 24 hours to vacate, but a laundress wife had six months, in which time she could choose to remarry or continue on in service as a single woman.
Some laundresses were not as virtuous as others. As with any other time in history, women living in close quarters with men far from home can produce loose morals even in those not normally predisposed to such wanton behavior. But by and large, laundresses were considered respectable.
Wash tubs were fashioned from barrels obtained from the quartermaster, but the average laundress would have to procure her own scrub board, brush, and lye. A ringer would be considered a luxury.
In my new book, The Chaplain's Daughter, my heroine is a laundress with the Army of Northern Virginia following the Battle of Second Manassas, more commonly known as The Second Battle of Bull Run. It was a real eye opener for me to enter the world of this often overlooked heroine and her service to the war effort on both sides.
****A feisty army laundress takes up her father's calling when a proud artillery captain finds his heart and hope shattered. Will the devout care of a minister's daughter bring healing to his soul or rub salt in his wounds?***
I'm offering a GIVEAWAY to two lucky commenters of an ebook copy of The Chaplain's Daughter. Just answer this discussion question to enter: Could you be a laundress if you had few other options? What would be the hardest part to you, or any possible good sides of the job?
Drawing April 5 at 8 PM, winners announced then. Bonus entries if you share this post or follow any/all of my pages (see below). Let me know in the comments.
Although this posted two days after the drawing. I am fairly confident I would not be a laundress. Although lye cleaned clothes it is extremely harsh on skin. I've had times in my life where I've had to handwash al my laundry. Hand wringing strains back muscles. This is a thankless job, often widows opened a laundry because they felt they had no other skills. Her children would help by hanging clothes, picking up and delivering the clothes and even ironing. And although I grew up ironing every week I avoid it like the plague now. Can't imagine heating an iron to press clothes or any of the other manual steps to doing laundry especially for other people. Wash strangers underwear by hand EWWW!!! LOL!ReplyDelete
Yes, my poor girl was quite the Cinderella. She tries not to complain when relegated to menial tasks. She is a far better person than I am LOLDelete
I’m so sorry for the confusion on the dates. The drawing is still going on until the 12th. Thank you so much for your insightful comments. I had to laugh at your last remark. So true! :-)
Since this wasn't posted until after the giveaway officially ended, I'll still enter anyway.ReplyDelete
I am so thankful to live in an era of running water, indoor plumbing and electricity!
What would I think of an army laundress job... I would be grateful for honest work and "housing" but would probably be beyond exhausted!
Hi Lisa, thank you for commenting. Yes the drawing is still on. Until the 12th. I must’ve looked at the wrong column. Wrong Friday.Delete
I can only imagine the level of exhaustion. This past summer my washer died and I was handwashing and ringing and I hated life LOL it gave me great appreciation for my heroine. 😉
This would be a good option to those who wanted to be near their husbands. I'd rather do laundry than enter the actual fights!!! I'm sure the work was hard, but life WAS difficult in those days, and women with families would be used to the hard work.ReplyDelete
Connie that’s such a great perspective. And yes, I would do just about anything to be near my husband. So I think even my lazy self could muster the strength to do it somehow. LOL thank you for entering. I mistakenly put April 5 when I meant April 12Delete
I'm quite sure that this job would not be for me! However, I admire those who went before and did all these things by hand. I must admit, the arthritis in my hands is bothering me just thinking about it...lol. I shared on Facebook and Twitter :)ReplyDelete
I’m sorry about your arthritis Betti. I did not mean to trigger your aches.You have such a tender heart!Delete
These women were a different kind of tough. I’m so grateful for modern conveniences! I think the hardest part for me is bending over a boiling kettle in the oppressive heat of summer in those long gowns. I’d probably faint.
This was interesting. I love history and historical fiction. Your book sounds like it would be a very good story.ReplyDelete
Thank you Janet. I love happily ever after’s, and this poor girl certainly earned hers :-)Delete
I found this very interesting and although I've learned to "never say never" I don't believe I could have done this. The Chaplain's Daughter sounds great!ReplyDelete
Thank you Connie. I am also a believer in “never say never”. But thank God for modern laundry equipment :-)Delete
ACK! Correction to my typo – Ash the drawing will be April 12 at 8 PM! So sorry!ReplyDelete
Oh what an interesting post. Yes they had it tough, but there must have been a lot of benefits also. Yes I would be a laundress if this was the most respectable option open. I am not afraid of hard work. I love to help others. And I like to talk about Jesus and who He is and why I love Him to other women. I would love to be an encourager to other women. So, yes I would take it.ReplyDelete
quilting dash lady at comcast dot net
Hi Lori, I love your willingness to serve and be a blessing wherever the Lord puts you. That reminds me of my heroine in this story. Good luck in the drawingReplyDelete
Forget it ... scrubbing houses is one thing .... laundry is a whole different story!ReplyDelete
I think I'd be the one "stuck" trying the keep the house in one piece back home!
Tromping around with a bunch of smelly soldiers in all kinds of weather.
One meal? Yeah .. and it probably tastes crappy too....
see the country in a completely different light than most of the other folks
meet a lot of different folks
be useful to soldiers in a small way
I follow you on FB and amazon.
wildernesstraveller @ yahoo dot comDelete
Thanks Megan. 😊 laughing at “tromping around with smelly soldiers “. Too true!Delete
It would been hard to be a luandres for all of the men. What a thankfless, back breaking job. I remember stories from aged relatives about how they did laundry on a wash board or carried water to a wringer machine. I've seen the wash board reenacted and I would not want to do that. Thank you for the giveaway opportunity. The Chaplain's Daughter sounds like a wonderful read with moments of laughter and tears. BlessingsReplyDelete
I can’t imagine having any skin left working with lye soap and scouring on a hard washboard. We are so blessed by our modern conveniences, for sure!Delete
Thank you for the chance to win! Being a launderess was probably almost as hard as being a soldier. What a wuss I would be, with aching back and hands. Being appreciated by the men is probably the better part of the job. A surprise that widows of officers would have few options than widowed launderesses. jeaniedannheim(at)ymail(dot)comReplyDelete
I suppose the hard work toughens you to endure it. But after spending a summer having to hand wring and hang my clothes the old-fashioned way I don’t think I ever want to do it again!Delete
I found that part interesting too, that the wives of officers did not have the same benefits or courtesies as the common laundress in those circumstances. I can only imagine the temptation to gloat. 😄
Thanks for entering Jeannie. Good luck in the drawing.
Being a laundress would be hard work. Lifting heavy sheets out of the large pot would be tough. Working outside could be both a blessing or a cursing depending on the weather.ReplyDelete
So true, Caryl. Imagining the heat of summer wearing layers of clothing over a boiling kettle... I’m not sure if the cold of winter would be worse or not. I would hope after such hard work a Cinderella figure like that would have a handsome prince and a happily ever after 😉Delete
I am sure if I had no other choices, that I would do what I had to do and be a laundress. I can only imagine the hard, backbreaking work that goes into that though. When we were visiting another country and I needed to wash clothes for 6 by hand...it was not an easy task. And that was with a nice place to do it in, with good soap and a bathtub. I think lifting all of the soaking wet items would be the hardest. Trying to get them hung to dry would be hard to do...especially if you're doing it alone. Thank you for the giveaway opportunity!ReplyDelete
Hannah you sound like a saint yourself. I did that for a couple months the time my washer broke and it was brutal.ReplyDelete
I think my heroine wonders if she went from the frying pan into the fire once she takes on the ornery hero’s care... At least laundry piles don’t talk back ;-)
I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be the job for me. :/ Although I don't mind doing laundry today, back then it would mean literally working your fingers to the bone and standing for hours to boot...some o the disadvantages. While the advantages would be they would have clean clothes which was needed for their health even though I doubt they thought of such things then. It definitely would feel like an accomplishment when the clothes were done...if there's ever a case when laundry is truly done! :) I can't wait to read your book, by the way! It sounds like one I would love as it's my favorite era! <3 Best wishes on growing your readership!ReplyDelete
Thank you Bhriv. Don’t forget to leave a way to contact you in case your name is drawn. You can leave your email in the comments.Delete
One thing I found in my research is that the sanitary commission did understand the value of cleanliness, and would sometimes provide equipment for the laundresses. And there was one matron in particular that the soldiers called Mother Bickerdyke who fought for clean conditions. She was ahead of her time.
Good luck in the contest!
And our winners are Connie Porter Saunders and Caryl Kane. Thank you ladies for entering and for bearing with me though I put down the wrong date. I appreciate everyone who came by.ReplyDelete