Saturday, January 25, 2020

Doing Laundry in the 1800s

Howdy again, everyone! Welcome to 2020. As this new year starts, I’m looking forward to the upcoming release of my eleventh title, Blacksmith Brides, a 4-in-1 novella collection coming on May 1. The other authors include Amanda Barratt, Angela K. Couch, and Pegg Thomas.

In my story, A Malleable Heart, the hard-hearted town blacksmith falls in love with the town’s laundress. While I don’t spend a great deal of time in the story in the heroine’s job of doing other people’s laundry, I did research that job to find out just what it entailed. (Can I just say that I’m THRILLED to be living in this era with my nice washing machine and dryer? LOL)

So how did one get clothes clean in the days before such “new-fangled contraptions”? 

If the families didn’t have store-bought soap available to them, they’d have to make their own. That was a long process, which started with gathering the wood ashes out of their fireplace, soaking them to get “lye water”, then rendering beef fat to get tallow. Boiling the lye and tallow together in a cast-iron pot made a liquid that could be poured into molds to create soap. Once the mixture was almost fully hardened, it would be removed from the molds and cut into bars or cakes. These would then be left in the sun to finish the hardening process. Most people would make huge batches of lye soap at once, so that they would have to go through that laborious process only a few times a year.

Most of the domestic guides seemed to recommend women do their washing on Monday. However, the process started days ahead of the actual washing.

On Saturdays, the laundry was gathered, sorted, and mended. Any rips or tears were sewn, socks darned, and the like. On Sundays, the clothing was then soaked overnight in warm water, often with a bit of soap or other cleaning agents like soda or lye.

Once Monday arrived, the real work began. Women would rise early, gather a great amount of fuel for their fire, and haul many gallons of water to fill their wash, soak, and rinse tubs. From here, they would go through the following steps:

·       Wash the clothes right side out, including applying soap and scrubbing on a washboard. Wring to get excess water out.
·       Wash the clothes inside out, including applying soap and scrubbing again on the washboard. Wring.
·       Boil the clothes and linens in soapy water, agitating them with long sticks. Wring again.
·       Rinse the clothing in fresh, clean water to remove all traces of the lye soap. Wring once more.
·       Dry on a clothesline, the nearest bush, or even laid flat in the grass.

How to keep your whites white? Try bluing!
In addition to the above steps, it was also necessary to “blue” the laundry to counteract the yellow hue that came with age, laundering, and wear. One would use a bluing agent, easily purchased in stores in the later 1800s (and still available today, just as an FYI). A bit of blue dye would be added to the water. When used properly, the amount of blue was negligible enough you wouldn’t stain your clothing blue, but it would cause the eye to see less of the yellow and, instead, see more white. What a nifty trick, right?

Some domestic guides mentioned bleaching agents as well. Ammonia worked well for flannels. Buttermilk or turpentine for cotton, and chloride of lime for muslins.

Once the washing and drying was done, the process wasn’t over. Oh, no. Then came the starching and ironing. Sometimes, the bluing stage was part of the starching process, but not always. Starch would be mixed with water, the clean, dry clothing submerged in the concoction, and then wrung out again. Once the garment was almost dry, a “sadiron” would be heated on the stove until super-hot, and then applied to the garment to remove the wrinkles. Typically, a home would have two irons so that one could be heating while the other was being used, so that no time was lost while the iron heated again.

After all this, the clothing would be neatly folded and put away.

I can’t begin to imagine how much work this would be, particularly when you factor in that many families in that day had an average of five or six children. It was no wonder why a family might hire a town laundress to do their washing, just to save the hours of backbreaking work each week.

It’s your turn: Were you aware of all the steps it took to wash clothes in the 1800s? What is the most surprising part of this process?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

Available Now for Pre-Order:

Hearts Are Forged by the Flames of Gentle Love in 4 Historical Stories

A Malleable Heart by Jennifer Uhlarik
(California—1870) A hard-hearted blacksmith finds acceptance with the town laundress. But when his past comes to call, will he resist love’s softening or allow God to hammer his ruined life into something of worth?


  1. Great post! I'm surprised by the starching after all that effort already put in. I wouldn't think people would take the time to do that. Perhaps only for show, in the cities and maybe church clothes? Or maybe that's just my lazy modern self talking!!

    1. I agree, Connie! It seems like so much work. I've gotten way too used to my wash-and-wear items.

  2. Wow! I knew the process was long but I had no idea they soaked and sew the dirty clothes (Phwee)before they washed them. My latest story has twin babies and lots of diapers. My daughter-in-law grew up in the Philippines. She talked about washing clothes in the river and beating them on a rock to get them clean. My grandmother had a wringer washer. (This was the 60s) She still used bluing in her whites.Bleach was added to the wash water at the beginning of the washing. She washed the whites first and used the same water to wash colors and the really dirty items came last. Each load had to be carefully put through the wringer into the rinse water and then again wrung through the wringer into the clothes basket.The process took hours and then she'd hang all her was on the many lines grandpa strung across the yard that day. As a child I found the whole process exciting. My grandmother eventually got a modern washer and dryer. Imagine how many years it took before there were no more wringer washer in use. i found an article on the evolution of the washing machine. Fasinating! I'd have hired a laundress if I lived in anytime before the first half of the 20th century. Jen, you always share such interesting post.

    1. Your comment about finding the whole process exciting made me laugh, Cindy. I'm sure those doing the laundry thought differently. Such a process, right? Thanks for reading!!!