Once upon a time, so very many years ago, laundry day could almost literally be an all-day affair. Things were once very different when it came to washing and drying our clothes. There wasn’t a long list of scented detergents, nor were there settings on washing machines. Heck, at one time we were the washing machines, and the air and sun took care of the drying.
Laundry Day: It Just Keeps Getting Shorter
At one time, clothes were washed down in the river. It was relatively common to see washerwomen along the banks of the river with their homemade washboards, bats, and rocks. The laundry was sometimes soaked in lye back at their homes and then later brought to the river for a good washing. Laundry went on in this fashion until about the 19th century. In some countries like France, there were actual washrooms where you could find people gathered together airing their dirty laundry.
Laundry In The 19th Century
It wasn’t until the 19th century that people began laundering their wash in a different way. At this time, many people had a wash tub which consisted of a wooden or metal tub that was used just for washing clothes. Not all homes had a wash tub but many did. The tubs would be filled with water that was heated over an open fire or right on top of their wood stoves. The water was poured into the tub along with the laundry, and likely lye or some sort of bar soap was used for scrubbing.
More often than not, there was some sort of washboard used to help wash the clothes. However, washboards weren’t factory made until the late 19th century. Before that, the laundry would soak in the water and wooden paddles, also known as bats, were used to agitate the clothes. Once they were done, the clothes would be wrung out by hand and hung up to dry.
In different regions, though the wash tubs were different, the way people washed their clothes was pretty similar. For the most part, Dolly tubs, also known as Peggy or Maidens, were used. These tubs were a bit taller and instead of using paddles or bats, there was a wooden plunger called a Dolly Stick, with a long handle that was used to agitate, as well as wring out the clothes after the washing.
Late 19th Century & Early 20th Century
Then there came a day when someone finally invented a hand-powered wringer. This helped laundry day move a little faster. The wet clothes would be placed between the rollers of the wringer, and you would use the crank to roll them through. A couple of passes through, and the laundry was ready to be hung out on the line. Sometimes it took two people to operate the wringer, one to hold the clothing and the other to operate the machine. It wasn’t until the late 1850’s that steam-powered washing machines came to be. They used steam rather than electricity, because at this time not many people had access to electricity.
1930’s to Now
Finally, there came the day that you could purchase a washing machine and plug it in. It was called the wringer/mangler washing machine. When my mother was a child, she tried to be helpful and wash my grandfather’s clothing. The wringer/mangler sucked her arm right into the wringer and hurt her arm, hence the title the mangler. The wringer was operated by electricity, and it would pull the clothing through on its own while you held it. Laundry day just kept getting shorter and shorter from here on out.
mttje1999 shows a video of how doing laundry was done in the 1900’s:
By the 40’s and 50’s washing machines became more of what they are today — minus the digital buttons and water saving options. This trip back in time shows us the hard work and dedication it took to air the family’s dirty laundry. What was once back-breaking labor has become a 10-minute task with little to no effort needed.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Throwback Thursday on the Homestead. Next time you think doing laundry is a chore remember those who laundered before! Happy wash day!
Have you ever tried washing the old way or have experienced someone doing so? Please share in the comments below!
Read on how to dry laundry using a drying rack or clothesline for homestead living!
When I was little, about 4 or 5 I was helping my grandmother to do laundry out by the smokehouse. She had a wringer washer and explicitly told me not to touch anything while she went back to the house for something. Anyway long story short I thought I might help her out by putting the clothes through the wringer. Next thing I know my arm is going through the wringer and she came back just in time to shut the machine off, free my arm, and take a switch and whip my little butt all the way back to the house.
My Mom told me a very similar to yours. Her ambition to help became a cry for help!