Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Washday Blues

A close look at Victorian laundry practices will have you thanking your lucky stars you live in a mechanized age.  No wonder they didn't change clothes as often as 21st century people do!  I found out why when I was doing research for another novel:

  • Monday was the laundry day of choice and early rising was compulsory  - usually between 2 - 4:00 a.m
  • First you had to "spot clean" the stains using homemade concoctions.  Here's a list of common stains with their remedies:
               - ink - vinegar over stain then then oxalic acid
              - fruit  - butter/ammonia/washing soda
              - glue - alcohol
              - mud on wool - potato juice
              - stained black cashmere - rinsed in mustard water made from 6 ounces of mustard flour in six       quarts of boiling water
               - stained blue flannel - bran water
               - grease on silk - chalk or magnesia and ether or egg yolk and water 
              - paint or varnish - cover with butter or sweet oil then rub with turpentine
              -  candle grease - eau de cologne 
A dolly tub and dollies or "possers"
  • Start boiling endless big tubs of water 
  • Next came the "dollying" or "possing" where sheets and other large items were stirred and beaten in a tall tub with dollies or plungers on a long handle.  Hard soap was cut up and mixed to a lather in with the water.  Good strong biceps were needed for this part. 
  • The possed items went through the mangle to get out excess water.  More bicep/tricep work!
  • Next was the first rinsing.  
  • Clothes were then boiled in a big metal vat on a fire.
  • They were put through the mangle again.
  • "Bluing" or "ultramarine" was used on white clothes and linens to make them appear extra white as well as starch to stiffen them.      
  • Clothes and linens were hung on the washing line outside (if you had one) or on lines stretched across the kitchen.  It was a steamy, damp process.  Ironing was done the next day and everything was ironed including underwear and hankies! 
If you think that's complicated, check out these instructions from Baroness Staffe, on cleaning lace:
  • make a lather with hot soft water and glycerine soap
  • roll the lace on a glass bottle covered with a strip of fine linen and leave it in the lather for 12 hours
  • Repeat this three times; then rinse it slightly by dipping the bottle in clear, soft water, taking it out almost immediately.  The soap which is left in serves to give a little stiffness to the lace when it is ironed.  Each point must be inner down before ironing it, which should always be done on the wrong side, with muslin over it.  When it is done, all the flowers which have been flattened should be raised with an ivory stiletto.
And that's just ordinary lace.  The expensive Valenciennes lace had to be rolled up and sewn into a bag of fine, white linen, soaked for 12 hours in olive oil, boiled for quarter of an hour in white soapy water and rinsed in rice water!!
This is just a small sampling of the intricacies of the Victorian laundry.  It's no wonder that most people who could afford it sent their clothes out to be laundered.

Lee M Maxwell, Save Women's Lives: History of Washing Machines, from orAmazon UK

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