“I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don’t have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?”
Laundry: a chore that most likely everyone reading this blog has performed, probably numerous times. I’ve been reading and writing about washing clothes in mid-18th century America this past week for my forthcoming World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, and suddenly everywhere I turn there are laundry references—the latest episode of the TV show, Fargo; the gym friend’s remark about having a pile of ironing to do (My response? I think we have an iron somewhere in the house.), and of course the never-ending piles of dirty clothes that my husband and I manage to accrue. I’m not certain how two people can accumulate so much, but somehow there it is.
When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a garden-style apartment complex. Laundry facilities were located in a separate building across the large parking lot from our apartment. Because it was not very convenient to carry the clothes over, especially if it was raining or snowing, we waited until we had nothing to wear—I bought us both extra underwear—and then my husband would load the bags and bags of our dirty clothing, towels, and sheets into his car and drive it across the lot. He was willing to sit there at odd hours feeding quarters into the machines, and then driving our clean laundry back to our apartment. (To be honest, it frightened me to sit there or even to go into that building alone.) One of our first purchases after moving into our next apartment (in a converted twin house) was a washer and dryer to go in the basement.
My mom and dad’s first apartment in 1940s Philadelphia had a clothesline strung between the windows of two buildings. I’ve only seen these in movies. She had to cart the baby (my older brother) and dirty clothes to the Laundromat, bring the now wet clothes back, go up the four flights of stairs, finding a space for the baby carriage, and then hang out the clothes to dry. I know she was happy to finally have her own washer and dryer when they had their own house. I believe my father bought them for her as a surprise—to make her work easier—but I’m fairly certain he never touched the machines himself.
Still, this was nothing compared to the problems of washing clothing and sheets in the eighteenth-century—or in areas today where there is no running water, a situation that is particularly dangerous for women. (Most of the world now knows that the two young Indian girls who were recently raped, murdered, and left hanging on a tree, left their home to relieve themselves in the fields because they had no toilet facilities. In many parts of the world, women have to travel long distances to haul water back to their homes, risking attacks during these journeys.)
For Anglo-Americans of the eighteenth century, new ideas about gentility influenced laundry practices. The global economy was also a major factor in changing idea about cleanliness—one of the most important and frequently imported items to British North America was Irish linen. To be considered “genteel,” men and women had to have clean hands and faces, and snowy white shirts and cuffs. The rest of the body didn’t have to be immersed daily, or even yearly, for that matter, nor did silk or woolen gowns and coats have to be washed. The shifts and undergarments that touched the body were supposed to be washed regularly, as they were the garments that absorbed perspiration from the body. Bedding and table linen had to be washed as well to ensure the appearance of being genteel.*
As the need to appear clean became more important, so did the regularity of washing clothes. Long Island farm wife, Mary Cooper complained about having to miss church meeting because she didn’t have clean clothing. In her diary, Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker also mentioned people missing meeting because they did not have clean clothing to wear there. What once had been a monthly, or even seasonal activity became a weekly ordeal by the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth-century. Monday often became the designated laundry day. Water had to be hauled and heated, irons had to be heated, and clothes dried, sometimes by draping it over bushes or on the grass. A rainy day could jeopardize the whole procedure. Laundry was hot, heavy, onerous work, and households that could afford to do so, hired laundresses. Wealthy slaveholders built separate laundry, or laundry-kitchen buildings, partly as a status symbol indicating they had large amounts of clothing to be washed and laborer to do it the task.
Here are links to two photographs of washing days from the nineteenth-century. The first shows an advertisement for laundry soap with happy housewives hanging their clothes on a line. The second, undated, portrays the reality of doing laundry without running water or machines. The clothes are boiled in the kettle and spread over shrubs to dry. The women do not look happy.
Undoubtedly laundry is a chore, although one that is not too burdensome in homes with running water, electricity or gas, and working appliances. The loss of any of those three items makes the process more difficult, if not impossible–until one goes to a public laundromat, the machines get repaired, or the power is restored. It is easy enough for me to throw a load of wash in the machine, and then go and do other things, like write a blog post. In the US, laundry is often a cultural reference or a topic for jokes. In one episode of the Gilmore Girls, for example, Lorelai meets her daughter’s headmaster for the first time while dressed in a ridiculous outfit because the rest of her clothes were dirty—it’s laundry day! We joke about the college students returning home with bundles of dirty laundry for mom to wash, and sometimes it’s true.
Laundry has produced other slang terms and references—a “laundry list” of items, “dirty laundry,” as in gossip about private matters. A friend of mine used the phrase “folding laundry” as a euphemism for sex. Apparently “doing laundry” is also a slang term for sex.
Have you ever thought this much about washing your clothing? Have you ever wanted to? Hmmm. . .don’t answer that. Do you have a good laundry-related story? Share it below.
*This is a very brief summary, of course. For more on cleanliness in early America, see, Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. For more on daily life during the era of the American Revolution, you’ll have to wait for my book!
For Elizabeth Drinker and Mary Cooper:
Elizabeth Forman Crane, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 vols., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Field Horne, ed. The Diary of Mary Cooper: Life on a Long Island Farm, 1768-1773. Oyster Bay, NY: Oyster Bay Historical Society, 1981.