Keeping clothes has always been a challenge. Today, we can simply go to the store and buy a specialized product according stain that needs cleaning. In centuries past, the mistress of the house needed to be well versed on what home preparations could be used to keep her household fresh and clean. Some of their solutions are similar to what we use to today and some were positively stomach churning.
Plain lye formed the backbone of much of the everyday laundry cleaning arsenal and was fairly easy to obtain. Ashes from household fires were packed into a barrel with holes drilled in the bottom and lined with hay. Water was poured through the ashes and concentrated lye dripped from the holes.
The strength of the solution was critical for its cleaning power. If an egg did not float high enough in the solution it was too weak and would be poured through the ashes again. Lye that was too strong could burn skin and damage fabrics and would need to be diluted. Urine, for its ammonia content might also be added to a lye solution it improve its cleaning power.
Body linen, other garments whose colors did not need to be protected, sheets and household linens were soaked in a vat of lye prior to being boiled on laundry day. The process was called ‘bucking’ and attempted to restore the white or off white color to the laundry.
The generous use of soap was a modern advance in dealing with dirty laundry. At first it was used sparingly, only to treat stains. Later, it would be added to the main wash for cleaning.
Though soap could be purchased, what could be made at home often was, especially in areas away from larger urban areas. Soap could be made in several ways. A pail of lye could be added to about three pounds of melted animal fat and boiled all day. To avoid all that boiling and stirring, four pails of lye could be stirred into a barrel of 30 pounds of animal fat. Additional lye was added until it looked ‘right’ to the soap maker. The soap might be used while it was still soft or it might be set up—dried and hardened with warm weather and salt.
Household manuals often contained various specialized recipes for soap with different fats and additives touted as better for one use or another. Individual households would also have their own recipes handed down from mother to daughter.
Sodium borate (borax) and sodium carbonate (washing soda) were often added to the water to improve the action of the soap. Borax was preferred to washing soda which would yellow whites and damage their texture. Borax could be added to the soap when it was made to eliminate the need to add it to the laundry water separately.
Both borax and washing soda had to be purchased and might not be available to poorer or more remote households.
Stains were as much a problem then as they are now. Different recipes were used for different stains. These included:
- Grease and oil stains: chalk, brick dust and pipe clay
- Grass stains: alcohol, lemon and onion juice, kerosene
- Blood stains: kerosene, lemon juice
- Wax stains: a hot coal wrapped in a clean rag or wet brown paper
- Urine stains: milk
- Fruit stains: milk, lemon juice, onion juice
To deal with stains on expensive colored fabrics which would bleach in a lye solution, ox-gall was the favorite solution. Ox-gall was obtained by sending a bottle to the butcher who filled it with the contents of cows’ gall-bladders.
Despite soaking in lye, stubborn articles sometimes required additional bleaching. Human urine and hog manure were often used for this purpose as was lemon juice.
Sunshine in combination with lemon juice or lye was a freely available bleaching agent. Some estates and towns set aside areas of mown grass as ‘bleaching grounds’ where articles could be spread on laundry day. The chlorophyll in the grass helped in the bleaching process.
Since soap and washing soda often yellowed white articles, bluing would be added to the rinse water to neutralize the yellowing. Blue dye, of various formulations, was placed in a small bag which would be swished through the rinse water and removed leaving a slight blue color behind.
Like other laundry necessities, starch was made at home. Wheat, potato gratings, and rice were common sources. Wheat starch might be added directly to water. The water used to cook rice or potatoes might be saved for starching. Similarly grated potatoes could be soaked in water then removed and the water used for starching laundry.
For delicate laces, sugar might be added to the final rinse water rather than starch. Alternately, gum arabic, made from the sap of acacia trees, might be used to stiffen laces and collars.
Silk and woolen clothes never touched water. Several dry cleaning techniques were developed to preserve the fabrics through the cleaning process.
Fullers used fuller’s earth, an absorbent clay, and a thistle to clean wools.
Scourers spot cleaned silks once a year. Salt, chalk, or fuller’s earth as well as solvents like turpentine, kerosene, gasoline, lemon juice, warm milk, or even urine were used on the fine fabric. The whole garment was never immersed and scrubbed.
Leather breeches were scrubbed with a ‘breeches ball’ made of a mixture of ox-gall and fuller’s earth.
Interestingly, because many fine garments were not laundered with harsh lye, scrubbing and boiling, then remain preserved today. Far fewer examples of body linen survive today because of the harsh measures used to keep them clean.
Kristina Harris. Victorian Laundry (or, Aren't You Glad You Didn't Live Then?)
The Complexities of Wash Day in the 18th Century
History of Washing Clothes
History of Laundry
Michael Olmert. Laundries: Largest Buildings in the Eighteenth-century Backyard