Friday, May 3, 2013

The Days of Lye and Laundry

by Maria Grace

 With all our modern conveniences, it is easy to forget how arduous everyday tasks were for our ancestors. Wash day in particular is one for which we take our modern appliances for granted.

Today, we gather the laundry and sort it, more or less, less if you’re one of my teen-aged sons. If it is a good day, we check for stains, pretreat the stains, then throw it all in the machine. Later we wander back to switch it to the dryer, muttering under our breath because the washer doesn’t have a buzzer to let us know it is done. At the sound of the buzzer, we return to dry, sweet smelling laundry, ready to fold and put away. Oh the horrors of it all!

How our 18th and early 19th century friends would envy us. For them, laundry definitely did not take place on a weekly basis and when it happened, it was a multi-day, all hands on deck experience. The ladies of the house, unless they were very high born, would work alongside the servants (at least until the Victorian era when more shunned the activity) in order to get the enormous task accomplished.

Sorting the Laundry

The wealthier a family, the more clothing they possessed, the longer they could stretch the time between washdays. The bulk of the laundry consisted of ‘body linen’. Worn next to the skin, under shirts, shifts, chemises and the like protected finer garments from skin oils and sweat that soiled clothing more than dirt from the outside. Consequently, finer garments were rarely laundered. These two facts explain why so much silk and wool clothing of the period survives for us to see now. Victorians added removable cuffs and collars to their garments for the same reasons. Removable-and replaceable-elements increased the garment’s lifespan by reducing the need to wash it.

Laundry days had to be carefully planned out in order to make best use of the resources, including daylight. The process often began the night before, with sorting the laundry. Lights, darks, flannels, calicos and fine clothing would all be separated and a special pile dedicated to the most heavily soiled items. Often, the dirtiest laundry was set to soak in soapy water or lye the night before the actual process began to minimize the time and effort spent scrubbing the next day. All this sounds rather familiar, but the real work has not even started yet.

Getting Ready to Wash 

A great deal of firewood needed to be available for laundry days. For a moderate size estates laundry, 150-200 lbs. of wood would be required to feed the laundry fires. Firewood might be gathered the day before, but if not, the laundress would need to move it to the laundry site that morning. That alone sounds like a substantial effort, but for her it was only the beginning. Once wood was gathered and fires started, water had to be hauled to fill the copper boiler and additional wash and rinse basins.

Laundresses preferred copper boilers because they did not rust and stain the clothing the way iron would. The typical boiler would need 20-40 gallons per load with an additional 10 gallons for scrub and rinse water. Depending on the location of the water source, this process alone could require miles of walking burdened with heavy yokes of water by the time the day was over. (Water weighs about 8 lbs. a gallon.)

Not surprisingly, very large estates might have an outbuilding dedicated to laundry where wood might be stored nearby and a water supply was more convenient. Such a building might also provide indoor drying space when the weather was inclement.

Of Lye and Laundry Bats

The laundress placed clothes in boiling water to loosen dirt, agitating them by hand with a washing bat, a two to three foot long wooden paddle. This was hot, heavy, exhausting work. After a quarter of an hour in the boiler, she removed the articles to a large basin of warm water to treat any remaining soiled areas with lye, soap or other stain treatment.

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.

Since soap was expensive and since lye could be made at home, poorer households might wash their laundry entirely without soap.

A variety of preparations might be used on stained clothing. Chalk, brick dust and pipe clay were used on greasy stains. Alcohol treated grass stains and kerosene, bloodstains. Milk was thought to remove urine stains and fruit. Ironically, urine, due to the ammonia content was often used for bleaching as were lemon and onion juice. Makes modern eyes water just thinking about the process.

To prevent fading, colored garments like calicos were not soaked or washed with lye or soda. They were washed in cold or lukewarm water by hand, rather than agitated with a bat. Ox-gall might be added to the water to help preserve the color.

Obtaining ox-gall meant sending a glass bottle to the butcher who would drain the liquid of cow’s gall bladders into it. Doesn’t that sound like what you want to add to your next wash cycle?

Articles that needed starching would be dipped in water that potatoes or rice had been cooked in and saved for laundry day. Laundresses were cautioned to make sure that the starch water had not soured or gone moldy before dipping clothing into it. Another appetizing thought.

Out of the Wash and on to Drying 

Box Mangle
Finally, after boiling, washing and rinsing, garments had to be prepared for drying. To speed drying, excess water had to be removed from the wet fabric. A wealthy household might employ a box mangle, a large contraption that wound laundry around rollers then rolled a heavy box over them to extract excess water. Few households could afford such a luxury.

More often, two people would work together to wring the water from the laundry by twisting. Afterwards, clothes would be hung on clotheslines--usually without clothespins, bushes, hedgerows, wooden frames or laid over the lawn to dry. Some estates and towns had drying greens, fields of grass for laundry to be dried upon. The chlorophyll in the grass and the sunshine also helped bleach fabrics. Inclement weather forced drying inside to kitchen and attic spaces.

As if this was not enough, after the laundry finally dried, nearly every article required pressing of some form. But the history of ironing is a subject for another post.


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 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision and The Future Mrs. Darcy. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter(@WriteMariaGrace) or email her.


  1. Wow! That was very interesting and - ouch - exhausting!

  2. I am so glad that is not what I'm facing this morning as Saturday is laundry day in my house!

  3. We do forget a lot of the modern advantages when dreaming about earlier times. Laundry is certainly an area that makes me thankful I live now! Thanks for this fascinating post, Maria Grace!

  4. Which is the reason there were probably very few, if any, silk sheets, and shifts.

  5. I can remember my grandmother washing machine that had a set of roller (the mangle) on top and you ran the clothes through the mangle to get the water out.

  6. Maria & Terry...My mother had one of those old washing machines, too, when I was maybe 6 or 7. She called it a wringer washer. I remember watching her feed our clothes, one piece at a time, through the rollers, with the flattened item coming through to the other side. I was just barely tall enough (and strong enough) to turn the crank handle once or twice, I think. We did have outdoors clotheslines, too, but at least we had clothespins! Heavens, that sounds like so much work now, doesn't it?

  7. Whew! We don’t appreciate how good we’ve got it now. What a lot of work this must have been. Great post!

  8. I remember my grandmother's wringer washer--that thing scared me! So glad I don't have to do that now. Thanks everyone!

  9. All of the palaver helps to explain why laundry was not done very frequently - at least not in the house of my Georgian ancestor! His diary records it as being carried out just FOUR times a year, so presumably bedlinen was expected to last unchanged between times! A "big wash" would sometimes take two days and clearly nothing else happened on those days (c. 1780). It is fun to imagine all that washing being hung out to dry on the hedge running outside along the street!


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