Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Great Wash - Laundry in the 17th century

by Deborah Swift

Washing in the 17th century was certainly labour-intensive. In the Stuart period outer garments could not easily be washed because fine fabrics - the silks, brocades and velvets, (beloved of those who wanted to show their status) would not stand up to the harsh treatment. Clothes were hand-made and valuable, and were worn until they were too dirty to be tolerated. However, the undergarments were usually linen, which was tough and hard-wearing, and could be washed.

'Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out' 

Hannah Woolley, in The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677

So where did this urine come from, and where was it used?

It came from chamberpots and was used neat straight from the pot. Apparently men's was more effective than women's so this was much in demand. (They would say that, wouldn't they?)The ammonia in the urine removed grease and stains before the washing was then soaked in a 'buck tub.' After that a buck cloth was spread over the top and potash or lye was poured through and collected from a hole in the bottom. Sometimes the clothes were layered, hung on sticks, and the lye, which was alkaline, was poured through. This is a possible origin of the term ‘passing the buck’.

modern dolly stick (1950's)
the design stayed unchanged
The water was then boiled up again and passed through as many as eight times. (See the picture of the woman using a buck tub, above.) Then the linen was soaped by hand and paddled with 'dolly sticks' or slapped against washboards before rinsing. Soap was a new commodity - In the 17th century the first soap factory was built in Toulon for the mass production of soap for laundering. The soap was made of goat's or sheep's fat, and ash. Rinsing was necessary to remove the lye before it caused damage to the fabric. In rural England, clothes were taken to the nearest stream or river and either paddled, with a wooden bat, or trodden. Sometimes used wash water was donated to the poor because soap was still an expensive luxury.

Generally a 'Great Wash' would only be done twice a year by most households unless they had many servants. This event could take three days, and usually took place at the same time as a 'spring clean' of the house. The Great Wash was often seen as a symbolic purification of the house. 

From Old and Interesting blog, (do visit it - it's indeed very interesting) here are the laundry expenses for the Duke of Bedford's Great Wash in 1675.

'For washing sheets and napkins before the great wash when the two masters was in town 2s
For four pounds of soap 1s
For six pounds of candles 2s 6d
For three women one day to wash 4s 6d
A woman two days to help dry up the linen 3s
For oil, ashes, and sand to scour 1s 8d
A woman to scour two days 3s
For washing of twelve pair of sheets at 4d per pair 4s
For two pounds of soap to scour the great room 6d
For nine pounds of soap 2s 3d
For four mops 4s
For Fuller's earth and sand to scour the rooms 1s 8d
A woman six days to help to wash all the rooms after the workmen left the house 6s
A woman six days for scouring and washing the rooms and cleaning the irons against the family's coming to town 6s
A woman to help air the bedding when the family came to town 2s' (2s = $0.34)

Some better off English houses had many staff, and used a brass tally of rotating discs to keep track of the linen that had been sent away for starching.. Each disc lists an accessory - for example neckwear -  'Ruffes' and 'Bandes', and lace-topped boot hose. These small items of linen that were worn next to the skin were washed more often than the sheets or napkins for example. Professional whiteners of linen were called 'whitsters' and they would bleach and starch the linen, and sometimes offer crimping or goffering for ruffs, collars and cuffs. This tally board (above) was originally from Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, Click the picture for more information.

Whenever I think about the characters in my books I have to be aware of this - that people would have taken care not to get dirt on their clothes, because washing was such an ordeal. In my most recent novel, Lady Katherine Fanshawe has lost all her servants because of the Civil War. In a big house, the loss of servants for washing and mundane tasks creates a radical shift in daily life. So many processes were incredibly labour-intensive, and without servants to help, many things were forced to change. In many ways this was echoed three centuries later after WWI.

There is another good blog on washing in the colonies on the Plymouth Pilgrim's site here

Thanks for reading!
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  1. We are so lucky... imagine going through all this just to have clean clothes! Thanks for the info.

  2. Back breaking labour for sure. Excellent article.

    1. Thanks for reading Cryssa, good to hear from another English Civil War fan!

  3. Thanks so much! I'm a fan of the early Sun King era, and I'm guessing washing wasn't done too differently on the French side of the Channel.

    1. The French might have been more scented than the English. They were ahead of us in the soap and water, and also the perfume stakes!

  4. Talking about the Civil War, I know there were camp followers, but did they do "laundry"? I can see sewing and repairs ... perhaps that's why fallen soldiers were usually stripped naked? Others needed their clothes? I just can't imagine the smell. Ugh.

    1. Hi Sally, I don't know the answer to that one. I haven't come across any reports of it. I guess the priority wasn't so much keeping clean, but winning the battle and tending the wounded. Both sides were badly paid by their masters and weren't averse to stealing anything they could - including clothes.

  5. When I was little, I remember my mother and grandmother hauling water from the creek in buckets and heating it in big tubs over an open fire to do the laundry. It was scrubbed on a washboard with her homemade soap.
    I now make my own homemade soap!

    1. Hi Michele, bet you don't make it with goat's fat. That sounded revolting. They used to make skin cream from sheep's fat too. In fact they probably still do that today, but call it something else so we don't know what's in it! ;)


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