Nicola here. I’m on my travels this week, staying in an 18th century pavilion! It sounds idyllic – and it is except for the lack of facilities! All of which led me to wonder what it would have been like living and working in a place like this in the centuries before labour-saving devices were invented. In particular I’ve been doing some research into laundry and the care of clothes and thought I would share some of my findings with you.
Passing the Buck
The phrase “to pass the buck” is commonly thought to derive from poker, but long before the game was invented there was another buck, a wooden tub for the laundry. Washing clothes was a very long and time-consuming business so when you got tired you needed to pass the buck on to someone else. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare uses the “buck wash” for comic effect when Falstaff is bundled into the buck basket along with all the “foul shirts and smocks, socks, stockings and greasy napkins.”
Another phrase deriving from the washing process was “to wash your dirty linen in public.” Until the 17th century the most common way to wash clothes was to beat them clean in a stream or lake as in the picture above, or in a communal washhouse. Greasy dirt such as tallow from candles or fat from cooking required a more thorough process though. Clothes were first soaked in an alkaline solution called lye, which was prepared several days before the laundering began. Lye was made from the fine white ash collected from ovens and furnaces. This was placed in a sieve and water was poured through it and stirred so that it became infused with the alkaline salts from the ash. Greasy clothes would be left to soak in the lye for a number of hours and were rinsed and re-soaked until the water was clean. It could be an incredibly lengthy business; In January 1660 Elizabeth Pepys woke the maids at 4am to start the wash and by 1am the next day they were still hard at it! The more well to do paid a “whitster” (one who whitens things) to do their washing for them and you can see why.
The open spaces around London were at a premium when it came to drying clothes. At Moorfields, which you can see in the map on the left, the washing was attached to hooks on posts and was wound tightly around them until the water had been squeezed out. It was then laid out to dry on the ground or hung from clothes lines. Some things haven’t changed that much!
Slaving over a hot Copper
Laundry in country houses was dealt with in a similar way. At Ashdown House the laundry, pictured right, was a quarter mile from the main house, adjoining the stables, so that the noise, steam and smell of the process did not intrude on the Craven family and their guests. More than one illicit liaison between the grooms and the laundry maids was the result! At Ashdown there were three laundry rooms. First was the washhouse, which held wooden washing boards and troughs and a huge copper with a fire constantly burning beneath. There was a drying loft or closet in case clothes had to be dried indoors on rainy days and there was also the pressing room, home to a range of box and flat irons.
The clean laundry was laid out in a walled drying area (so that again the family did not need to see their linen drying in public!) A special touch was to scent it by drying it over lavender bushes or rosemary hedges, but theft was a constant problem. It was easy to snatch a sheet that was drying in the breeze! Drying clothes indoors was a last resort because it was so slow, took up a great deal of room and required complicated arrangements of racks and pulleys to air it properly.
Ironing was also a complicated business. An inventory from one stately home in 1726 lists four box irons and seven pairs of flat irons. In country houses there was a demarcation between the senior laundress who was entrusted with all the delicate laundry and the maids who did the household washing and servants’ clothes. As households were frequently very large, a careful record was kept of all items before they were sent to the laundry so that when they were returned they could go to the correct person or be stored appropriately. This was the housekeeper’s responsibility and in the grandest households she had a special sorting room set aside for the process.
Soap was also used for laundry but it was a great deal more expensive than lye and extremely complicated to produce. At the end of the 18th century Nicolas Le Blanc discovered a way to mass-produce soda from salt but soap was taxed up until 1853 so it was still a product that could only be afforded by the rich.
The first book of cleaning remedies was published in 1583. It was called “A Profitable Boke declaring dyvers approved remedies, to take out spottes and staines in silkes, velvets, linen and woollen clothes.” Pretty comprehensive. It recommended grease and oil be treated with ground sheep’s hooves, warm cow’s milk to remove wine and vinegar stains and that gold and silk embroidery be washed in urine, strong beer or ale.
The Early Laundrette
By the middle of the 18th century there were a number of specialist cleaning shops established in London where you could take your clothes to be treated. In 1742 Jane Franklin of Maiden Lane placed an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser offering to clean “silver and gold laced cloth, buttons and buttonholes.” Dry scouring was an option – an early form of dry cleaning. The material was rubbed on both sides with a mixture of turpentine and fuller’s earth and then the mixture brushed off with a hard brush followed by a soft brush and finally a clean cloth. In the early 19th century Thompsons in The Strand (pictured) provided a comprehensive mending, dyeing and cleaning service for shawls and fine muslins from India. An impoverished heroine might well have taken her clothes there for a spot of refurbishment!
Dyeing for a change of clothes
At the beginning of the 19th century it cost between 3 shillings and six pence and five shilling to dye a gown, and 2 shillings and six pence to dye a pair of breeches. This was a relatively cheap and useful way to refresh one’s wardrobe but the process was an uncertain one. In 1808 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye… That is four shillings thrown away!” Blue dye came from woad or indigo, yellow from saffron and weld, and red from various different roots and also from cochineal, though that was more expensive as it was imported from South America. There was no fixed green dye until 1809, green gowns being made from covering blue dye with yellow.
Banishing the Moth
Moths and fleas were the greatest enemy of clothes that were kept in storage and there were many recipes and methods suggested to deal with them. Powdered elecampane root and orange peel were considered very powerful in banishing the moth. The lighter summer clothes could be scented with herbs; lavender, bay, thyme, rose and tansy. Heavy fur-trimmed outdoor and winter clothes were treated with benjamin and storax. Linens were kept in special bags of violet or damask. It’s rather nice to think of our heroines wafting around in clothes scented with herbs!
Which labour saving device of the modern day could you simply not manage without?