"We pick bygone time up by the handfuls and, like clay, see if it feels right and then form it into stories about the past." ~ James Alexander Thom, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction

Sunday, May 09, 2010

18th Century Life: Laundry Day

Over the weekend I wrote a scene that takes place during the washing of a tub full of laundry. While I've researched laundry practicalities in the 18th century before (a major character in Kindred is the laundress on a small plantation), I'd never actually written a scene where the stage business was heavily dependent upon the step-by-step process of getting the laundry done.

So I googled the subject for a quick refresher and found this wonderful link I thought worth sharing, in case anyone wishes to see just how sweet most of us have it in these modern days: Laundry Day in the 18th Century. It's a three page article that explains the process succinctly but in enough detail for me to build my scene around.

A typical 18th century laundry day routine: Up before dawn to gather firewood for the kettle in the yard; haul the water; sort the laundry; boil the first load, agitating it with a stick; transfer to wash tub; scrub each piece of laundry; try various harsh means to get out stubborn stains; transfer to rinse tub; rinse each garment; wring each garment; spread to dry on the bushes or hang on a line; gather more wood; haul more water; begin the next load.

And there's still the pressing and the ironing to get done!

Some aspects about what we usually think of as simpler times were really not at all simple, but tedious, back-breaking work. I hereby promise myself to never complain about having to do my laundry at the laundromat again, where all I have to do is load the washer, put in my coins, then sit back and read a book until they're done. Then transfer them to the dryers and go back to my book until they're done. Then fold them and take them home. A week's worth of laundry done in 90 minutes. 

Want more on 18th century laundry? Here's an article about the wash house at Mount Vernon, George Washington's plantation home. Included is a list of the laundry accoutrement inventoried upon the President's death in 1799, and their value. I just love stumbling across little details like this, so I can occasionally name the price my characters would have paid for their purchases whether at a trading post, or town shoppe, or the village square on market day... when they were fortunate enough to have hard coin to spend. Much buying and selling in the late 18th century was still done through barter, at time before our country began issuing its own coinage and nearly every sort of money under the sun was in circulation.

But that's another topic for another post!

10 comments:

  1. I for one have never been one to wish I didnt have my washer and dryer, OR my dishwasher. I'm sure there's a reason I'm here in this century to enjoy these luxuries ;)

    Thanks for the reminder about how good we have it! I have my dryer going now ;)

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  2. Oh, wonderful stuff, Lori! I may have to change that wash scene with Bella a bit:) You always find great resources. I would make a terrible laundress then and now. My laundry is always in a state of not quite there yet. Which reminds me that I need to get off here and attend to some stuff:)

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  3. Heather, I've never owned a dishwasher, but then it's always been just me and hubby, so haven't really needed one. I haven't had my own washer/dryer for about 16 years now, and while I occasionally wish we had them, the laundromat really does save time. I can do multiple loads at once, so the week's worth is done in 90 minutes, sometimes quicker, and I don't have to think about it again for another week.

    In the scene I was working on, I have a tired pregnant woman lifting heavy long gowns, soaking wet, with a stick from kettle to wash tub, and while writing it I was overcome with thankfulness for our modern conveniences. There's much about our modern life I find off-putting, but not the ease of keeping our houses, clothes and selves clean!

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  4. Laura, glad it could be of help. I actually learned a bit more about the subject myself, this go 'round. There really is no end of research, is there?

    Now back to that scene....

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  5. Wow...do I ever take a lot for granted when it comes to the laundry chore.

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  6. Ruth, me too. My laundry day is more about what book I'm going to read while I wait.

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  7. Very interesting stuff! Will give me something to think about and appreciate when I do my own laundry.

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  8. Carla, I find it very interesting that an often annoying chore we can do on autopilot today was the focus of an entire day's work for someone on an 18th century plantation.

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  9. I know this is kind of an old post, but I'd found some additional references on this subject that I thought you might find interesting -- including two descriptions of laundering clothing in the American colonies in the 1770s! I've set up a page at http://larsdatter.com/18c/laundry.html with what I've found so far.

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  10. Karen, thanks for the added descriptions. I'm still working on the manuscript where this comes into play. Never too many references!

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